I work as a PA at an outpatient clinic. We are not religiously affiliated and serve the entire community, it just so happens that there is a high concentration of Hasidim where we are and our providers have good relations with the community so we see a lot of them as patients.
Two of the PAs speak Yiddish–one grew up in a Hasidic family but no longer identifies with the community or Judaism, the other learned later for personal interest (he is not Jewish but has some distant Jewish relatives on one side of the family). I am Vietnamese-American but my colleagues and I have frequently joked that my job would be easier if I spoke Yiddish too–really it’s not a joke though, even though almost all our patients speak English, Yiddish is actually necessary sometimes when talking to either very young children who don’t yet speak English, or much older people whose main language other than Yiddish may not be English but rather, e.g. Russian. I notice even our new patients who do speak English are reserved initially but open up immediately and start laughing and joking with my colleagues when they start sprinkling in some Yiddish phrases.
Last year, with their encouragement I took some Yiddish classes for fun. I am good at languages and already speak German fluently so I was able to get up to a B1/B2 level. I would not feel comfortable talking to a patient who only spoke Yiddish but I thought I had enough to start sprinkling some basic phrases in, even if not having a full conversation. However, my experience has been very different–I was expecting surprise and maybe amusement that I spoke Yiddish, but instead the reaction has been frosty at best or even hostile. It seems like my patients close off even more if I try to use some basic Yiddish pleasantries. I recently had a patient tell me if I was not a member of their community then I should not be speaking their language. I was confused by this as my colleagues never get this reaction even though neither of them is currently a member of the community either (none of the three of us practice any religion or culturally religious practice either, not that that is particularly relevant).
The ex-Hasidic friend simply told me that unfortunately some members of his community are close-minded, which is why he decided to leave, but I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I am seeking some more perspectives to help me think about these experiences. For now I have simply decided to stop trying to use Yiddish until I can figure out how to do it in a way that will resonate. Of course I recognize race could be a factor here since someone could assume white providers speaking Yiddish are Jewish, but it is less likely that I am as an Asian person. Alternatively, have I culturally appropriated by learning the language of a “closed” culture? Open to other possibilities as well.
A sheynem dank 🙂