Brooklyn Boro

My joys of Yiddish

August 2, 2021 William A. Gralnick
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If you are Jewish, were from a first or second-generation immigrant family, and lived in Brooklyn, you were surrounded by Yiddish. Yiddish is the much-derided polyglot language of the central and eastern European Jews that has not only inveigled its way into English, maybe courtesy of Fiddler on the Roof and the tremendous number of popular Jewish borsht belt comedians and has become a very popular language selection in colleges across the land. It was the language parents and grandparents spoke so the kids wouldn’t understand. “There lies the rub,” as Willie S would say, but we’ll come back to that.

Yiddish drives language purists crazy. It’s like a language stew. In comes some Polish, throw in a bunch of German, drop in a bit of Slavic derivation works, write it in Hebrew and bippitiy-boppity-boo what you have is Yiddish. Unfortunately for the language, the way it was used by people who were driven to be as American as can be, that meant that by the third generation, fewer and fewer could speak it except for choice words and phrases — Yiddish has a lot of them. There are few curse words in Yiddish but a lot of curses: A moth should fly in your mouth, lay eggs in your stomach, and make you live a life with a belly full of them. Or sarcasm: commenting on a none-to-interesting piece of gossip, my mother would remark, “It thrills me around, around, and in the middle” (tickles my belly button is an English equivalent). It definitely loses a lot in translation.

Looks like Hebrew

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Yiddish was also the language that enabled the Eastern European Jews to talk about the anti-Semites, in and out of their churches, without being understood–and beaten or jailed. Here’s an example. Warning. In today’s PC society, some will find it offensive. Two Jewish peasants driving their mules and pulling their supplies meet at a crossroads. They stop and kibitz. One says, where do you come from? The other replies, “Chelm.” Really, how many gentiles do you have there? He responds a few thousand. Now comes the return volley. And you, where are you from? I’m from Warsaw. Such a place. How many Gentiles do you have in Warsaw” The peasant replies, Oh, I’d say several million. Hoo Ha! Comes the amazed reply and then the kicker. Several million?!? Do you really need that many…? Ba da boom.

Yiddish has burrowed into English like termites burrow into wood. Binging on Netflix’s detective show Bosch, I lost count of all the Yiddish words all the gentile characters used. Jewish writers? But I stray. My grandma, who was an amputee often stayed with us. She and my mom spoke a little of Yiddish together. My dad was one of those American Jews who spoke Yiddish, but did so rarely. Unbecoming. The older grandma got the more she spoke in Yiddish. When Alzheimer’s hit she was moved to a beautiful place that dealt with dementia patients. One day when we came to visit she whispered to us that the nurses was conspiring against her so she was only going to speak Yiddish of which I understood a fair amount but spoke little. She made me promise I would learn Yiddish.

By the time I graduated from college, I spoke French and Spanish. I took several shots at Hebrew. The success was minimal. “The promise” always hung heavy on my heart. Then I discovered “Duo,” one of the very few language learning programs that teaches Yiddish.

I am having a ball. Every-so-often I find words I had learned from listening to grandma and mom. Then there were words, I didn’t know I knew, but they popped out of my memory bank and said, “Remember me?” I am learning the Hebrew alphabet and will far more easily tackle Hebrew when Yiddish is done. This however is the surface of the story. It goes deeper.

Every time I set up a lesson in Hebrew, I am prepared for time travel. I return to the living room, or the car and spend time with my mother and grandmother. I also repeatedly see my grandma in her last years, a shadow of her former self, asking me in Yiddish if I was learning it yet. “No, but I promised you I would and I will.” So there I am at her bedside making the promise.

The real McCoy

Some people don’t like the sound of Yiddish. Spoken by some, it is very guttural. I love it. There is a certain rhythm to it. Sometimes I think it sounds like Irish spoken in German. The word placement and grammar can drive the student batty, it is so strange. But when I meet an older Yiddish speaker, I immediately understand why the word placement in their English sentences is, uh, so unique. As my vocabulary expands, I find my and more of my “friends” crawling out of spaces in my head welcoming me back to the Jewish part of my Brigadoon.

Yiddish has so many funny, timeless expressions Leo Rosten made a fortune from them. I managed an article. Oh well. But if you want to experience the fun of it, Jew or Gentile, pick up Rosten’s long-time best seller, “The Joys of Yiddish.” Here’s one of my favorite expressions: a toyten bankes (a toy-ten bahn-kiss). It comes from the days when leeches were used for curing all manner of things and sacks of garlic were hung around a patient’s neck to drive out the virus (and anyone who happens to be in the room.” The expression however means basically worthless. From Rosten: Mrs. Kirten, a hefty 170 pounds, brings home a new dress, size 12 and a miracle girdle which she claims will get her into the dress. Her husband comments, “It will help as much as a toyten bankes.”

Belly laughs will consume you, as will the depression from realizing Yiddish is struggling not to let Hitler win. Almost all of the 6 million lost in the Holocaust were Yiddish speakers. Gone in a puff of smoke.


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