Yiddish was the language of my ancestors. Many years ago I took an adult education course, but all I remember is “Khop nisht di lokshn far di fish” – “don’t grab the noodles before the fish.” In English we would say, “don’t put the cart before the horse.”
I should have paid closer attention in the class, or listened more carefully to my grandparents when I was young. When they came to this country from the Pale of Settlement (the area in Russia where Jews were allowed to live in the 19th century), they brought their language with them. They became fluent in English, but their generation held tight to the mame-loshn, the mother tongue.
Language connects us to our past. I was reminded of this recently when I read the obituary of Albert White Hat. Mr. White Hat, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, taught Lakota Studies at Sinte Gliska University on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. The article described how he “helped preserve Lakota language,” and went on to say that he was “known across the powwow circuit for his dedication to the Lakota language and culture.” He even translated the movie “Dances with Wolves” into Lakota.
I paused over the article because a few years ago I was part of a small group that spent a day on the Rosebud Reservation in Mission, South Dakota. During our visit we saw first-hand that life on the Reservation is extremely difficult. High unemployment, crime, alcoholism, domestic abuse – all the plagues of society except more so. Yet our hosts could not have been more gracious. We ate traditional Lakota foods at a luncheon, listened to ceremonial Lakota songs and music, and heard the Lakota language. I asked someone to translate the word “Lakota.” It means “friend.”
As I absorbed this one-of-a kind experience, I thought about how little I knew about American Indians. My education consisted mostly of Saturday afternoons at the Latchis Theatre in Claremont, hearing Tonto say “How” and addressing the Lone Ranger as “kemo sabe” (“faithful friend”). I asked one of the elders whether young people on the reservation spoke Lakota. He answered my question with a weary look and a shrug.
Just a few weeks ago I met Father John Hatcher, S.J., President of the “St. Francis Mission Among the Lakota.” He was visiting Boston to promote the work of the Mission, which is to address social, spiritual, and educational problems on the Rosebud Reservation. He told me that part of this Jesuit initiative is to help preserve the Lakota language. The Mission’s brochure says, “The essential part of a culture is its language; without its language, a culture dies.”
Mr. White Hat spent his life keeping a culture alive. The same can be said for his Jewish counterparts who work to preserve the Yiddish language. It may seem odd to couple the two, the cultures of Indians and Jews, but I’m not the first person to do so. In the movie “Blazing Saddles,” Mel Brooks’ plays a Yiddish-speaking Indian chief who uses such expressions as “zayt nisht meshuge” (“don’t be crazy”) and “abi gezunt” (“as long as you’re healthy”). I grew up hearing those very words.
I know even less Lakota than I do Yiddish, but on my visit to Rosebud I did learn the Lakota word for “Hello.” Actually, I already knew it from my boyhood days. The word is “Hau.”