As I have already expressed in my website, I came to Yiddish somewhat organically, having grown up in a family in which Yiddish was still spoken on a regular, day-to-day basis. Indeed, the language in which I first learned to count and in which I learned my basic colors, was Yiddish. My parents have told me that until the age of three, I spoke only Yiddish, although I was actually exposed to both Yiddish and English at home. After all, growing up in an American metropolis such as Chicago sort of precluded one from living in a total linguistic bubble.
I still recall (now) amusing scenes, such as my younger sister, Nechama and I chasing each other around the living room with a hairbrush in-hand, ready to pounce, while all the while, shouting bloody murder at one another – in Yiddish, no less. What ultimately broke up this particular sisterly brawl was the arrival of a guest – a friend of my mother – who like my mother, understood Yiddish. She turned to my mother in a perplexed state and cried, “Where am I, in Chicago of the 1980s, or prewar Poland?” My sister and I were so embarrassed that we promptly shut up and stopped chasing one another around the room.
Other scenes that come to mind from my earliest years include a visit that my mother made with me to an ophthalmologist when I was around two. This was in the late 1970s, and my mother was speaking to me in Yiddish, reassuring me that I shouldn’t be afraid of the doctor’s menacing-looking machines. The doctor’s reaction to my mother’s Yiddish-language pep talk was to critically put her in her place, reprimanding her for speaking to me in Yiddish. After all, this was America, and one spoke English here; Yiddish was for the old world. Let’s just say that my mother never returned with me to that doctor…
And finally, there was the time when I went grocery shopping with my mother and grandmother – something I used to like to do – as it was my job to help select the fruit. On that shopping trip, I remember my grandmother uttering to me in her Warsaw Yiddish dialect: “Rivkele, gay klob os a pur karshn” (“Rivkele, go choose a few cherries”), after which I set to work on the cherries. A few minutes later, a little old woman approached my grandmother – I was standing nearby – and asked her in the mother tongue, “Ven is dus kint ariber gekimen ofn shif?” (“When did this child come over on the ship?”) To which my grandmother sharply retorted, “Dus kind iz nisht ariber gekimen of ka’ shif. Zi iz du geboyern gevorn.” (“This child didn’t come over on any ship. She was born here.”) I just remember that little old woman looking completely befuddled at the anachronistic nature of this scene. Even I, at such a young age, could appreciate why she was so confused. After all, it wasn’t terribly common to find young children in the Chicago of the early 1980s (let alone, of the 2000s) who could converse in Yiddish.
Fast forward to the late 1990s/early 2000s. I had recently graduated college and both of my maternal grandparents had passed away, in rapid succession, only nine months apart. These were essentially my second parents, and the individuals from whom I most regularly heard Yiddish spoken throughout my life. I even made a point of speaking to my grandfather in the language, since his English was never as comprehensible as was his Yiddish. This loss was a major blow to me and the rest of my family. It left me with a significant void, one that I struggled for quite some time, to properly fill. So as to try and connect with my grandparents and the world from which they hailed – at least on some level – I attempted to track down relatives, using such tools as Jewishgen.org, where I registered the maiden name of my namesake, Rywka Gorlicka Pinkusiewicz, who hailed from the town of Chmielnik, Poland. Sadly, she died when my grandfather was only eleven, so little was known about that branch of the family. It was assumed, though, that all had perished, as my grandfather himself was the only one of eleven children to survive the Holocaust.
When I registered the surname “Gorlicki” (masculine for “Gorlicka”) in conjunction with the town name, “Chmielnik,” I was astonished to discover that there was a circle of other genealogically-minded individuals who also hailed from the Gorlicki family of Chmielnik. I figured that the odds were pretty great that we were all somehow related, since how many Gorlickis from the same small town in Poland could there possibly be in the world? It couldn’t simply be a coincidence. Around that same time, I began making long distance calls to Michigan, New York, Israel – even to Australia – in my quest to try and reassemble the missing pieces of my family’s history. One of the Gorlickis with whom I then spoke was an Arthur Williams, a man somewhat older than my mother, who resided in New York. His mother, Chana née Gorlicka, had been born and raised in Chmielnik. Unfortunately, though, she had passed away many years earlier, and Arthur had few people left to whom to turn for answers about that part of his family.
Interestingly, Arthur had visited Chmielnik with his wife only a few years prior, in 1998, and had even filmed much of the journey. He was very glad to send me a copy of the video (at that time, still on VHS), which he promptly did. From my end, I offered to translate excerpts from the Chmielnik yizkor (or memorial) book in which Arthur was interested. As I recall, this included articles in Yiddish and Hebrew, one of which described the main synagogue in Chmielnik. As I learned then from Arthur, the synagogue had survived the war, and could still be viewed at that time. Incidentally, since then, the synagogue was restored – only two years ago – in the spring of 2013. I myself visited Chmielnik last year, in September of 2014, and witnessed the newly restored house of worship.
But back to my phone chat with Arthur. At the time, we both remarked to one another that there was a good chance that we were somehow related. However, it was frustrating, because we didn’t have the tools in place yet to figure out our potential relationship. In the meantime, though, I was intrigued by the Chmielnik yizkor book, an oversized tome that I was able to access at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, where I worked at the time. I more than willingly agreed to translate those articles for Arthur. In the process, I was also excited to discover several references in the book to Gorlickis. I kept wondering to myself, “How are all of these people related to me? If only I knew…”
That was one of the very first – if not the first – “official” Yiddish or Hebrew translations I completed for somebody. In return for my labors of love, Arthur very generously mailed me a gift, the book, “Sara’s Children: The Destruction of Chmielnik” by Suzan E. Hagstrom, about the Garfinkel family from Chmielnik, from which five siblings managed to survive the Holocaust. The book, which I cherish to this day, also includes references to Gorlicki family members, friends and neighbors of the Garfinkels, and a wealth of information about pre-WWII life in this small and predominantly Jewish town in Poland.
This particular translation experience was so personally gratifying to me that I began to consider doing more of it, whenever and wherever the opportunity presented itself. Not long thereafter, I went to Israel, where I lived and studied for a year. While there, I ended up translating Hebrew language articles and thesis proposals for Bar-Ilan University faculty and graduate students. I also translated Yiddish language interviews into English for a documentary film, “Mame-Loshn, Kinder-Loshn,” which was being made then by Tommy Schwarcz and Avi Lehrer about the state of Yiddish in Israel. Those additional translation experiences in Israel helped to further seal the desire within me for translation, which was initially piqued in me when I translated for Arthur.
As for Arthur and me and our Gorlicki family connection? Fast forward to 2008. It was then that the circle of Gorlicki-from-Chmielnik-seekers finally got their big break. By that time, many of the archives that had previously been inaccessible back in the late 1990s/early 2000s had since become accessible. As a result of much research on the part of various Gorlicki family members, we discovered that Arthur and my mother are actually closely related to one another; they are second cousins. Arthur’s mother, Chana, and my grandfather, Shloime, had been first cousins. But grievously, both of them had lived out their entire lives without ever having known of the other’s existence. One had emigrated from Poland before WWII, the other, after. One came to New York, the other to Chicago. But ultimately, Arthur and I met in-person, only a few years ago at a family reunion that his son, Howard, very graciously hosted in his Manhattan apartment.
It was amazing to see the relationships that had been forged – both literally and figuratively – through the seeds that had been planted several years before by way of the Internet, a phone chat or two, and most significantly for me, some forays into Yiddish and Hebrew translation.