Language of Our People

“I began researching this book in Los Angeles, as a UCLA/Mellon Fellow. For the opportunity to read Sholem Aleichem on the Santa Monica boardwalk (and have ‘Vos makht a yid’ shouted at me by a roller-skating passerby), my thanks…”
--from the Acknowledgements section, The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem by Jeremy Dauber.


This is not a book review;

It is a Jeremy-Dauber influenced polemic. As with any polemic, its message should fit on a bumper sticker; namely, Learn Yiddish. As with many a polemicist, it would be helpful if I took my own advice. However, that is another story.

This story begins in Miami Beach in 1959. I was 12 years old celebrating Passover at the home of Lee Rosenhouse who had been my classmate since first grade at the other end of town—South Beach when South Beach was run down and before it became rediscovered and chic. Lee and I attended the Hebrew Academy—Hebrew being the operative word. When Rabbi Alexander S. Gross founded the Academy in a renovated Protestant Church in 1947, the Hebrew he taught was Ashkenazi. By the time we were in third grade, our teachers shifted our pronunciation to Sephardi in keeping with the official Israeli pronunciation of Hebrew. One consequence is that our pronunciation of Hebrew was a mishmash described as Ashke-Sephardi.

Rabbi Gross was something of a heretic and certainly a visionary. Years later when I read Louis Auchincloss’ Rector of Justin I learned that my rabbi/principal was indeed a Jewish rector whose vision—despite the Maimonides-ordained orthodoxy of our morning classes—was Hebrew and a secular manifestation of Hebrew at that.

Hebrew and Yiddish. Yiddish and Hebrew. Lee and I were part of an effort that swept our Jewish community abandoning Yiddish, the language of exile, in favor of a new world order symbolized by the Israeli flag displayed every morning in the Academy playground where first we saluted the U.S. flag and next we sang Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. The anthem’s initial word means “The Hope.”

The contrast between Hebrew and Yiddish (the hopeful new world order vs. the old culture—which, as Lee and I saw it had kept us enslaved) expressed itself in 1959 at the Rosenhouse sedar table when Lee’s mother and father (Estelle and Mose) swapped dirty jokes with my mother. The jokes were in Yiddish. We did not understand. This was, as we saw it, the old order unfairly keeping from us (whose Hebrew was recent and hard-won) some secret magic.


It is possible you speak neither Hebrew nor Yiddish and you may have little appreciation for the language wars I am here describing. Let me start with the basics we students expressed quite clearly on the Hebrew Academy playground in the form of a question. “If the U.S. and Israel were to fight in a war which side would you be on?”

A generation later my younger daughter Amelia Altalena (whose middle name is fraught with meaning) told me, “You were willing to fight for Israel but not for the United States” over simplifying. Fifty years ago—on June 8, 1967 to be specific—I arrived in Israel eager to fight in the Six Day War. Three months later I reluctantly returned to New York to continue college because Israel (then overwhelmed with volunteers) did not want me. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court had not yet granted me the right to be a dual citizen although despite outward reality I am one. After I returned to New York, my draft board acceded to my request for conscientious objector status. I would not participate in Vietnam. It was an evil war.

It is not, as Amelia Altalena intimates, that my loyalties are divided. My loyalties are clear. The clarity I am trying to define here are my loyalties to the Jewish people. Yes, I believe in God. Increasingly, I find my Jewishness includes prayer saying as I do Modeh Ani when I arise. My loyalty (God is incidental) as a Jew is defined by two distinctly secular ideologies; namely, Zionism and the revival of the Hebrew language. Personified, my loyalties are to Theordor Herzl (who married, as I did, a non-Jew) and Eleizer ben Yehuda who assembled THE modern Hebrew dictionary and whose children were stoned by the Orthodox community because his children spoke Hebrew in the streets at a time when the community believed Hebrew belonged exclusively to the synagogue.


Yes, this polemic begins with the insistence we all learn Yiddish. However, it is based on the assumption that first we Jews must master Hebrew. While I will return to the 1959 Miami Beach sedar table, it is first necessary to introduce you to two larger than life men whose ability to master multiple languages I urge you to emulate. They are David Ben Gurion and Vladimir Jabotinsky. I like to think of them (at least initially) as frozen in time in 1918 serving together in the Jewish Legion—an early effort like the Zion Mules Corps that preceded it intended to prove that Jews (despite a reputation for being non-resisting victims of anti-Semitism) could fight.

