Yiddish Yoga Puts a New Twist on an Old Tradition

by Donne Davis on April 7, 2010

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Yiddish and yoga—an unlikely pair? Not if you’re a certified yoga teacher who grew up speaking Yiddish. Lisa Grunberger has been teaching yoga for years and was immersed in Yiddishkeit (Jewish culture) from a young age. So her first book, Yiddish Yoga, was a natural.

Subtitled Ruthie’s Adventures in Love, Loss, and the Lotus Position, Grunberger’s little book is the sweet and funny journey of a 72-year old grandmother into the world of yoga. Ruthie receives a year’s gift of yoga classes from her granddaughter to help her grieve the the loss of her husband, Harry (may he rest in peace).

During her first class Ruthie’s yoga teacher, Sammy, tells her to “set an intention.” She has no idea what he means but her intention is to “have a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s Deli on Houston!”

I laughed hysterically at Ruthie’s initial impressions of yoga:

At the Yoga Center I was famished and looked around for a nosh. I asked one of the staff (the one with the nose ring, I would say, but this would not distinguish her from all the others), “Excuse me, where’s your snack bar?”

“You shouldn’t eat right before class,” she advised. “Sip the air—it’s composed of seventy percent water, like your body.”

No wonder they’re all emaciated: there’s no food, the heat’s up to a hundred degrees—and they’re sipping air! [This page is accompanied by a cartoon of Ruthie holding onto the hose of an oxygen tank and inhaling.]

As she embraces her yoga practice, she braids the two traditions together like a challah, describing her body as “stretched and kneaded like the beautiful loaves” in her favorite bakery. She even starts quoting her young teacher, Sammy: “Don’t be a worrier, be a warrior!” And “learn to let go of things; you are not dependent on things to live a whole life. There is freedom in this.”

Ruthie’s character is inspiring to all ages, but especially to older readers. She learns to let go of the past and live in the moment. She’s open to possibilities, has a sense of wonder and playfulness, and reminds us that growing older doesn’t mean we have to stop growing. Each page contains one of Ruthie’s internal monologues reacting to her new experience, accompanied by wonderful cartoons by Art Glazer.

As a Jewish grandma who’s been doing yoga for over 25 years, I completely resonated with this book. In fact, I learned some new yoga terms, as well as a lot of Yiddish. Grunberger includes both Yiddish and yoga glossaries in the back of her book.

Grunberger says she’s often asked if Ruthie is based on her own grandmother. She’s not. She’s based on a composite of her mother, who passed away 15 years ago, and a 90-year old yoga student.

Yiddish Yoga is one of those books you’ll want to keep by your bedside for a little inspiration at the end of the day.

{ 2 comments }

JoYcelyn March 12, 2011 at 5:40 pm

I met author Lisa at our local food market. We were each busy, zipping around the store gathering comestibles for the evening.But not so busy that we found ourselves, from our very first words, caught in the enchantment of kindred souls once again connecting. We chatted madly about eveything on the planet and, upon departure, hugged naturally and exuberantly. I am certain that this is not a rare occurance for this sparkling and brilliant person. Her spirit is polished and her intellect teeming. Anyone who encounters Lisa in any capacity is sure come away with an enhanced “vibe” and an extra spring in the step.

Susan Adcox April 19, 2010 at 3:47 pm

I’m not Jewish, and I’m a yoga dilettante, not a devotee. Still, this sounds like a book I would enjoy. We can never have enough laughter in our lives.

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