Too Young For Yiddish

Too Young For Yiddish

  • 1595

By: Richard Michelson / Illustrated by: Neil Waldman

"America is like soup. Everyone mixes together."

Young Aaron wants to learn how to speak to the chickens like his Zayde (grandfather) said the shochet (butcher) did in the Old Country. Zayde's stories and his many books, with their mysterious worlds and their guarded secrets, fascinate Aaron. But always Aaron is too young to learn Yiddish. Zayde thinks that Aaron, and all the new generation of American Jews, should speak English and play baseball-just like all Americans do. When Zayde becomes very old and can no longer see well enough to read his precious books, Aaron decides it is time that Zayde teach him to speak to the chickens before it's too late.

This poignant tale about preserving a dying language and the memories of the people who spoke it is also an eloquent tale of America. The importance of heritage and culture, and of honoring the past while building a future, is instilled in young minds through this touching story.

Neil Waldman's warm, evocative illustrations elicit a sense of nostalgia and personal pride for readers young and old.

An author's note about Yiddish language as well as a glossary and pronunciation guide of Yiddish terms are included.

Look Inside the Book:

Author & Illustrator Bios:

Richard Michelson, author

Richard Michelson is a prize-winning poet whose work has been praised by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel as "deeply moving." His many children's books include Ten Times Better, A Book of Flies: Real and Otherwise, and Animals That Ought to Be, all illustrated by the late Caldecott Honor artist Leonard Baskin, and Grandpa's Gamble, illustrated by American Book Award winner Barry Moser.

Read more about Rich.

Neil Waldman, illustrator

For Neil each new picture book is an adventure. During the weeks and months that he works on a story, its mysteries rest in the world just behind his eyes, waiting to be revealed. He lives within the story. He reads the manuscript every night before going to sleep and images begin swirling in his dreams. But images come at other times, too, when least expected. Neil says that one time he envisioned a whole book during a terrible migraine headache.

Read more about Neil.

Author's Note:


About the Yiddish Language

Yiddish, a mixture of primarily German, Polish, and Hebrew, was the everyday language spoken by three-quarters of the world's Jews for over one thousand years. Hebrew, with its exalted cadences, remained the language of choice of prayer. With its earthy rhythms, by turns sarcastic and sentimental tone, and wit and passion, Yiddish mirrored the daily life of the Diaspora (those Jews living outside of Palestine, their traditional homeland). But between 1939 and 1945, Hitler and the Nazis virtually wiped out the Yiddish language and the culture that spoke it. Six million Jews were murdered in Nazi death camps.

Many Jews who escaped to the Soviet Union were later slaughtered by Stalin. As part of his anti-Jewish campaign, Stalin ordered the execution of his country's major Yiddish writers and intellectuals on the single night of August 12, 1952.

Those Jews who escaped to Palestine, modern-day Israel, adopted Hebrew as their everyday language. Yiddish seemed a language of defeat and shame. It was, as the great Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer often boasted, "a language without a word for weapons." Zionists, Jews intent on founding their own country, felt they needed to look to the future and forget the recent past, so the speaking of Yiddish was suppressed.

In the United States, Yiddish-speaking Jews were welcomed. But these Jews wanted nothing more than to fit in, and they willingly learned the English of their newly adopted country.

Yiddish remained a language without a home. The great Yiddish poets and storytellers seemed consigned to the dustbin of history, their worlds of Jewish wisdom and humor buried with them. Over time, however, as younger generations of Jews began to feel more assimilated, their attitude toward Yiddish began to change. Jews have always relied on historical memory to know who they are, where they came from, and where they might be headed. The Yiddish language provides a crucial link to the ancestors and culture that nourished the Jewish people for more than a thousand years.