Enter my parents at the end of the Second World War that followed the First. Miriam and Isadore met at a synagogue meeting intended to introduce the variety of groups that described themselves as Zionists. My mother was attracted to the socialist movement led by Ben Gurion. My father was a leader of the capitalist indeed militarist movement founded by Jabotinsky who died in 1940 and was led (when my parents met) by Jabotinsky’s disciple Menachem Begin. It may be true that opposites attract, but as Mother and Dad would make quite clear, not for long.

The one reality that united Mother and Father was Hebrew. When she was still pregnant with me, Mother graduated from two colleges, Hunter and a now-defunct Hebrew college in New York where she received a bachelor’s degree in Hebrew. When Mother was in her early Sixties, she received a doctorate in Hebrew letters from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Between degrees, Mother was a Hebrew school teacher and principal. Before Mother died from dementia, I spoke to her in Hebrew, the only language she still understood.

My father’s Hebrew was ideological. Isadore was a follower of Jabotinsky; indeed, so it says on his headstone. Isadore’s love for Jabotinsky and his movement was intense. When I was eight, my father began reading to me the Balfour Declaration providing over the years his special interpretation. Isadore was fond of repeating the story of Jabotinsky’s insistence the World Zionist Congress change the language of its proceedings from Yiddish to Hebrew. Not knowing Hebrew, Jabotinsky insisted the Congress learn the language storming out of the hall insisting he would not return until he was able to speak in Hebrew. In my childhood recollection of the story, it took Jabotinsky 15 minutes to learn Hebrew.

The temptation here is to linger—to tell stories of Hayyim Nahman Bialik, the Walt Whitman of Modern Hebrew and Shmuel Yosef Agnon whose Chekov-like tales of Jews in exile caused him to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966—the only Hebrew author to win a Nobel. I am tempted also  to further describe the hatred Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky, two Zionist giants, felt for each other. The point here is language and language facility.

I am fond of the story of Ben Gurion, certainly a show off, practicing yoga in front of reporters on his kibbutz in the Negev. Among the languages Ben Gurion had mastered was ancient Greek. When he was alive, he had the reputation for being alone in the world at being able to recite by heart the plays of Sophocles. Indeed, he was fond of doing so while standing on his head and interrupting himself to answer reporters questions about politics.

Similarly, Jabotinsky’s language command included Italian, Russian, and English. Jabotinsky wrote a screen play on Samson and Delilah which Hollywood turned into a film starring Victor Mature. Of course, both Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky spoke Yiddish.

Who we are as Jews is tied strongly to our ability to move globally and speak a variety of languages. It is worth noting that in The Brain that Changes Itself, Dr. Norman Doidge’s popularization of current brain research, Dr. Doidge asserts that a key for the aging to avoid senility is to learn a new language. At 69 and a grandfather, my focus is on teaching diligently to our children. Jewish parents in the U.S., first have your children master Hebrew, then Yiddish, then aspire to learn more languages.

As my father got older he repented his decision not to teach me Yiddish. Isadore asked me to watch Fiddler on the Roof, the musical based on Sholem Aleichem’s story. “It is about my people,” he pleaded, “It describes the community where I was born.” Fiddler was trendy then and I am a snob. I hesitated. Shortly before my father entered the Jewish Home for the Aged in Miami, I finally watched Fiddler and told him so. “It is too late,” he said.

As it turns out, this is not a review of Columbia Professor Jeremy Dauber’s excellent biography of Shalom Aleichem. It is instead, a plea to preserve what we are losing of our culture as exemplified by Mose, Estelle, and Lee Rosenhouse at their sedar table in 1959. For my mother—who for much of my childhood was a single parent—Lee’s large extended family sitting around the table on Passover represented the home Mother longed for but never had.

Describing the joy the adults felt as they taunted the children by speaking Yiddish only begins to describe a Jewish world quickly disappearing. Everyone around the table is dead. Mose, head of household, represented the father and husband Mother never had. A politician and a prominent attorney, when Mose died, the Miami Herald featured his obituary on page one. Mose had come to Miami from Milton, a small town on the Florida panhandle where kosher meat was trucked in from Chicago and being Jewish meant speaking Yiddish.

Shalom Aleichem.

--Joel Solkoff

[Joel Solkoff is the author of The Politics of Food and Learning to Live Again, My Triumph Over Cancer.]

Thank you to the State College Community, Penn State’s Department of Architectural Engineering and to the Jewish people

On this Sunday night, I am sitting in my apartment four blocks away by scooter to Penn State’s iconic Old Main.  You have seen it on television.

Penn_state_old_main_summerContemplating my forthcoming cancer surgery, I cannot help but express my gratitude.

