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December 14, 2009

Ruthie, or Lisa Grunberger, on THE JOYS OF YIDDISH

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Lisa Grunberger, author of YIDDISH YOGA, shares her bookish holiday memories through the voice of Ruthie, the septuagenarian protagonist of her debut novel, who reminisces about one of the first Chanukahs spent with her late husband, Harry.

The heroine of my first book, YIDDISH YOGA: Ruthie’s Adventures in Love, Loss, and the Lotus Position, is a 72-year-old Jewish grandmother living in New York. Ruthie, recently widowed, receives a year of yoga lessons as a gift from her granddaughter, to help her work through her grief.

Although she tweets regularly, her blog has been quiet lately, so I asked her to share with you a holiday memory about books, in time for Chanukah.

It is said that the Jewish people are “people of the Book.” To my Harry, my beloved husband, I owe an understanding of what this means, because of his gift to me of one book, THE JOYS OF YIDDISH, by Leo Rosten. This is a humorous collection of popular Yiddish words, each illustrated by a joke.

One Chanukah early in our marriage, we visited my parents, who spoke Yiddish at home. Momma put out a plate of golden potato pancakes with apple sauce and sour cream and a plate of hot suvganiyot, fried doughnuts dusted with confectioner’s sugar filled with apricot preserves.

“Harry, why don’t you read to us from THE JOYS OF YIDDISH?” I asked him.

I wanted Momma and Poppa to see how funny Harry was. How heimish, which means homey, like family. Harry picked up the book, and I could tell he was nervous, for he was perspiring. It was hot in my parents’ New York apartment --- no matter how much you tried, you couldn’t adjust the heat. He turned to a random page.

“Chozzerai: pronounced kho-zair-eye to rhyme with ‘roz her eye.’” He read the definition, “A Yiddish derivation from the Hebrew “khazir,” pig.
1. Food that is awful. ‘Who can eat such chozzerai?’
2. Junk, trash.
3. Anything disgusting.

“In modern terms, chozzerai means crap. This may be a gross libel on the innocent pig since the pig, contrary to popular belief, is a quite tidy creature; he wallows in mud because he likes to stay cool.”

“So Harry,” Momma interrupted. “You think I serve you chozzerai? You eat pig? You feed my daughter meat that is not kosher? You don’t like my baking? You think we’re not fancy enough?”

Harry composed himself. “Mrs. Greenberg, Jewish tradition tells us that Elijah, the perpetually journeying prophet, appears in many unexpected guises in order to help people recover the spark of their lives. Books that we love are our lights, which help us dedicate and re-dedicate ourselves, which is the meaning of Chanukah, for the temple was rededicated.” He took a quick breath. “I am a lawyer, and I love words and books, and culture and Yiddish and Hebrew. . . and your daughter, Ruthie. She is my light, my book, my miracle. I dedicate my life to hers, we are building a Jewish life, a Jewish home together. And by the way, these are the most delicious sufganiyot I’ve ever tasted. A real mekhaye, a real joy.”

My Mother looked at the table full of food, the Chanukah candles burning in the living room, my father half asleep in the leather armchair, the Jewish Forward in his lap. Tears poured from her eyes as she approached Harry, and gave him many kisses and hugs. “You speak Yiddish, a learned man, a modern man, a mensch with golden words, words he makes dance. My son, my son, may you be happy together, with pigs, without pigs, with books, with children, with each other’s light.”

Each Chanukah after that one, we made a tradition of remembering Momma’s blessing and reading from THE JOYS OF YIDDISH. And it’s such a funny book, we kept a box of Kleenex beside us because we all laughed so hard we’d cry.

Now I bring in THE JOYS OF YIDDISH to my yoga classes and read to my fellow students some of the strange sounding words and phrases. It makes them laugh, and Harry and Momma agreed this is the most pleasing sound to God. I have often said that I dedicate my yoga practice to my Harry. It’s like lighting a yahrzeit candle for him daily. My body is the dancing flame that continues to burn for him.

I hope you enjoyed this memory from Ruthie, and get to read about her introduction to the world of yoga in my book, and share the laughter as she stretches and kvetches her way through making a new path for herself.

-- Lisa Grunberger

Join us again tomorrow, as Jason Pinter describes how a little tugboat named Little Toot inspired his lifelong love of stories.