Tag Archives: Egypt

The Globalization of Yiddish

Julia Simon painted some of her favorite Yiddish words, using friends and strangers as models, at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles.

Julia Simon painted some of her favorite Yiddish words, using friends and strangers as models, at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles.

Here’s a guest post from reporter Julia Simon

It started in Nairobi when I was talking to some Kenyan friends including Handerson Mwandembo.

Now Handerson doesn’t speak Yiddish, and yet I couldn’t help but notice that sprinkled into his conversation were certain Yiddish words. Words like “schmooze.” I asked him how he would use “schmooze” in a sentence. Handerson gives an example, “He passes exams because he occasionally schmoozed his lecturers.”

And then there was my friend Reham Hussein who also uses Yiddish words. But Reham doesn’t live in Kenya. She lives in Cairo, Egypt.

Reham says she often uses the word “schmuck” (which, in its original meaning, is not the most polite word but it’s commonly used these days). For example: “Okay, you had a problem with a taxi driver today, oh what a schmuck he’s being,” she says. “More or less like a person who doesn’t know what they were doing and they just keep going. Annoying in a certain way.”

I learned these same Yiddish words from my grandmother who grew up in a Jewish part of Melbourne Australia and my grandfather who learned Yiddish from his Brooklyn parents. But where did Reham pick it up?

“I was introduced to it by American media more than anything else.” Reham says On the NBC TV show Friends, she says, they use a lot of Yiddish. “And in Seinfeld they use it, even more than in Friends.”

American pop culture has long been full of Yiddish words. There’s Mel Brooks, of course. In this scene from “Spaceballs” he uses the Yiddish word “bubkes”.

And then there are Americans with no ancestral connection to Yiddish, like singer Barry White. In his famous song “Never Going to Give you up” he uses the word “schtick”.

More recently, rapper Jay Electronica used the word “schmuck” in a song.

Jan Schwartz is a professor of Yiddish at Lund University in Sweden. He says the widespread use of Yiddish in American culture tells us something. “It’s a great example of how the Jewish acculturation in America has been very successful,” he says. “Jews are comfortable in America, they can express their Jewishness publicly it’s not something you have to hide.”

Schwartz says these Yiddish words entered American English through the European Jewish immigrants who arrived in the US in the late 19th and early 20th century. But Schwarz says it’s not just American English getting the Yiddish treatment. He says there are a good amount of Yiddish words in Dutch too. Yiddish speaking Jews have lived in the Netherlands for hundreds of years.

So I called up some friends in the Hague, Meline Arakelian and Yannick Dierart, and I tried a little experiment with them. I gave them a few Yiddish words and asked if they knew the meanings. “Mazzel”, “Meshuganah”… sure enough they knew them from Dutch.

Meline says she really likes these words, “they are straight from life.” Yannick agrees. “They have a really lived in feel, like a real raw feel, straight from the street, straight from the marketplace. It feels like they’ve been said by centuries of people. A little bit poetic also, lyrical.”

Professor Schwartz thinks they’re onto something, both in the popular appeal of the words and in the lyrical aspect. But he hopes that non Yiddish speakers don’t just stop with the specific words – he hopes they go back to the source: Yiddish literature, Yiddish theater, and Yiddish standup comedy.

“I guess if that’s my mission– a mission impossible but a mission– is to kind of get people to appreciate the richness and the depth of this culture on its own terms,” Schwartz says.

Still, he says he is happy that Yiddish is getting the exposure. He says that in historical European Yiddish literature, you find these non-Jewish characters — the policeman, the postman — speaking Yiddish. The Jewish writers wrote about them with great pride.

The writers were happy that Yiddish wasn’t just a Jewish language– it reached out.



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In Cairo, Cars Speak

Cairo taxi driver Hicham Uhmarey (Photo: Gabriel Luis Manga)

[Note from Patrick Cox: In Boston, where I live, honking is not considered a skill, and the car horn isn’t much of a tool. Hitting the horn is a way of giving obnoxious voice to your frustration at the rest of the world as represented by the idiot who just cut you off. In Cairo, and in many other cities, drivers are more expressive and creative. They’re also noisier: many Cairo drivers put in a louder horn when they get a new car. Below is reporter Julia Simon’s take on car horn speech.]

I lived in Cairo a little more than two years and whenever I’d walk down the street and hear a honk that I thought was just a…honk. It turns out, that honk has a meaning.

The honk—four short bursts followed by a slightly longer one—means: “Open your Eyes.” It’s directed at people who aren’t paying attention. Or in the words of Hicham Uhmarey, a Cairo cabbie, people who are “crazy,” and not looking up.

Uhmarey has been driving the streets for two decades. He says that in Egypt, honking is a language. Drivers combine short and long honks to make words, like Morse code. He says most drivers speak this language, not just taxi drivers.

Uhmarey took me for a cab ride around Cairo for a little lesson.

It probably won’t come as too much of a shock that a lot of the honks represent such descriptive swearwords that I can’t translate them here. But the honks aren’t just for other drivers. Some are for women that drivers see walking on the street. There’s a special one for “I love you.” Honking is a male language.

Even so, some women do know they’re getting honked at. But they may not know whether the message is “I love you” or “Oh beautiful woman.” To the untrained ear, they sound similar. What’s more, many of my female Egyptian friends don’t know any honks at all. Even among the few who drive, many haven’t gotten the chance to learn the honking language.

But I am proud to say that I am now officially a student of honk. Hicham Uhmarey confirms that I can now honk “I love you.”



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Language-learning in France and Ireland, and free speech in Tunisia

In France, the  government is proposing that children start learning English at age three. It’s high time, they argue, that French educators face up to the fact that learning English gives you — and your country — an edge.

Good idea,  say French intellectuals. But why English? According to French linguist, Claude Hagège, the proposal is “totally pointless, if not ridiculous.”

Now, before you write off Hagège as a good-for-nothing naysayer, consider this: he’s one of France best-known promoters of language-learning. He strongly supports the idea of people learning several languages if they can. But for Hagège, language is power– and speaking English is “not quite innocent.”  From his perspective (and, I suspect, he is far from alone) it’s more important to resist the rise of English than it is to expose French youth to it, at least as a first foreign language. In his words, speaking English is “a guilty act because it is the language of very wealthy, industrialized countries. And I think any person who has a minimum of sense of justice cannot accept that because this means domination by the countries whose mother tongue this language is.”

It may be because of attitudes like this that French schools will continue to lag behind school systems elsewhere in Europe, when it comes to teaching English.

In Ireland, mandatory Irish learning in schools became an issue in the recent parliamentary elections.  OK, so it didn’t sway voters as much as the economy did. But the party that won, Fine Gael, has promised to consider dropping Irish as a must-learn subject at school.  In the old days — or at least when my dad went to school — learning Irish was considered act of patriotism in a new country eager to establish its national identity.  It didn’t work. Despite massive government support, the vast majority of Irish people forgot most of the Irish they had been forced to learn. Fine Gael’s proposal, while upsetting the old guard and some native Irish speakers, struck a chord with some voters and commentators.  Why not learn languages that are more widely  spoken, like Spanish, French or Chinese — languages that  might help young people get a leg up?

In Tunisia, journalists are getting used to their new freedoms; some are clinging to the old ways.  The pod has a report from Tunis on how some news organizations are adapting quickly to their new freedoms, while others can’t figure out quite how to express themselves without a censor to frame reality for them.

Also,  we have  an interview with Anglo-Middle Eastern singer Natacha Atlas. Atlas isn’t known for her political or social stances. But recently she began singing about free speech in Egypt, and beyond.

Listen in iTunes or here.

Photos: Wikicommons

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