My gratitude extends the length and breadth of the Borough of State College under the inspiration of our dynamo Mayor Elizabeth Goreham.

The Borough of State College includes all Downtown, which is at economic risk, suburban State College (but not suburban enough to collect the large revenues). and Penn State University.

We are all Penn State here.

First and foremost, I want to thank Elaine Meder-Wilgus.Next year, Webster’s proprietor Elaine Meder-Wilgus will be reading the role of the sensuous Molly Bloom whom Joyce deliberately paralleled to Homer’s Penelope.

Webster’s Bookstore and Cafe has immeasurably improved the quality of my life here. Book Store Duchess Anne and I contemplate Webster’s related activity, such as promoting the bookstore with a recreation of the Battle of Trafalgar. We require three floats such as are featured at the Rose Bowl, each retailing for $120,000.One ship on the converted float would be the one where Lord Nelson dies; there would be a French and Spanish ship as well. Of course, the helicopter with Elaine playing Lady Hamilton. Funding has been a problem.

Thank you employees and patrons of Webster’s Bookstore and Cafe. Thank you.


I thank my neighbors, friends, Cathy Fisher, Bryan and the excellent maintenance staff, and the owners and managers of my apartment building.


Other than names already mentioned, I will not use this space to express my appreciation of my family and friends–except when I get the urge.

This posting is intended to express appreciation for the environment where I reside. So, herein is the way I have arranged my thank you’s, including my thanks to:


I thank, of course, my dear friend Fire Chief Steve Bair.

I also thank Police Chief Tom Kane, who has been thoughtfully responsive to my emails–long as they are.

I also thank my assemblyman Scott Conklin. I especially like Scott–period. I am glad that he is a real union man.

I also thank my REPUBLICAN Congressman Glenn (“GT”) Thompson [Republican,. Fifth Congressional District of PA]. GT was a physical therapist before he was elected to Congress despite my active campaign against him on behalf of his Democratic challenger Mark McCracken.

GT met his wife while they were changing bedpans at the nursing home I will enter by default if anything happens to me. Since his election to  Congress, GT has displayed an admirable record regarding medical oxygen, wheel chairs, scooters, and power chairs–equipment that is indispensable to paraplegics such as myself and to others in the disability community. President Obama, despite his rhetoric–holding my nose voting for him this time around–having voted for candidate Obama in the PA primary and then worked for his first election insisting that Democratic headquarters pour new concrete for its broken down wheel chair access ramp.

Excuse the rant. The point is GT has been an inspiration to the durable medical equipment community even if he is a Republican.


Regarding health care gratitude, I do not know where to start. When I had pneumonia in November right before Thanksgiving, I felt like hell. I called 911. The ambulance was here in no time. I breezed through the Emergency Room and would up in a room with a view and I had a really great doctor–right down the road at Mt. Nittany Hospital where the food is good.

Let us start with Sapana Minali, my primary care physician at Geisinger Medical Center. When the excellent and gracious urologist Jennifer Simmons diagnosed that I had cancer, Dr. Simmons referred me to Sloan Kettering in New York for a surgical consultation….

When that happened, my primary care physician was informed that I was discharged from the hospital but with a kidney cancer diagnosis. Dr. Minali then directed her staff to call me and when that did not work after many un-returned calls, Dr. Minali called me herself.

Meanwhile, she directed that I receive social services available to someone in my situation, and the wonderful Doreen Moronski found me the Bob Perks Fund, which provides grants to individuals who have to travel for medical reasons. My grant pays my monthly rent every four months for a year, plus provides a $160 grocery store card every quarter.

Thank you Bob Perks.


Regarding the Jewish people: Words cannot describe my gratitude to Rabbi David Ostrich, who performed the State College memorial service for my mother Dr. Miriam P. Schmerler at my apartment building–where we had a minyan.

My attachment to the Jewish people is based on my strong belief in Zionism, my great love for the Hebrew language (the Bible is great stuff in the original), and my attachment to things Jewish. My spirituality has not been invoked by traditional Jewish practice. I have been strongly spiritual for as long as I can remember. I am very fond of the Wisdom of the East. Confucius’ Analects and the teachings of the Buddha have provided me with understanding. Rabbi Ostrich has been demonstrating to me the compatibility of Eastern teachings with an understanding of The Torah.


Congregation Brit Shalom and the Jewish Federation of Pennsylvania have provided me with the funding that made it possible to receive cancer treatment in New York City, 250 miles away from State College. For my June trip to Sloan Kettering, where Dr.Russo decided to operate, I received $1,500. It is astonishing how expensive is New York. After shopping around, I found a cheap garage that would let me park the car for $400 for the week I was there for tests and consultation.

