Tag Archives: Yiddish

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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Language Life and Death in New York City

Linguist Mark Turin rides the New York subway’s 7 Train to explore a few of the city’s 800 languages. Some of these languages thrive, at least briefly. Some survive, in spite of the odds. Some live on through the words they loan to English and other immigrant tongues. But nearly all of them eventually die.

This is the final part of a BBC series called Our Language in Your Hands. In the first part, Turin returns to a village in Nepal where two decades ago he learned and documented the Thangmi language. In the second part, he’s in South Africa to assess how its languages are faring nearly 20 years after the end of Apartheid.

Here’s a related BBC post on part three. And here’s a 2012 story that we did on a Garifuna language music project that was sponsored by the New York-based Endangered Language Alliance.

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Jewish American Students Reimagine Yiddish Europe

Hannah Efron at the gates of the old Jewish cemetery, Indur, Belarus (Photo: Helix 2012/Yiddishkayt)

[This post from Nina Porzucki]

Forget Lonely Planet. Forget Fodor’s. When Rob Adler Peckerar plans a trip to Eastern Europe he goes straight to one guidebook publisher, the Baedeker—the 1907 Baedeker to be exact. “You can’t beat the maps,” says Peckerar.

It doesn’t matter that the sites on the maps, written in German, are just a bit out of date. They show just what Peckerar is looking for. “It indicates the Jewish spaces [that] are still active Jewish spaces. You can look on the map and see here’s a synagogue and here’s a synagogue.”

For Peckerar, the executive director of Yiddishkayt, a non-profit Yiddish cultural organization, these guidebooks point to a past that he wants young American Jews to know.

“The past thousand years of Jewish life is what’s missing from Jewish education,” he says. “Kids don’t know about Jewish life in Europe, they learn today mostly about Israel and they learn the destruction of Jewish culture.”

Instead of visiting concentration camps and mass graves like many conventional Jewish student tours this summer, Peckerar took eight students to the hometowns of Jewish poets and novelists. This was a tour more about life than genocide.

More than anything else Peckerar wanted to take students back to the villages where their families came from sometimes hundreds of years ago. “Most Jews don’t know the name of the place where their family is from,” says Peckerar. What they know instead he says, is a vague picture of shtetl life in Eastern Europe – or a musical like Fiddler on the Roof.

Hannah Efron, a 21-year-old, comparative literature major at UC Berkeley, was one of the students who went on the trip in search of her family’s origins. Growing up, Efron always heard “Oh Hannah you’re such an Efron.”

‘Being Efron,’ meant having her grandfather’s sense of humor and his stubborn streak. But she never really considered where that Efron-ness originated until Peckerar helped her research the first member of her family to take Efron as a last name. In a small Yiddish-speaking town named Amdur, in what is now Indur, Belarus, lived her ancestor, Motte Tsennes. Motte was his first name and Tsenne was his mother’s name. As was the tradition he was Motte Tsennes or Tsenne’s son, Motte. Motte was the first one in the family to choose the last name Efron.

The group of students took a bus ride to what is now just a tiny village. They knew two things: Motte Tsennes was the town baker and he lived on the corner of the old market square. The bus stopped at the old market square. The town as Efron describes it, was just two streets and a smattering of houses. Peckerar, Efron, and the tour guide exited the bus, and approached an old woman watering her neighbor’s yard. They asked her if there were any Efrons in town. Much to their surprise, the woman started to talk about the Jewish history of the town. The old woman told Efron that long, long ago the town had been about 80% Jewish. Today, there were just a few remnants of Jewish buildings left.

The old synagogue (Photo: Helix 2012/Yiddishkayt)

The group walked down the road, snapping photos. People came out of their houses to see the commotion, says Efron. They pointed the group in the direction of what was once a synagogue. During the Soviet period it had been used as a music school but had since fallen into disrepair. “We would try and peek in the windows and it was full of garbage,” says Efron. Eventually someone in the group found an open doorway and one by one they jumped into the old synagogue.

