Someone once gave me a Yiddish phrase book. It was just like any other phrase book, with sections offering the right phrases for how to buy stamps, get train tickets and the like. I wondered where Yiddishland was, where you could actually find a country of Yiddish speaking post office and train station staff.
But Yiddish remains a living and dynamic language and, while you won't find them running the local public transport and services, there are parts of London, New York, Jerusalem and pretty well the whole of Bnei Brak in Israel, where you'll find Yiddish spoken in the streets and shops. Babies growing up with Yiddish as their first language and schools where it's the language of instruction.
There's a weekly newspaper for the strictly orthodox Jewish community in London, called the Jewish Tribune, which I love reading. For one thing, it regularly carries small ads which bear witness to the devotion of the strictly orthodox to carry out the obligation to restore lost property to its owners. Typical small ad of this type:
Found after XYZ concert last Sunday, boy's coat, (Mendel on label) and key. Phone..
And then the Tribune carries a three page news in Yiddish section, which is presently my source of Yiddish reading. I grew up hearing Yiddish spoken at home, but being forbidden by my mother to speak it. My dad used to read a Yiddish newspaper: Die Yiddishe Stimme, or the Jewish Voice. Although I was never taught to read Yiddish, which is written in Hebrew letters, I was taught to read Hebrew. But that was simply a process of decoding, since it was essentially to be able to read aloud from a prayer book, not to read for meaning.
I remember the day when I glanced at my dad reading the Yiddish newspaper and realised that the headline read Der Sturm Aruber Glubb Pasha= The Storm Over Glubb Pasha. That was when King Hussein of Jordan sacked Sir John Glubb, the British commander of his army, and took over command himself. It was in 1956, when I was 12. So without knowing it, I'd acquired the capacity to be genuinely literate in Yiddish.
I hadn't made much practical use of my Yiddish reading skills since then, other than to sit and laboriously work my way through some of the news-in-Yiddish articles in the Tribune, till I picked up last year's version of the advert I've posted here. And it introducted me to one of the delights of Yiddishland.
Buying hand baked Shemura matzos, baked the night before Pesach starts.
Shemura matzos are a refinement of ordinary matzos, baked from flour which has been certified as watched to make sure it encountered no moisture before the hectic process of eighteen minute mixing and baking which is required to make a kosher-for-Passover matzo. You are supposed to use Shemura matzos for the ceremonial three which are at used for the seder ceremony. And it is desirable to have the Shemura matzos round and hand-baked, unlike the rectangular ones we're familiar with from packets.
I don't remember Shemura matzos featuring at all in the seders of my childhood, in the late forties and early fifties. We had round machine made ones from Bonn's of Carlisle. It now seems weird that there was a thriving matzo bakery factory in Carlisle, where there now isn't even a Jewish community.
The advert tells you that it's from the Matzo bakery of the Belz Chassidim.
The baker tells the worthy community that they're taking orders to bake matzos for you in their bakery which conforms in every way with the most punctilious requirements, and you should order them as soon as possible. They're also signing up young men who wish to take part in the baking, they also sell matzo meal, and they wish you a happy Purim and a kosher Pesach.
Participating in the baking of Shemura matzos is regarded as a highly worthy act, especially if you bake matzos that you're going to eat at your own seder.
My daughter actually did this last week in Jerusalem. This is her account of it:
It was very very precise, we had to be so careful, the person who handled the water wasn't even allowed into the room until we were ready to put the water into the flour, and you have to constantly keep the dough moving so that it doesn't turn into chametz. Everybody had a different job - I was the kneader twice (very hard work) and then I was the smasher (you smash the dough down with a stainless steel pole to get air bubbles out - even more tiring) and then I was a roller, rolling out the matzot before they were to be taken over the the 'holers' table to have holes rolled into them. Everything had to be so thoroughly cleaned between each batch, the rolling pins were sanded down. It's very labour intensive. I now have a nice few matzot to keep for Pesach.
Hand-baked shemura matzos do look beautiful. They're usually a mid brown colour, not bleached like commercial machine-made matzos. The downside for me is that they always tasted like cardboard. You would eat the required amount at the seder to fulfill your religious obligation. Then you'd tuck into the much crisper and tastier machine matzos for the rest of Pesach.
At my Rabbi's house, where I was invited for one of the other Pesach festival meals, I first encountered really tasty hand-baked Shemura matzo. Members of the Rabbi's family brought it over each year from a Chassidic hand-bakery in Brooklyn. The family stored it in their airing cupboard to keep it really crisp and fresh. But even they didn't get to have Shemura matzos baked the night before the festival.
So when I first saw the advert from the Belz matzo bakery, I knew I'd struck lucky.
My encounter with Mr G, the matzo baker, was wonderful. He was a twinkly eyed man with a bushy beard, living in a tiny house in Tottenham. When I went down there to collect the matzos I'd ordered, he personally picked out my consignment to ensure that there wasn't a single cracked or broken matzo among them.
He told me he was originally from Warsaw; I don't know how he survived the war, because there wasn't time to talk about that. He had a large family of daughters. There were framed photos of each of them, all the way up the staircase in the hall. I think he had 11 or 12 altogether, and it was clearly a very happy home. His very aged mother in law lay, more or less out of it, on a space-age looking surgical bed in the corner of the room where we met.
I was happy that my impulse to join in this particular bit of religious punctiliousness had enabled me to meet them.
And the matzos were delicious. I gave a box to each of the families who invited me for the seders. And I kept my own in my airing cupboard. They were wafer-thin, crisp and delicious right through the festival. I didn't get tired of eating matzo for eight days. But then I never do.