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You, Too, Can Enjoy the Joys of Yiddish

What? What?

 [Editor's note: for those of you who don't know, Yiddish is "a language based on German that was originally spoken by Jews of central and eastern Europe," according to Merriam-Webster.]

There is enough of a New Yorker left in me that I delight in my very slight knowledge of Yiddish.

I was visiting my sister, the only one of my immediate family who still lives there, about two years ago. Quite by chance, I tuned in the radio station which apparently Fordham University in the city puts on the air. The feature story was pointing out that there are communities in Brooklyn which are teaching Yiddish to their children to make sure that it lives on. I was glad for that.

I am not a trained linguist nor have I read widely about Yiddish. But since 1972 I have owned and consulted Leo Rosten’s 1968 book, The Joys of Yiddish. He points out, in contrarian style, that his not a book about Yiddish but about English.  Though he explains this claim, all I can say is that there is an awful lot about Yiddish in this wonderful volume and lots of definitions of Yiddish words and examples of how those words are used in everyday parlance. I was happy to find that Lawrence Bush revised the book and The New Joys of Yiddish (2001) is available.  The fact that this new edition has come out makes me think that Leo Rosten was successful in popularizing Yiddish.

How many of the following words do you recognize? 

Bagel, blintz, boychic, brith, broche, bubeleh, bubkes, challa, chaver, chutzpa, cockamamy, donstairsiker, edel, fancy-schmancy, gesundheit, gevalt!, kibitz, klezmer, klutz, knish, kosher, kvell, kvetch, latke, l’chayim,  lox, luftmensh, lump, macher, mama-loshen, matzoh, mazik, mazuma, megilla, mensh, meshugge, midrash, mish-mash, mitzvah, mohel, nebech, nexdooreker, no-goodnik, nosh, nu, nudnik, oy, pekl, putz, rebbe, shalom/sholem, shames, shiksa, schlemiel, shlep, schlimazl, shlock, shlump, shmaltz, shmatte, shmeer, shmegegge, shmendrick, shmo, shmooz, shnaps, shnorrer, shnoz, shnozzola, shtik, shtuss, shvartz, simcha, tzedaka.

If you recognized fewer than 20 of these words, you may find Yiddish with Dick and Jane by Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman helpful--one picture, after all, is worth a thousand words.

Take, for example, the illustration of Bob and his two children, Katie and Scott. They open the door to Bubbe’s (Grandmother’s) apartment only to find Bubbe on the floor unconscious. 

This drives home the seriousness of the accompanying expression, “Oy gevalt!” The book includes a glossary with a good many Yiddish words.  Of course, if you want to jump right in with both feet, just get The Joys of Yiddish.

Besides being a lexicon of Yiddish, Yinglish and Ameridish words, The Joys of Yiddish discusses Yiddish linguistic devices which have influenced American speech.  Take number 8, for example, ”Derisive dismissal disguised as innocent interrogation: ‘I should pay him for such devoted service?’” 

Rosten also serves up more than a generous portion of funny, illustrative stories.  It is very good shtik and will make you smile a lot.

I myself could not resist the title Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods by Michael Wex. I hope to report on it at a later date. 

I hope I have edged you towards being meshugge for Yiddish as well as suggesting some book titles for—in all likelihood—unexpected gifts for the holidays.  Happy the recipients should be.

Hershl Hartman December 18, 2011 at 11:50 PM
For a real knowledge of the history, present and future of Yiddish -- though the ha-ha is missing -- get "Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish" by Dovid Katz. Too, to learn through comics, get the just-published "Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & The New Land."

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