“I even speak Yiddish with a Mexican accent. I can’t help it.”
If you call the Institute for Jewish Research in Manhattan and ask to be referred to a Yiddish speaker in San Diego, you’ll be given Raquel Leisorek’s number.
“I was born and raised in Mexico City. In 1948, I helped establish one of the city’s three Yiddish schools, the Peretz Shul. I taught Yiddish there for 28 years. My parents spoke Yiddish to us at home, and I attended Yiddish schools. The language was important to our family, to our identity. My father owned a mill, a factory that produced tons of masa, cornmeal dough, for tortillas. It was hard work. Getting up every morning at 4:00 a.m. Grinding corn for tortillas. It was a very Mexican life, but with Yiddish.”
Looking a little too young to have founded a school in 1948, Leisorek sits in her University City living room, a black wool cardigan draped about her shoulders. She speaks formal Mexico City Spanish. She complains that her English isn’t “perfect,” but she speaks it very well. When Spanish and English can’t accommodate what she wants to say about Jewish life in Mexico City, she slips into Yiddish.
“When I start thinking about Yiddish, I start speaking in Yiddish. It just happens. With the younger generations, they’re not so fluent. They haven’t had the practice. I’ve spoken it all my life. I taught Yiddish in Mexico City, and I’ve taught Yiddish in San Diego since we came here 22 years ago. Now, I mostly give private lessons. I’ve taught Yiddish here longer, I think, than anyone else.”
Leisorek and her husband Elias belong to a local community of 600 or so Mexico City families who were educated primarily in Yiddish. They are the largest community of Mexican Jews in the United States. Their experience of the New World began in the mid-1920s, after the United States decided it no longer wanted Eastern Europe’s Jews. Mexico was glad to take them in. Seven years of revolution had ruined the nation’s economy, and Mexico actively recruited Jewish immigrants, hoping they might stimulate commerce and trade. While many of these immigrants knew nothing about Mexico, considered it a stopover on their way to New York, once their boats docked in Veracruz, they apprehended the country’s potential.
“Compared to Russia and Poland, there was little anti-Semitism in Mexico. We were such a small minority, but we were safe. They called us ‘los rusos,’ ‘the Russians.’ Nobody knew what Jews were. My parents’ generation realized they could make a living in Mexico. They started out as rag peddlers, door-to-door salesmen. The first thing these early immigrants did was to buy a plot of land for a cemetery. The next thing they did was to start renting buildings so they could have Yiddish schools, the first of which opened, I think, in 1930.”
Leisorek’s parents belonged to a generation especially proud of Yiddish, their mama loshen, “mother tongue.” But Yiddish pride was a recent phenomenon. More than 1100 years ago, France began a centuries-long effort to rid itself of Jews. Driven from their homes, they moved eastward, settling along the left bank of the Rhine, between Cologne and Speyer. They brought with them Hebrew, and Jewish dialects of Old French and Old Italian. These languages, intermarrying with several medieval German dialects and, later, several forms of Slavic, produced Yiddish, a name that literally means “Jewish.”
As these Jews migrated beyond the Rhine Valley, into middle Europe, the Baltic, into areas that later became Russia and Poland, Yiddish developed into the Jewish lingua franca. Although dialects evolved over time, a tailor from Cologne could make himself understood to a rabbi in Kraków. Printed in Hebrew letters, Yiddish books published in Venice could be easily read by Jews in Vilna. Yiddish was “common” in both senses of the word: it served to unite a dispersed population, and it was also the language of the masses, of the common workaday Jew with little Jewish learning. Hebrew was used by religious scholars, the Jewish world’s elite. Hebrew was loshen kodesh, the holy language of Torah, prayer, ritual, and blessing. Hebrew was so sacred it couldn’t be uttered in unclean places. Yiddish you could speak in a latrine.
“Something revolting.” “A semi-animal language.” “An example of poor taste.” High-minded German-speaking Jews in the 18th Century had little nice to say about Yiddish. It was “jargon” spoken by “wretched peddlers who roamed about at fairs.” The high-minded urged their fellow Jews to speak “pure German,” or, lacking that, “pure Polish,” or “the pure, beautiful, and rich Russian tongue.” Their nagging grew fainter, however, in the late 1700s as Hasidism, a mystical movement, caught the common Jewish imagination. Hasidism introduced an ecstatic faith to the Jewish masses. A Jew needn’t master Hebrew, or spend a lifetime studying Talmud, to access the Divine. Purity of spirit, kindness, charity, and love were sufficient to bring a Jew close to God. The heart is what counted. And Yiddish, the language closest to the common Jewish heart, became the language of Hasidic literature. Secular and religious elites opposed to Hasidism realized they had to do something fast. They set aside their disdain and wrote their anti-Hasidism propaganda in Yiddish.
As a weapon, Yiddish gained prestige.
By the 19th Century, there were still many Jews who hated Yiddish, but the rise of nationalism and socialism made it a language that could no longer be dismissed. The Jewish masses had begun to develop an idea of themselves as a political entity, as citizens with specific rights. Yiddish, they said, wasn’t “jargon.” English, too, was a Germanic language rich in foreign elements, yet no one called English “jargon.” Yiddish was a national language like any other and as such deserved legal recognition.
Socialists became aware of Yiddish’s struggle for acceptance. They realized Yiddish was the best means of enlisting Jewish workers in the revolutionary cause. But then a strange thing happened. In order for the Jewish masses to become good socialists, they first, of course, had to be educated enough to understand socialism. In order to become educated, they had to be literate in their mother tongue. In order for the masses to become literate in Yiddish, the language itself needed discipline — a formalized grammar, a universally agreed-upon spelling system, a dictionary. In the end, it was difficult to tell whether Yiddish was socialism’s servant or vice versa. This intermingling of politics and linguistics produced the secularist movement Yiddishism.