Last week, Rabbi Ostrich met me at the PNC bank on College Avenue and provided me with an additional $1500 for this trip to New York for surgery and two weeks of recovery. This total of $3,000 exhausts the extent of generosity from a small congregation. Thank you, landsmen of my Congregation including the Bagel Boys.

Thanks to the Jewish people: I was raised by a single mother in the 1950s when that was no picnic. My mother supported us on her salary as a teacher of Hebrew school teacher, a Hebrew school principal, and an Educator. She liked it when people called her a theologian.

I remember first hearing the words of the Bible in Hebrew when I was five. From grades 1-8, the day began at the Hebrew Academy of Greater Miami with a pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag and a singing of the anthem of the State of Israel–both flags displayed.

During those years, I read the Five Books of Moses in the original Hebrew in the mornings and studied English subjects in the afternoon. There was a lot to praying.

While I have rejected much, my love of the Hebrew language remains. My support for Israel as a safe, peaceful, Jewish entity is strong. “If I forget Jerusalem, let me forget how to use my right hand….”

What I have always found to my surprise and relief is the availability of Jewish Family Services and similar organizations to be there for me because that is what our people do. We care for each other.


Regarding work:

I may get emotional here, so forgive me in advance.

I have a strong feeling about my work.

I have spent years learning how to write.

Now, I know what to write about.

I write about how to overcome the limitations of a disability and live life to the full.


For the past four years, I have been working as a research assistant at Penn State’s Department of Architectural Engineering. Dr. John Messner hired me.

John is in charge of the Computer Integrated Construction (CIC group) and runs the Immersive Construction (ICon) Lab. Shown here is the ICon lab’s mascot:

Costa Rican Frog

Given the still recovering construction industry’s state, the building of hospitals and medical facilities–taking place at a rapid pace–has proven to be a great relief. The images projected on John’s three screens viewed with 3-D glasses are intended to help architects, engineers, and construction personnel conceptualize design and then make changes before construction begins.

John assigned me to work with now Dr. Sonali Kumar’s whose graduation I attended in May, one week before my daughter Joanna graduated with her usual honors from nursing school.


Sonali’s thesis is entitled, Experience-based design review of healthcare facilities using interactive virtual prototypes. 

Yes, I am in Sonali’s thesis. See below.

I was the model for her avatar for the independent living virtual reality module designed in Autodesk’s BIM-compliant Revit and imported into a Unity gaming engine.

Somewhere in my appreciation from the virtual reality lab, I became obsessed with McKeesport, a Pennsylvania Rust Belt town with high poverty, a lot of crime, and two gifted men the brilliant Robert Walters and the capable and enabling John Bertoty who created a Blueroof Research Experimental Cottage.


The cottage was constructed in a factory where sensors were placed in the walls. With digging the foundation, it took 3 days to assemble the structure. The cottage contains a living room, kitchen, bathroom, and  two bedrooms.


Cameras are available at the client’s option for monitoring. Motion detectors can tell whether a resident has fallen in the shower and communicate that information by voice simulation to 911 as a call for help. This is off the shelf technology.

This kind of low-cost housing for low-income individuals represents an understanding of how to design a residence for elderly and disabled individuals that helps them live their lives.

During a period when the largest generation in U.S. history is retiring–Baby Boomers retiring at the rate of 10,000 a day…. There is no way the housing stock in our country can support the demand.

Over 90 percent of U.S. housing is NOT wheel chair accessible.


Then, along came Dr. Richard Behr, Chair of the Center for Aging in Place at the Department of Architectural Engineering. (Why at the Department of Architectural Engineering? you may ask. Ask.)


Richard and I became planners. A Pittsburgh foundation had paid $50,000 to design a plan for downtown McKeesport. Richard and I wrote a grant proposal to the Ford Foundation for the funding to execute the plan. I plan to go back to the Ford Foundation for reconsideration.

Then, there would follow useful studies Penn State could perform, especially for my boss Dr. Ali Memari, Chair of the Pennsylvania Housing Research Center.


Dr. Memari and I are coauthoring a report entitled

Renovating Existing Housing to Provide Individuals with Mobility Disabilities the Opportunity to Live Independently

The book contains a lot of photographs of independent living facilities where design modifications should have been required. I will be submitting my work thus far to Dr. Memari by close of business on Thursday.



Gratitude is hard to express. Syrup often accompanies it. More of the gratitude I feel will be expressed as time goes by.


Joel Solkoff

Noisy Thanksgiving November 22, 2012

Copyright © 2013 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.