—Richard Michelson

Awards & Honors:


  • AJL Sydney Taylor Notable Books for Younger Readers
  • Notable Children's Books of Jewish Content
  • Skipping Stones Honor Books
  • The Best of the Bunch from 2002

Editorial Reviews:

Book Links

Aaron is disappointed when Zayde (grandfather) refuses to teach him Yiddish, though he listens as Zayde explains that in America, "Jews should speak English just like everyone else." When Zayde no longer has room for his Yiddish books, Aaron, now a college student, finds a safe place for them, eventually persuading Zayde to teach him the language. An afterword and a short essay about the Yiddish language are included. Bound from back to front like a Yiddish book, the text speaks volumes about preserving language and culture.


The Yiddish language and the people who speak it are the heart of the story in this moving picture book, which, like Yiddish books, is bound back to front. When Aaron asks to learn Yiddish, Zayde (grandfather in Yiddish) says that English is the language to learn in America. He says that in the Old Country, Jews were forced to be separate: America is a rich soup where everyone mixes. Then years later, Zayde finds that "the soup has lost its flavor," and he throws away his Yiddish books. Aaron, grown up now, saves the books, learns the language, and teaches it to his young son. The historical notes are as interesting as the fiction, and there's a lengthy glossary to explain the Yiddish terms. Waldman's watercolor-and-pen pictures in shades of brown are like old sepia photos; they beautifully capture Zayde's shtetl memories, both rich and wrenching, as well as the embrace of family in the new country. Older children may enjoy talking about the culture issues raised by the story: Does the soup lose its flavor when everyone is the same? How important is the language we speak?

Kirkus Reviews

This is a sweet story about a language that, like the Jews themselves, manages to survive despite the effects of extermination and assimilation. A boy named Aaron implores his beloved Zayde to teach him Yiddish, but Zayde maintains that Aaron is too young. Zayde has moved into a small room in his son's (Aaron's father) house, where the only place for his collection of Yiddish-language books is his dresser, with the poetry books taking pride of place in the top drawer. These books represent all that is left of a once vibrant Yiddish culture. When Zayde finally must move to a nursing home, he piles his books on the curb to be collected with the trash. Aaron, now a college student, rescues the books and begins to learn Yiddish. Eventually, Aaron becomes a father and begins teaching his own young son the language of his Zayde, saying, "you're never too young for Yiddish." Michelson (Ten Times Better, 2000, etc.) avoids taking the already didactic text over the top by leaving the history of Yiddish and its disappearance to a note, while an afterword tells of current efforts to save Yiddish books and thereby Yiddish culture. Waldman's sensitive, if dull, illustrations capture the love between boy and elderly grandfather as well as the flavor of life in the shtetl. Too Young for Yiddish is printed so it opens on the left like a Yiddish book and the text employs many Yiddish words. There is a glossary of words used in the text.

Publishers Weekly

Michelson, best known for such witty collections of verse as Animals That Ought to Be, returns to the intergenerational themes of his Grandpa's Gamble for this nostalgic volume, handsomely illustrated by Waldman (The Golden City) in a sepia-toned palette recalling old family albums. Aaron, a baseball enthusiast who roots for the Brooklyn Dodgers, watches as his zayde (grandfather) moves in, bringing his library of Yiddish books ("Had Zayde really read them all? Each with its own ideas and mysteries. Each with its own secret world"). But Zayde declines to teach Aaron Yiddish: "[In America] Jews should speak English just like everyone else." Not until after Aaron has graduated from high school does he realize the importance of learning about Zayde's Yiddish heritage. In the end, Aaron teaches his own son Yiddish. Michelson sprinkles the text with Yiddish and the publisher has bound the book "back to front," like a Yiddish book. The story possesses both power and pathos, and its message, that Yiddish is an endangered language, is urgent. The afterword, which will hold readers' attention as well, describes Aaron's real-life counterpart, founder of the National Yiddish Book Center. Michelson's delivery, from its grown-up protagonist to its exhoration to learn a language not readily available to most children, may make the book best suited to sharing with a grandparent or parent.


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ISBN: 978-0-88106-118-5

ISBN: 978-1-60734-465-0 PDF
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All ages
Page count: 32
10 x 9

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