Oy, do I love Yiddish! I didn’t grow up speaking Yiddish and neither of my grandmothers are really “bubbehs” but every once in awhile a few Yiddish terms or phrases would sneak in. Lately, I have been trying to write down the words I don’t remember often hearing. My family is Jewish, but in reality – a better description would be that we are Yiddish. Religion? Feh! But the language, customs and guilt? All us. I think people probably call it secular Jewry, or culturally Jewish, but I think Yiddish is probably a better term.
Yiddish as a language? It’s just awesome. I sometimes think I want to take classes and learn how to speak Yiddish so that I can have full conversations, but I am not sure I want that. I like just peppering my every day speech with Yiddish. Yiddish is all about intonation. For example, and I know this sounds crazy, but in my mind – the name of this blog is Yiddish. You have to say it like an old woman, with one hand on her chest, futzing with her locket. “Oy gevalt, you should only know …”
Living in New York, it’s hard to remember that Yiddish is a dying language. I use and hear so many terms that I had no idea were Yiddish until I read them in a Yiddish dictionary (which by the way, is in my opinion, an impossible way to learn Yiddish. Yiddish must be heard, and preferably, heard in context.) Words like shmuck, shmooze, shmear, klutz – who knew they were Yiddish? (NB: If you find yourself phrasing everything as a rhetorical question – you may be speaking Yiddish. Or are a Valley Girl. It’s a fine line.)
There are just some words that are better in Yiddish. “Nu?” instead of “so…/yeah, and?”, “shvitz” instead of sweat, “schlemiel/schlemizel” instead of jerk or loser, “gatkes” instead of granny panties or bloomers.
Then there are words that are just more descriptive or concise than their English counterparts. A “mensch” is an all-around good guy. The kind of guy that will help you move on a rainy day and calls their grandma every Sunday. A “balebusteh” is a female ball-breaker. A “macha” is the big guy. The guy that knows everyone and is like the mayor, unofficially. Some of this terms are even better when they are used sarcastically. “Him? He thinks he’s such a big macha, but after he was caught shtupping the butcher’s wife? He’s just a little pisher.”
Or one of my favorites is “Hak mir nit kayn chainik” which translates to “Stop banging on the tea kettle” or “leave me alone already, stop nagging.” It’s just such a great image.
There are words that I just don’t have a good equivalent for in English. My grandma always tells me keep to keep a knippeleh (oh, by the way – adding “eh” to the end of pretty much any Yiddish word denotes the dimunitive.) A knippel is a little money on the side. Because a knippel is the knot you make in a handkerchief – picture a hobo’s hankerchief with the knippel-knot. You keep your money inside that, just for a rainy day or to buy a little something for yourself. While writing this post, I have discovered that knippel also means virginity. I may have disappointed Grandma.
I could list all the words I use on a frequent basis, and words and phrases that I wish I used more often, but that could get old. So, I will recommend a few good books, should maybe you want to learn a little more?
I am going to aim for a few Yiddish min-lessons on the blog every once in awhile. Got any good ones that you think I should know?