There are words, expressions and entire languages that rise, spread and then seem to just disappear. Today it would seem even the e-mail is going out of style, replaced by texting which replaces words with single letters (You = U). This is not a judgment, just a statement of fact. Remember when you sent a “letter” in an actual envelope? When you addressed that letter to a certain someone and wrote on the flap of the envelope “SWAK”? (For those too young to remember, it stood for Sealed with a Kiss).
Yiddish was the prime language of Eastern European Jews. When most of them were killed by the Nazis, the language which burned so brightly became a dim flame on a diminished candle. The Jews who came to the United States (The Goldena Medina), both before and after the Holocaust, brought with them the remnants of “Mama Lushen” – Yiddish. There are pockets here and there that keep that flame burning – however faintly – and thank God for them.
The Jews of the early 20th century also brought their culture and created even more of it. They crowded into the tenement blocks of the lower east side and into Brooklyn. Yes, there were other communities in Philadelphia and Boston and elsewhere – even Dallas! But, it was on the streets of lower Manhattan that this mixed culture took root.
From the push carts of Mott Street and Delancy Street where the peddlers would sell whatever the neighborhood wanted to the first restaurants, European Yiddish culture was transplanted. If you wanted something besides a full meal you went to an “Appetizer Store”. No, not a Deli – not a place to sit down and eat – you took the lox, the bagels, the cream cheese, maybe a little herring, some chopped liver (Gehoctah Lieber) and you went home to a feast!
Either on the street or from a wagon or in the store, vegetables, and fruit anything fresh came from the “Green Grocer”. There were no supermarkets; there were hardly any grocery stores. Candy stores, yes, but no one stop shopping. Foot traffic was the transportation of choice – well, maybe not choice, but it worked.
Organic? Most food was because who knew from fertilizer and bug killers? The food was grown on small farms, many of them owned by other Jews in New Jersey or that far off mountain range, The Catskills. No more. The farms gave way to hotels catering to the Jews of New York and New Jersey. They gave way to cheaper airline flights and more affluence and God abandoned the Catskills and created Miami Beach. Miami Beach at one time, believe it or not, was “restricted” – no Jews. No, really!
Now, most of those blessed folks are long gone. Miami Beach is now mostly Salsa and rap and Hip Hop. No more cha-cha, no more Pupi Campo, but I digress.
I guess the point of all this is that indeed, things change. Maybe not necessarily for the better, but they change. Where the mailman handled all those letters cyberspace now fills with them. This truly, could be the last generation to make eye contact. Buried in our electronic world, now held in the palm of our hand, we disconnect.
Jews were always the masters of conversation. Arbiters of a good argument. Language was always our tool, our weapon. There are Yiddish words that convey an emotion, a description like no other language. Those words have gone the way of the Green Grocer, the Appetizer Store and the candy store. Ellis Island is a museum. The Lady with the Light no longer looks to take in the tired, the poor, the ill clothed and ill fed. They came when there was no such thing as “Illegal Immigration”.
The country has filled up. The rails and the airports have made the local farmer a curiosity. Conversation, always the key weapon of a keen Jewish mind is becoming a series of acronyms and short bursts.
The pace is faster, it seems no one has the time to chat over a bagel and cream cheese anymore. Tough to chat with your eyes downcast, thumbs flying. Maybe there is no need any more for a Green Grocer or an Appetizer Store. Find a store where the pickles are kept in a barrel and the proprietor would roll up his sleeve and reach in for a proper pickle for you.
Technology has brought the world closer together. Facebook finds people from your past, not always a blessing. Paper becomes electronic files, making the trees happier. Curmudgeons like me long for a distant time. When few were in such a damn hurry that they couldn’t take the time to write “you” instead of “U”.
Each generation brings to the world its own culture attitude and gifts. We who are leaving are not to judge. My parents tried when the “noise” of Stan Kenton and Count Basie invaded their 1940’s space to cure me of this strange disease. In a world no longer wired, business is instantaneous and worldwide, the old rules no longer apply. But – where R we heading? LOL.
Jim Shipley has had careers in broadcasting, distribution, advertising, and telecommunications. He began his working life in radio in Philadelphia. He has written his JP&O column for more than 20 years and is director of Trading Wise, an international trade and marketing company in Orlando, Fla.