Yesterday I got a DVD in the mail from my nephew in California, a video from 2000 of my sister-in-law z"l starring in as Dorothy in her retirement community's theatrical production of "The Wizard of Oz"—in Yiddish. She was quite a ham (that doesn't sound quite right in this context, but it's true). It was, shall we say, a colorful amateur event, but she and her friends were definitely pros at Yiddish. I felt like I understood most of it even though I didn't, a kind of gut comprehension without grammar or vocabulary. The sounds were comfortable in my ears. When I was very little, my parents used to speak (mostly yell) Yiddish above me, literally, as if I were a small boat under a big bridge of loud language that acted as both detour and shelter. I never cared to understand, nor did they offer to teach; Yiddish was a secret code of old people, not applicable in any way to my life. In recent years I've tried to get excited by the current Yiddish renaissance, a language and culture now very cool—but it's been hard to shake those old misconceptions. I can't see myself speaking Yiddish because I can't imagine living my parents' lives, and the two seem inextricably entwined.
But watching my sister-in-law sing with such Bronx-inflected joy—as if the very sound of each word transported her back to the happiest of childhood times—I was jealous that the language is mine in sensation only, not tachlis. Still, this is better than nothing. Chanting Torah seems to work the same way. I understand only a small fraction of the words, but the minute I learned how to do it, I knew it was my language long ago. I just had to wait for the right time to dig it out and start using it.