When I started learning Yiddish, pretty much the first loshn-koydesh word I encountered was משפּחה (mishpokhe), which means “family”. As you might expect, family is a pretty fundamental concept in Yiddish, and not just in the literal sense of your own blood relatives. משפּחה has an additional meaning that is much broader and more inclusive, signifying a cultural and familial fellowship amongst Jews that transcends nationality, religious conviction, and pretty much any other means of categorising people.
Yiddish used to be the key to this aspect of משפּחה since it was the language that all Ashkenazi held in common, but it is by no means essential. In fact, long before I started to learn Yiddish I knew what משפּחה meant, even though I still find it difficult to put into words. משפּחה was that unexpected connection when you realised that the person you were speaking to in the supermarket queue or at the bus stop was also Jewish, a rare experience for me when I was growing up, and so all the more wonderful when it did occur. It’s the sudden awareness of commonality, that our family histories may not intersect, but they are bound to be similar to one another.
For me, learning Yiddish has been a way of amplifying that connection, not because I encounter many other people who can speak it, but because it reveals those threads of the past that run through the fabric of the present. It’s not just about continuity – being able to understand the language that my ancestors spoke – it’s also about being able to hear those ancestors in their own words. Thanks to the generosity of my wider משפּחה, I can read my great, great-uncle’s first book in Yiddish, since it was preserved for di Gantze Mishpochah by the Elovitz family’s donation to the Yiddish Book Center. However, although משפּחה has that more open, tribal meaning, learning Yiddish has illuminated elements of my own family in a way I couldn’t have anticipated.
One crucial person in this regard is a woman called Miriam Shumik. She was my great, great-aunt, married to my mother’s crazy revolutionary great-uncle, Hersh-Mendel. Actually, Hersh-Mendel was the reason that my grandfather’s family ended up in London: my great-grandfather got tired of the Warsaw police turning up on the doorstep in search of his brother. Hersh-Mendel’s life was improbably adventurous and bleakly tragic, and his many unexpected exploits certainly deserve further discussion, but while I’ve known about him since I was a teenager, I knew absolutely nothing about Miriam. This was at least partly because, unlike Hersh-Mendel, she didn’t survive the Nazi occupation. Hersh-Mendel didn’t talk about Miriam and they had no children, so she was absent from the story of our family. In fact, until recently I didn’t even know her name. All we knew was that she and Hersh-Mendel had been betrayed by a neighbour in wartime Paris. He escaped; she did not. We didn’t even know what had happened to her. Then I learnt Yiddish. This meant that when my mum turned up a Yizkor book entry for Miriam during one of her frequent family history Google searches, I was able to translate it. Of all the gifts Yiddish has given me, this one remains the greatest.
Miriam’s eulogy was written by one of her childhood friends, a woman listed only as M. P. We will never know who she was but because of this unknown member of my extended Jewish משפּחה, Miriam’s actual משפּחה can remember her. It’s thanks to M. P. that we know Miriam was tall and clever, that she organised the first Communist cell in her home town, and that she had a way with words. It’s also thanks to M. P. that we know Miriam was the eldest of four sisters, and that the family home was three bare rooms with three beds, three chairs and a table. We know that Miriam was אַ רױז צװישן געװײנלעכע בלומען (a rose amongst weeds), and that she loved to talk about books. We know that Miriam had read the first volume of The Count of Monte Cristo and been captivated by it, but the library didn’t have the rest of the book. We know that M. P. found the second volume and brought it to Miriam, causing her to dance for joy and immediately start reading it aloud. And, of course, we now know that Miriam died in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943, possibly in the uprising but equally possibly from the heart condition she developed after she was tortured whilst a political prisoner in the 1920s.
Miriam may not be my blood relative, but she is part of the משפּחה in both senses. I can recognise in her my family’s obsession with reading books, talking about books and, of course, talking in general. More importantly, perhaps, I can recognise that my admiration for her courage and her capacity to stand up for what she thought was right means something, whether we are related or not. At least now I can remember her not just as my great, great-uncle’s wife but as a brave, principled woman who risked her own life trying to improve the lives of others. Our משפּחה is the greater for her presence.