It’s simplistic to say Yiddish (literally “Jewish”) is a mixture of German and Hebrew, yet it seems shabby to say Yiddish is a jargon made of the rags of every language. Naturally Yiddish evolved and developed, picking up words that reflect the Jewish diaspora (also referred to as the dispersion, galut, or exile). Thus many words worked their way into Yiddish from Slavic languages, for instance, Polish (e.g., paskudnyak, a nasty, mean person), Russian (e.g., nudnik, a pest), and Czech (e.g., pupik, belly button). That’s why it will start to make sense to us when Leo Rosten calls Yiddish “the Robin Hood of languages: it steals from the linguistically rich to give to the fledgling poor” (see The Joys of Yiddish, 1968, xviii).
Yiddish, though written using a form of the Hebrew alphabet, is not linguistically related to Hebrew. Of course we would expect that it absorbed hundreds of Hebrew and Aramaic terms taken from Jewish tradition. (See “Yiddish language” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yiddish.)
In the Jewish Spectator, 1952, Israel Zangwill put it this way:
It was the vibrant tongue of the folk, but the Holocaust destroyed nearly all of the Yiddish speakers. In the aftermath of World War II, Israel was reborn as the Jewish state, and Hebrew became its official language. Yiddish—the language of the Galut, or as some called it, the graveyard of Europe—was disdained and disowned. Furthermore, a large percentage of Jewish immigrants and refugees settled in the goldeneh medina (America, “land of gold”), and either by choice or by default, did not teach their children the mama loshen (the “mother tongue”), and may have only used it when they didn’t want their children to understand their conversations. Yiddish does remain the lingua franca of Hasidic communities, particularly in Brooklyn and Israel. But that’s about it. Yet despite the dearth of fluent Yiddish speakers among the next generation(s), the English language became peppered with a wide assortment of Yiddish words, lifted phrases, and even pithy sayings.
Ah, the indomitable spirit of Yiddish—the survivor. Yiddish is suffering, living; arguing, knowing; struggling, hoping; crying, dancing; biting, singing; wandering, dreaming; remembering, remembering. You feel it in the kishkes (“the guts”). It’s funny, it’s sad, uncanny, true, straightforward, indirect, emphatic, elliptical, questioning, italicizing. It’s a bond, a code. It’s belonging. It’s quintessentially Jewish. It’s Klezmer music, it’s culture, it’s mishpocheh (“family”). Yiddish is the day before yesterday; it’s here today, here tomorrow. Mebbe. Who knows?
Yiddish is meant to be spoken and heard, with all the nuances, gestures, inflections. Hear the poetry in“neither here nor there”— nisht getoygen, nisht gefloygen. Maybe Yiddish survives because we as communicators need it! Sometimes what we really want to convey gets diluted or lost to English translation or dumbed-down American vernacular.
In the original version of The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten notes that “Oy” is not a word, it is a vocabulary” (273); the same could be said about “Nu” (267-269); and “Feh!” (114-115). Rosten can be painstaking and finnicky about nuances, for instance, how makkes is nothing, and bubkes is next to nothing; the differences between shloomp and shlep, and shmendrick and shlemiel. If anything, Yiddish usage in English, if we may be so bold, has become conventionalized since Rosten’s works first appeared.
Here’s an example. Next time you should happen to watch the 1970's John Beloushi / Dan Akroyd hit, “The Blues Brothers,” pay attention to the schvitz scene when Jake and Elwood try to hustle a gig from Maurie the promoter. Maurie is dubious. He wrinkles his nose thinking about how Jake and Elwood look on stage. “What are you guys gonna do? The same act? Wearing the same farchadat suits?” Farchadat, according to Rosten, means dizzy, confused, punchy, and dopey. Maurie could have also called Jake and Elwood’s “wardrobes” a mish-mosh (a mess, a hodge-podge), ongepotchket (slapped together, not matching), chozzerai (junk, trash), or meeskeit (ugly).
Anybody who loves words can’t help becoming infatuated with Yiddish!
That’s (Yiddish) Entertainment!
Humor, it has been said, is the truth in an intoxicated condition. From tough lives, from the world of our fathers and mothers escaping persecution came drama and laughter. Stories and jokes abound. Yiddish theatre flourished. Vaudeville was a natural connection. Tin Pan Alley became a venue for your basic song and dance man. Rag time piano plinkers, players, and composers. Molly Pican. Sophie Tucker aka the “last of the red hot mommas.” Entertainment thrived in immigrant Jewish culture. Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, the Gershwin Brothers. The Borsht Belt (Catskills). Radio. Movie moguls. Comedy writers. Shtikmeisters. The late great Steve Allen once called comedy “a Jewish cottage industry.” It’s very clear: the Jewish foinny business is here to stay. It bloomed where it was planted.
Two of our favorite jokes are taken from immigrant culture. Often called “greenhorns,” immigrants were clueless, green, not jaded, easily taken in by the new world culture. These both take place on the lower East Side of New York, the first in a dance hall, the second in a kosher restaurant.
Boy: “Are you dencing?”
A greenhorn sits down in a kosher restaurant. A Chinese waiter comes
up to him and begins rattling off the menu in Yiddish.
Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) is immortalized in her famous sonnet to the Statue of Liberty—“The New Colossus.” Its last five lines have become a permanent part of the Statue of Liberty. To read the sonnet in its entirety, to get a sense of the “politics” behind France’s presentation of the Statue of Liberty to the United States, and to learn more about Ms. Lazarus, we recommend two sites: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~CAP/LIBERTY/lazaruspoem.html. and http://www.jwa.org/exhibits/wov/lazarus/el2.html.
2004 marks the 100th year of the great Yiddish writer and Nobel Laureate, Isaac Bashevis Singer, who said:
To read or listen to Singer’s Nobel Lecture in its entirety, presented December 8, 1978, visit http://www.nobel.se/literature/laureates/1978/singer-lecture.html.
In Jewish folklore and storytelling, contrasting the wise man and the fool is a frequently recurring theme, just as Chelm in eastern Poland is a frequently mentioned legendary town. In his fascinating tale, “The Wise Men of Chelm,” Singer writes a memorable conclusion that makes us wonder. Is Chelm really all about how the choice we make becomes the path we take?
Singer passed away at the age of 87 in 1991. Read how Linda Matchan of the Boston Globe eulogized him. Visit http://www.boston.com/globe/search/stories/nobel/1991/1991t.html. Singer is considered “the only living Yiddish writer whose translated work has caught the imagination of American readers.”
For more than a bisel...
Any Moishe Kapoyr, Chaim Yonkel, and Shmerl Narr will immensely enjoy the growing list of websites dedicated to Yiddishkeit. Just search for Yiddish, Yiddish humor, Yiddishkeit, and you’ll be able to nosh and fress much, much more.
Start here. Many of our mothers and fathers came to America through Ellis Island. The Statue of Liberty was the first thing they saw. Pay a visit to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum at http://www.ellisisland.com/
To learn more about life after “getting off the boat,” visit the informative site, “On the Lower East Side,”and read about immigrants’ struggles, housing shortages, overcrowding, tenements, poverty, pushcarts, child labor. http://www.tenant.net/Community/LES/contents.html
Consider viewing the film “Crossing Delancey,” or even better “Hester Street” http://www.jhvc.org/video_library/index.php?film_id=140
When it comes Yiddish, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better
Then there are the stock classics by the late, loveable Leo Rosten.
Joys of Yiddish
His H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N books are a riot, especially if you happen to be an ESL instructor!
Then there’s a maven to whom we are all indebted: Fred Kogos.
Shepen naches! — Enjoy!