Subject L was informally experimented upon as a child by her father. A lawyer by trade, he moonlighted as a secular Jewish Buddhist philosopher.
Father: Imagine a cup.
F: Do you hear the word cup while you imagine? Are you thinking cup?
F: Don’t. Try to remove the word from the thing.
Subject L spent years trying to please her father by removing words from things. (The very words he had taught her.) She wrested snow from snow, skin from skin. Some words were stickier: mother, elevator, mailbox, cereal.
L: Why did you teach me to take the words away?
F: Because I couldn’t do it myself.
At age 24, Subject L was afflicted by an acute case of Hovering Language Syndrome. She felt English sitting above, not in, the world like a tacky carpet. She took her medicine of television in the afternoons and conversations at the corner store to no avail. Desperate for a cure, she decided to learn a new language: one that had hidden inside her native tongue: Yiddish.
F: Why are you learning Yiddish, that’s basically a dead language.
L: Isn’t English?
F: Yiddish doesn’t even have a country, where will you speak it?
Through a daily therapy of Yiddish classes, and a special focus on ingesting Yiddish idioms, Subject L slowly relearned how to see words and things united like the healed seams of small cuts.
L: Wanna hear what I learned today?
L: In Yiddish, if something is really great, you can say it’s from the land of itself. Like, “This is a cake from cakeland!”
F: That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.
Jennifer Kronovet is the author of the poetry collection Awayward. She co-translated The Acrobat, the selected poems of experimental Yiddish poet Celia Dropkin. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Bomb, Boston Review, Fence, The Nation, A Public Space, and elsewhere. She has taught at Beijing Normal University, Columbia University, and Washington University in St. Louis, and she currently lives in Guangzhou, China.
“Idioms” was originally published in Scenester (TLR Early Summer 2013)