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Arlene Weiner: When I Searched Online ‘What is the difference

between Russian and Ukrainian?' 
I thought of Mr. Evans, who taught linguistics. 
When somebody mentioned Yiddish in class
Mr. Evans said with a sneer, A mere 
dialect of German. He sneered a lot, had a superior air,
summoned enthusiasm only for vacations in San Francisco
or New Orleans, which might have meant gay.

This was at Brandeis, a Jewish-founded university
whose president said it was A host at last,
but nobody pushed back, nobody thought to retort
A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.
Evans is a Welsh name; did Mr. Evans know Welsh,
which doesn’t have an army or navy? 
Or was his name Anglicized from Epstein,
the sneer for himself? 

Yiddish was my father’s native language,
the mamaloshen. He was born in eastern Poland, 
which is now western Ukraine. 
He said the people in the town 
were Poles, Jews, and Slavs. The Slavs, 
I assume, became Ukrainians. 

My great-grandmother understood Slavish, 
so that when Russian soldiers came to the house, 
retreating, and one of them said, Let’s take
the girl—my great-aunt—Baba knocked out the light 
and the family fled into the fields.

On Mansfield Boulevard in Carnegie, PA,	
two churches, side by side, each with onion domes. 
One is a Russian church, the other Ukrainian. 
Both Orthodox. Between them
a driveway—do they both claim it?

These days Mr. Evans might be happier,
might give Yiddish more respect, 
and if the State of Israel 
hadn’t made Hebrew its language,
Yiddish might have an army at last.


Copyright 2022 Arlene Weiner

Arlene Weiner’s books include City Bird (Ragged Sky, 2016). She lives in Pittsburgh.

9 comments on “Arlene Weiner: When I Searched Online ‘What is the difference

  1. Joan E. Bauer
    April 3, 2022

    “Or was his name Anglicized from Epstein,
    the sneer for himself?”
    Ah yes… I love the turns in this poem. Thank you, Arlene!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      April 4, 2022

      Yes, it is a subtle and ingenious poem, isn’t it? Large questions of language and history encapsulated into a family anecdote.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. allisonfine
    April 1, 2022

    We share similar background–my mother’s mamaloshen was also Yiddish. I grew up in a Jewish community where half the members were Holocaust survivors. I witnessed many unfortunate teachers and teaching and quite a bit of anti-semitism. This poem is beautiful! Thanks to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. loranneke
    April 1, 2022

    What mastery in *tone$ and how this poem travels! I love “Yiddish was my father’s native language,/the mamaloshen”!

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on April 1, 2022 by in Opinion Leaders.

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