So what’s your Yiddish IQ, bubbeleh? Don’t be too quick with your answer because truth is, lots of the mamaloshen (mother tongue) has entered into common English usage; think kibbitz, bagel, klutz, kosher and chutzpah. But should you want to think of more than the commonly known terms, then Sheldon Clare is your go-to maven (nu, you did know that “maven” is Yiddish for expert, yo (yes)?)
Clare, 71, was born into a Yiddish-speaking home in New York City. “Once I got to kindergarten, naturally, I started speaking English. As a young child, having the two languages seemed completely normal as we lived in a neighborhood where most of the families were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe,” he says.
Clare attended New York City’s High School of Music and Art as a voice major, where one of his classmates was Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary fame). He then got his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from New York University and continued his studies at the University of Pittsburgh, commonly referred to as Pitt, in Johnstown, Pa., where he obtained his master’s degree, also in chemistry. Pitt offered him a teaching position on campus and that was the beginning of his college teaching career.
With the passage of time and the growth of the Pitt student body, Clare realized he would need a Ph.D. in chemistry in order to continue teaching at the university level. In 1968, together with his wife and twin boys, he moved to Tucson to earn his advanced degree at the University of Arizona. Armed with his new doctorate, Clare went back to his job teaching chemistry at Pitt. He would return to Tucson some 30 years later.
In 1990, while on summer break, Clare decided to enroll in Yiddish classes in Oxford, England. Asked why a native Yiddish speaker would need to formally study the language, Clare explains, “It was a good excuse to go somewhere I had never been. Plus, I wanted to learn more and be able to also write in Yiddish.” At the time, he couldn’t have known that some years later his knowledge of the written language would come to serve him in a very personal and meaningful way.
In 1999 Clare and his family returned to Tucson where he had accepted a teaching position in the UA chemistry department. He also taught chemistry at Pima Community College, where he still teaches part time.
In 2012, Clare decided to search out his family’s roots on a trip to Eastern Europe. With the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius as his base, he engaged a personal driver who agreed to take him to his father’s birthplace, a town called Anikst, or Anyksciai. Clare laments the fact that Vilnius, prior to World War II, had more than 100 synagogues, and now the city has just one where Jews still gather and pray.
Driving out of Vilnius, Clare was moved by what he saw on the roads. “All around the countryside there are signs indicating where Jews had once lived,” he explains. “And the signs are written in both Lithuanian and Yiddish.” One particularly striking moment for him was when his driver pointed out a ruin and told him, “See that burned out barn? That was the synagogue.”
Clare’s driver then took him into Belarus to see his mother’s birthplace, Olshan (also known as Golshanyi). In that small town he learned of the existence of historical records of Jewish life, called Yizkor books. These books were written after the Shoah as memorials to the Jewish communities that had been destroyed. Put together by survivors, the Yizkor books contain descriptions and histories of the individual communities, biographies of prominent people, lists of people who perished, and more. Clare was moved when the caretaker of the Yizkor book in his mother’s birthplace asked him to translate the book from Yiddish into English. And in doing the translation, he learned that a distant relative had helped to write the book.
Putting his knowledge to use in another way, Clare has been teaching Yiddish classes at the Tucson Jewish Community Center since 2010. He says students of all ages and backgrounds come to his classes, including a non-Jewish man who has a particularly strong interest in Yiddish. “He actually sends me emails in Yiddish,” Clare explains with a wry chuckle.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Clare opened the class by projecting a video of two men singing a humorous number in Yiddish. The song was about speaking in Yiddish and was subtitled in Hebrew, not Yiddish — the two languages use the same alphabet — a fact that Clare patiently pointed out to his students as he translated the song.
Students Elaine and Ira Schneider told the AJP they come to Yiddish class because they want to be a part of what they see as a resurgence of interest in the language. “Our grandparents spoke Yiddish but our knowledge is very limited,” says Ira. “We just find the language very melodic,” his wife adds, “and it has a very unique way of expressing ideas that we really like.”
Marlena Tova Feinberg explained that she comes to the class because it brings back fond memories of her father, who used to gently tease her with Yiddish expressions. All the students agreed that coming to Yiddish class feels like coming home — very haimish.
Renee Claire is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.