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The Language of Love

The Language of Love

I miss the mad sound of the language, the delicacies on doilies, the coiffed women with dangling earrings.

by

When Fridays are short and there’s a chill in the air, and everywhere women are hurrying, cleaning house, setting tables and exchanging recipes, I’m reminded of how much I miss the sound of Hungarian.

This surprises me because it’s a language that used to drive me mad with its peaks and valleys, exclamations and refrains. It was a veritable cacophony! I remember trying desperately to parse out the simple words I knew: yes, no, beautiful, the girl. I remember listening for the sounds that alerted me that I was being spoken about, and wondering what was being said and why. I was frustrated that this slippery language couldn’t be more like Spanish, where the words were almost familiar and I could figure things out. Now, I never hear Hungarian anymore, and I realize with a pang that I miss it. A lot.

I miss the lavishness of the Hungarian women, raised in a culture known for its excess. I miss the multilayered cakes, the doilies on every surface, the shelf in the sukkah carefully built to hold a vase because not even a week should pass without flowers. I miss the endearments, the “draga” or “Darling” attached to everyone they spoke to. I miss the shiny chandeliers with thousands of dangling crystals that spoke of the pride of ownership, the responsibility they felt, the seriousness of the obligation to turn a house into a home. I miss the care they took with their appearance, never going out without a carefully coiffed wig even if it was just to sweep the stoop.

I miss the niceties, the air kisses, the whispered compliments, the terminology that with one word conveyed multiple meanings — slim and stylish all at once, or tall and strong merged. I miss the drama of a finely raised eyebrow in a gently creased face. I miss the bright pink lipstick imprints left on cheeks and prayer books, and the large cabochon rings with semi-precious stones and the filigreed dangling earrings. I miss the courtesy that demanded that women who had known each other for fifty years or more still addressed one another by their titles.

“Mrs. Klein, darling?”

“With what shall I help you, Mrs. Schmidt?”

“Could you maybe to pass the kipelech to dear Mrs. Weiss?”

I miss the food which was delicious but so bad for you; kindel cake oozing with nuts, rukute krumpli with sour cream and mayonnaise and egg, garlicky ptchah and soft farina gumboz. I miss the recipes that took hours to prepare and even longer to explain; fourteen steps from beginning to end and dozens of eggs for a snow and raspberry jam and syrupy ground filberts. I miss the quivering cakes that stood tall on crystal trays and the red meats slathered with paprika and garlic. Who spends that much time on food? They did.

I miss the sayings I couldn’t understand, until I grew older and then suddenly they made perfect sense! “May you live in a house with a thousand rooms,” they’d mutter darkly, “and every day you should be changing the linens.” What a perfect expression, both blessing and curse!

I miss the overblown concern and the clucking sounds and the ridiculous way of handing out titles, every man an Uncle (Baci) every woman an Aunt (Nani). I miss the laughter and the solemnity and the tradition and the folklore. I miss a genteel culture which represented a specific time and place in the long journey of the Jews. When I hear Hungarian now, it’s from gentiles, the occasional cleaning woman or contractor, and it does not sound the same at all. I wonder if they lived in the villages I heard about. I wonder if anyone lives there but ghosts.

I miss the old Hungarians who are almost all gone, their warmth and enthusiasm and rich tradition. And in this modern world where casual is key, and technology trumps tradition, and everyone says what they think regardless of who it hurts, and there is no graciousness or etiquette or civility, I miss the high musical sound of Hungarian even though I didn’t know what any of it meant because from the few words I could pick out, I knew they were talking about me and that I was beloved and precious and cherished.

So on short Fridays, as Shabbos draws near, I feel the chill in the air and I miss the sound of Hungarian.

Because I miss my grandmothers.

This article originally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine.

January 3, 2015

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Visitor Comments: 10

(9) Esther, July 27, 2017 4:06 PM

I miss the "you're gorrrrgeous. You're so buuuutiful. You're chinosh. You're so smart." In short, I miss the compliments that built us, not broke us into who we are today.

The compliments built our confidence, whether they were true or not. The closeness of my aunts ( who I called Gsa Gsas did I get splg correct? to all of us, so that their love and the love of our parents felt like our yummies blanket, the blanket of love. The please eat over the table, it was Pesach 12 months out of the year. Yes, those delicious mocha cakes that they shared. My grandmother was the oldest Auschwitz survivor, so her imitations of Mengale, their brilliance, their making sure that all of us went to college and got educated, yes, along with all the "learning" in yeshivas so that our cousins are Torah learned and educated and married wonderful people. In short, I can feel the presence of a Jewish Hungarian descent individual, whether they are religious or not. The warmth of the culture, the chesed they did, didn't end with heading all these different Chesed organizations. My grandmother founded Satmar Bikur Cholim together with the Satmar Rebbetzin, founded Munkatch Bikur Cholim, my aunt Crown Heights bikur cholim together with other founders, and they all went to Rivka Laufer Bikur Cholim, were very involved because we know her. They visited hospitals, no problem. They all learned English with a thick smattering of Hungarian-accented, that you could barely cut with a knife. And I agree with Ms. Zoldan, it is a world we cannot seem to retrieve. Esther Goldie Spielman-Pollak

(8) Ann, March 14, 2015 9:57 PM

Beautiful!

This is an absolute literary gem, Mrs Zoldan. Thank you!

(7) Binyamin, January 8, 2015 10:55 PM

Our Hungarian Parents / Grandparents

Now that we are "older" we know that people in different countries act according to the cultural moores from where they came ;) My parents are also from there. I also appreciate probably most Hungarian parents / grandparents had to leave their lands to "foreign" soil as refugees from the Nazis or communists. I greatly appreciate the loving and caring for each other and I loved the food. It seems "Jewish Mothers" is a relatively similar thing across borders. Loving and caring for our fellow Yidden.

(6) yaffa, January 7, 2015 11:57 AM

I miss them, too. But you honor them and bring them back to life with your stories. They are, without a doubt, beaming with pride.

(5) Bob, January 7, 2015 5:28 AM

nagyon jó draga (very good, darling). My parents (z"tl) were survivors of Auschwitz & Dachau. They never taught me Hungarian (I think they wanted their own language to talk to each other and also they wanted us to be "American"). How I can relate to what you say! I am sure your Bubbes would be so proud of you. köszönöm (thank you) for the article!

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