The space was enormous, Efron says. This was one of nine synagogues in this town but this was the main one. Walking around the enormous, empty building drove home just how big the community had been. “You could picture it full,” says Efron. “On the high holidays you could picture everyone gathered there. You just had to close your eyes.”

The group left the synagogue in search of the cemetery. Efron describes it as a wild place. Weeds and grass hid the headstones, which had turned to tiny stone nubs on the hill. Horses out to pasture wandered between the graves. A rusted gate with two Stars of David was the only real indication of what the field had been. “I was secretly hoping in my heart of hearts that we would find a stone of Motte Tsennes,” says Efron. But she didn’t find that first Efron’s tombstone. However, as she walked around the cemetery she felt the presence of Motte Tsennes and her family.

The gates of the old cemetery (Photo: Helix 2012/Yiddishkayt)

“I felt like my family knew that I was there to visit them, to mark them and to honor them. And they were like, ‘there’s our Hannah; she’s going to graduate from Berkeley next year; still no boyfriend.’ That they knew I was there and I knew they were there.”

Hannah Efron is back in Berkeley, hanging out at her parent’s house until the school year starts. Was she changed by the trip? Yes and no. She is still, according to her family “very Efron.” Only now she has a place to put to the name.

[Patrick Cox adds: Listen to the podcast for more scenes from this Eastern European trip, including Yiddish and English recitations of poems by Morris Rosenfeld and Moyshe Kulbak.]


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Moorish grafitti and texting in Yiddish

The Alhambra in Grenada, the crowning glory of Moorish Spain, has more than 10,000 prayers and poems in Arabic inscribed on its pillars and walls. We hear about an effort to decipher and catalog the inscriptions. It’s not the first time this has been tried. But previous attempts foundered, when researchers became distracted by their findings. This time,  Spain’s Higher Council for Scientific Research is taking a more rigorous approach. Even so, it must be  hard not set aside your tools and get meditative after you’ve discovered an inscription like “Be sparing with words and you will go in peace.”

The rest of the pod is devoted to the second part of the BBC’s documentary on Yiddish. Reporter Dennis Marks picks up the story in the 1960s, when Yiddish was staring extinction in the face, after many decades in which it language thrived among Jewish Eastern European immigrants, as in this World War Two-era poster).  But more recently in New York City, the language has began to  undergo a modest revival. A big contributor to that was Aaron Lansky who founded the National Yiddish Book Center, which rescused thousands of Yiddish volumes from depositories and dumpsters: as he puts it to take books “out of the dustbin of history and put them back into use.”

We also hear from YY Jacobson, a rabbi in the Crown Heights section of New York and editor of the Hasidic Yiddish newspaper Algemeiner.  His contribution to the survival of Yiddish is the most overtly religious. Others have cultural or ancestral reasons for investigating the language: people like klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals, novelist Dara Horn, and a family who speak with each other in both English and Yiddish. The teens in the family text message each other in transliterated Yiddish, complete with texting shorthand:  ZG is zei gezunt (be well) and BSH is biz shpeter (until next time/goodbye).

Listen in iTunes or here.

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Haitian Creole on the Beeb, and the fall and rise of Yiddish

Some of the images out of Haiti these past weeks have been heartstopping. They’ve clearly had an effect on decision-makers at the British Broadcasting Corporation.  The BBC is well-known for its radio and TV services in languages other than English. The latest addition is a radio program in Haitian Creole that ran for just a few weeks in the aftermath of the earthquake. The program,  Koneksyon Ayiti/Connection Haiti, was broadcast out of Miami and heard in Haiti via FM relays and on short wave. At the time, many Haitian radio stations were off air, their infracture damaged, many of their staffs  injured or dead. This was at a time when relaying information to the public was crucial:  where to go for food, shelter, medical treatment, etc. Koneksyon Ayiti also put Haitians in touch with loved-ones. There’s a nice explanation here on how the program came into being.

