Yiddish is alive and well in – of all places – Texas according to a recent CBS Sunday Morning feature. And it’s being taught to a cross-section of people according to the segment.
You may not be interested in taking Yiddish 101, but you will certainly enjoy Leo Rosten’s delightful book The Joys of Yiddish or (in an updated form) The New Joys of Yiddish. Rosten (1908 – 1997) was not only a noted humorist, but also a Yiddish lexicographer who combined his talents for humor and language in The Joys of Yiddish.
Whether you realize it or not, you’ve heard Yiddish words and expressions all your life. Schmaltz, yenta, oy, bagel, bar mitzva, Chanukah, and glitch are only a few examples of Yiddish words commonly used by English speakers – usually without realizing their origin.
Rosten not only gives us pronunciation guides and detailed definitions of hundreds of Yiddish words, but also gives us numerous jokes to illustrate the use and meaning of many of the words. His jokes also give us an insightful look at Jewish humor. The examples below give you an idea of what you will find throughout Rosten’s book.
In defining the word oy!, for instance, Rosten states that the exclamation point is part of the word. “. . . It is uttered in as many ways as the utterer’s histrionic ability permits. It is a lament, a protest, a cry of dismay, a reflex of delight. But however sighed, cried, howled, or moaned, oy! is the most expressive and ubiquitous exclamation in Yiddish.”
He even defines the word Yiddish itself – it’s Yiddish for “Jewish.” He goes on to talk about the make-up of the language:
“Yiddish is not Hebrew, which remains (with Aramaic) the Jews’ language of prayer and religious ceremonies. Hebrew is the official language of Israel.
“Perhaps 15 to 30 percent of the vocabulary of Yiddish consists of Hebrew words and phrases—but Yiddish and Hebrew are as different as, say, English and Hungarian. In addition to its quotient of Hebrew words, the vocabulary of Yiddish is adapted from German (70 to 75 percent) and from Polish, Russian, Romanian, Ukrainian, various Slovene dialects, and, within the last century, English.”
No-goodnik is an example of a Yiddish word formed from two English words – also called Yinglish. As you might expect, a no-goodnik is unethical, shady, a cheat, or a lowlife. Rosten’s example of the word’s use illustrates when and how one would use this word and gives us some other commonly used Yiddish words as well:
“Remember Mrs. Plotnick, she had three sons? Nu [Well], the oldest became an alrightnik [successful person], he lives in Scarsdale; the second went to Columbia, he became a Ph.D.; but the boychik [little boy (with a tinge or sarcasm since the son spoken of is no longer a child)] who does who knows what for a living, turned out a no-goodnik! From him, be sure, Mrs. Plotnik will never get naches [pleasure, a special joy].”
Rosten includes a cute joke after his definition of the Yinglish word alrightnik:
An alrightnik (or alrightnitseh) called a decorator to her new apartment. “I want you should fix up this place from top to bottom. Money is no object.”
The decorator asked, “Would you like it to be modern?”
“French? echoed the alrightnik. “How do I come to French?”
“Perhaps Italian provincial?”
The decorator sighed. “Madame, what period do you want?”
“What ‘period’? I want my friends to walk in, take one look, and drop dead! Period.”
If you’re old enough to remember the TV series Laverne and Shirley (a spin-off of Happy Days), you probably recall the opening when Laverne and Shirley are skipping down a street reciting a Yinglish hopscotch chant: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!”
Hasenpfeffer is the German word for rabbit stew. A schlemiel is a bungling person who perpetually fails. A schlimazel is a person who is always unlucky. (Note: Mazel means “luck.” Mazel tov! means “Good luck!”)
Beheyme, the Yiddish word for “ignoramus” or “drudge” is accompanied by the following story to illustrate its meaning:
An old man was walking down a country road carrying an enormous load of wood on his shoulders. He struggled up a long hill, muttering and cursing, “I’m not more than a beheyme!” when the bundle slipped off his shoulders and he cried out, “I can’t go on! Let the Angel of Death come and take me!”
At once the Angel of Death appeared. “You called?”
Said the old man quickly: “To help me get that load back on my shoulders!”
Moral: Men prefer misery to death.
And finally we come to gefilte fish. Gefilte comes from the German word for “stuffed.” Gefilte fish, Rosten writes, is “fish cakes or fish loaf, made of various fishes that are chopped or ground and mixed with eggs, salt and lots of onions and pepper (sometimes with sugar). The traditional Friday night fish, served at the Sabbath dinner. I find gefilte fish delicious, hot or cold, and recommend that red or white khreyn (horseradish) be handy, to dip the fish into, or suit your palate.”
English has borrowed many of its words from other languages. You will be surprised at how many of those words are borrowed from Yiddish if you read Rosten’s book. You’ll also be entertained by Rosten’s many jokes and enlightened by what you learn about Jewish culture.