Colin Powell: The general who spoke Yiddish

Powell continued to speak Yiddish his entire life, once striking up a conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir during a visit.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks at a news conference April 12, 2002 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo: Quique Kierszenbaum/Getty Images)

“I learned a bissel of Yiddish.”

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell learned Yiddish while working in a Jewish-owned store in New York City as a teen.

Powell, born to Jamaican immigrants living in Harlem in 1937, moved to a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx where he later worked as a teenager at Sickser’s Baby Equipment Store.

Catering to the predominately Jewish immigrant neighborhood, the primary language spoken in the store was Yiddish.

“The biggest lesson I got from my experience in the toy store was from the Russian immigrant Jew who owned it, Jay Sickser,” Powell said in an interview. “And after I worked there after a few summers and a few Christmas seasons he pulled me aside and used a diminutive, a yiddish diminutive of my name, he would call me Collie. ‘Collie neu, come listen, I want to talk,’ and he said to me ‘Collie you’re a good worker, love having you in the store, you’re part of the family but listen you know, you can’t ever stay here, you have to get your education, you’ve got a good family, and you’re smart, go get your education, and make sure you move on.'”

Powell remained in touch with the Sickser family for the next 50 years. On top of working at the store, Powell was also very much a figure in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, working as a “Shabbes goy.”

Powell never stopped speaking Yiddish as he climbed the ranks. He reportedly used Yiddish words and phrases with Jewish staff at the Pentagon when he was working there. He also struck up a conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir during a visit:

“Men kent reden Yiddish,” Powell told the prime minister. (We can speak Yiddish.)

The Prime Minister Shamir was reportedly stunned (Yiddish was his second language) and Powell replied back: “Don’t you understand?”

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