"Shulamis," the teacher says, as I knew she would, "vos
Shulamis is my Yiddish name and the Yiddish teacher is asking what's
being heard, meaning, "What's doing?" The class nearly always begins
this way, round-robin, like group therapy, like consciousness-raising.
It's all female, it so happens, though men have come and gone, mostly
gone. Over the years of weeks, we've learned of tsuris--trouble--with
contractors, computer repairmen, auto mechanics and adult children;
births, deaths and illness; weddings and bar mitzvahs attended;
cruises and other travels; and often, of current movies and plays.
Since I saw a performance Saturday night, I say just that, except
that I say forshung instead of forshtellung, which
means I attended a research, rather than a play. Once that's cleared
up, the teacher asks, "And what was it called?"
I improvise: "Di Vagina Monologn."
I'm in luck: double cognates. But because our teacher doesn't want
us to rely on
cognates, she teaches us another word: dos muterort, mother
place. Of course we have to ask why a vagina is neuter (dos)
and the teacher reminds us that "beard" in Yiddish is feminine: di
bord. She also tells us the Sanskrit word for vagina, yoni.
I continue with my recital. I tell them that the writer was the performer,
that she wore a zhupke (skirt, but I meant kleyd, a
dress) and no shoes. For a moment, my fellow Yiddishists imagine that
Eve Ensler performed topless.
The questions come at me thick and fast, in Yiddish and English:
"What is there to say?"
"You can't talk about everything. That's private."
"Dos muterort," I say, "iz shtum," using the only
word I can think of for "silent." I'm thinking of one form of the
letter alef, which is stum or "silent."
"And the breasts," a classmate asks, "they speak?"
"Yoh," I say.
"Could I write a monologue about my nose?"
"It wouldn't be very interesting."
"The writer," I say, "interviewed many women."
"About their vaginas?"
"What did she ask them?"
I approximate: "If your vagina could wear something, what would
"You mean underwear?"
"Neyn," I say. It made so much sense inside the theater,
Ensler with her perfect shiny bob of hair, listing the answers women
gave her--taffeta dress, mink--though even then it was hard to imagine,
because how can you dress a part of you that is a passageway? In
that semi-darkness, it was easier to make the metaphorical leap.
I wanted to say, "It's like asking, 'If you were a tree, what kind
would you be?' " but the conditional is so difficult.
The conversation veers away and back, during which the teacher
tells us the word for "period" (pekl), and another student
says that we've already learned it. But the rest of us are so forgetful
that we deny learning anything until we've heard it 10 times. It's
tricky to keep up with this wanted-dead-or-alive language, which
few of us actually use outside each 90-minute session.
The class meets in the chapel of an Orthodox synagogue in Chicago,
though the class is sponsored by a nonsectarian Jewish adult-ed
organization, not the synagogue. We used to meet in the library
of a nearby worn-out building before it changed hands and became
an Indian center. This chapel has a mekhitsa, the wall that
separates men and women at prayer. We meet in the women's section,
not because the group happens to be all-female, but because there's
more space to move around. Here, where we have learned there is
no Yiddish word for "brunch" but there is one for "e-mail" (blitz-post),
we now learn the words damen-bandazh ("ladies-bandage," or
sanitary napkin) and klole ("curse"), and discuss whether
God's curse was menstruation or childbirth. After class, we walk
down the synagogue hallway speaking (in English) about menstruation.
Later at home I look up "vagina" in my modern Yiddish-English dictionary
(copyright 1968, reprinted 1990) and find di vagina (hard
g) and di mutersheyd. (I trust my teacher, though; she gives
us the most current translations.) I look for "tampon" (not there),
"vulva" (missing), clitoris (gone), feeling uneasily like an 11-year-old,
looking up dirty words in the dictionary.
Does this mean that the folks who claim that Yiddish is dead are
right, that the mameloshen--"mother tongue"--is not a living
language? "Orgasm" (cognate) is listed, because, I assume, men have
them. Same with "masturbation" (der onanizm). "Penis" is
a cognate, and its slang variations, shmuck and putz,
are unlisted but quite at home in America.
For a moment the bilingual dictionary makes me feel partially disappeared,
my genitalia only half recognized. Later my teacher will tell me,
via blitz-post, that there are about 40 entries for "vagina"
in her Yiddish thesaurus, and that her all-time favorite is di
mayse, "the story."
But before I know this, while I am still contemplating my too-empty
dictionary, I think: For a few minutes, there we were--Orthodox
and Conservative and secular Jewish women, hair covered and wildly
uncovered--talking aloud and bilingually about vaginas as we sat
by ourselves behind the mekhitsa.
S.L. Wisenberg's short story collection, The Sweetheart
Is In, is forthcoming in April from TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern