Dying Language

by Dave Schuler on July 11, 2014

Yesterday when I was at the bank I engaged the young teller in conversation (as I do) and used the word “kvetch”. In response to his puzzled look, I said “It’s a Yiddish word. It means ‘complain’ or ‘whine’.”

If you don’t already know it, Yiddish is the language of Ashkenazic Jews, the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. It’s a dialect of German with a lot of borrowed Hebrew, Slavic, and Romanian words and constructions. The corresponding language of Sephardic Jews, the Jews of Southern Europe and North Africa, is Ladino, a dialect of Spanish.

Many prominent movie actors, e.g. Paul Muni and John Garfield, got their start in the Yiddish theater. Not long ago on CBS’s Sunday Morning they had a feature on Fyvush Finkel (look him up). Fyvush was a juvenile star in the Yiddish theater.

Carl Reiner has said that the formula for his comedy is “Talk British. Think Yiddish.”

American English has borrowed all sorts of Yiddish words. Food items like matzoh or kishkeh or blintz. Coarse words like shmuck or putz. Notably, chutzpah. Like pornography it’s hard to define but you know it when you see it. It refers to a particular kind of brazen assertiveness but it’s a lot easier to say “chutzpah”.

After we left the tough neighborhood of my childhood, in the more upscale neighborhood of my teens a number of my neighbors were native speakers of Yiddish. When you combine that with my dad’s large number of Jewish friends, many of whom were native speakers of Yiddish, I can’t remember a time when my spoken language wasn’t peppered with Yiddish words.

Yiddish was dealt a one-two punch in the 1930s and 40s. First, millions of Ashkenazic Jews were murdered by the Nazis. That cut the heart out of Ashkenazic Jewry. Second, the founding of the state of Israel breathed life into the synthetic language Modern Hebrew.

Now Yiddish is dying as its few native speakers pass away. I couldn’t recommend Leo Rosten’s delightful The Joys of Yiddish more highly. It’s full of stories and jokes. You’ll learn the difference between a shlemiel and a shlemazel. You’ll learn what a shnorrer is and why Groucho Marx is funny.

That’s my mitzvah for the day. Enjoy.

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