Then the main course in this week’s podcast: the past, present and future of Yiddish, the language that refuses to die. This also comes courtesy of the BBC with a nice slide show here. Once spoken by millions in Europe, Yiddish was nearly wiped out by the Holocaust and through assimilation. That’s why until recently news stories about Yiddish tended to be about its inevitable decline, with the language spoken only by the elderly (pictured: Asya Yanovskaya, one of the last surviving Yiddish speakers of a small town in Belarus).  Today Yiddish survives, and not only as the language that gave English klutz, kosher, kvetch and other evocative expressions. It is undergoing a revival in many parts of Eastern Europe and the United States. The BBC’s Dennis Marks’ documentary (part one of two) focuses on how Yiddish took hold in New York in the mid-twentieth century, and how Yiddish songs and plays influenced American culture.  Some Yiddish expressions are so assimilated into English that non-Yiddish speakers wouldn’t even question the origin of the words. I mean,  I know where putz and chutzpah come from, but nosh? tush?  In  next week’s pod, Marks will tell us how some young American Jews are are trying to keep Yiddish alive for their generation and beyond.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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Paging Dr. Esperanto, and what not to say in Ireland’s parliament

December 15 is the most important day in the calendar for people who speak Esperanto. It is Zamenhof Day, named after the man who dreamed up the idea of a language that the entire planet would one day speak. L.L. Zamenhof (that’s him in center of the photo, the one staring at the camera) was born 150 years ago.  Though his dream was never realized, Esperanto is still spoken — in fact it’s undergoing something of a revival in the internet age. We consider the failure and success of Esperanto, first in a piece I reported for the Big Show on December 15, and then in an interview with Princeton English professor Esther Schor, who’s writing a book on Esperanto. In the piece, you’ll hear from Arika Okrent, author of the fabulous In the Land of Invented Languages. To listen to an extended interview with Okrent on Esperanto, Klingon, Blissymbolics and other made-up languages from July 2009, go here. Also in the piece, listen out for a clip from the 1965 Esperanto language movie Incubus, starring the incomparable William Shatner. Shatner delivers his Esperanto lines in that same jig-jaggy way as he does English on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Other BBC stories on Esperanto are here and here.

After our Esperanto extravaganza, we consider why the Irish parliament bans words such as guttersnipe and brat, but permits certain swearwords. We know this because Irish MP Paul Gogarty recently dropped the F-bomb — and not in a particularly jocular manner — in the Dáil. We get the back story of why certain words — another is yahoo — cannot be uttered in the Irish parliament from Harry McGee of the Irish Times. A document called Salient Rulings of the House lists all manner of old-fashioned expressions as no-nos in debate. The f-word is not among them.

Finally, a follow-up to a previous podcast in which Carol Hills and I talked about baby names that don’t translate well into certain foreign languages.  After that , a Norwegian pod-listener wrote in with some alarming news: if your name is Mark, expect to be teased in Norway. And under no crcumstances name your child Musa. It’s apparently a popular name in Turkey. In Norwegian it refers, coarsely, to female genitalia.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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Words your grandmother taught you in Chinese, Dutch and Yiddish

Did Barack Obama learn a word or two from his grandmother? Well, maybe not — he didn’t grow up with the gran pictured here (it’s his Kenyan stepmother). But many people did learn their very  first foreign words from their grandmothers. The Big Show’s Marco Werman learned a Dutch curse. Nina Porzucki learned a Yiddish word that speaks to a existential Jewish mindset: dafka. Nina’s grandmother didn’t think she was conveying such a Big Idea. She was just describing the stubborn behavior of her granddaughter.

Marilyn Chin learned insults, puns and tongue twisters, many of which later found their way into her poetry. Chin has published three volumes of poems. Many of her poems are linguistic investigations of her own Chinese-Americanism.  Now she’s published her first novel, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen. It’s the story of two Chinese-American twins, Moonie and Mei Ling Wong,  and their search for double happiness. Or maybe single happiness. Double Happiness is just the name of their family restaurant (wordplay and irony abounds). Between episodes of Chinese food delivery gone hilariously wrong — thanks to Mei Ling’s souped-up American need for sex and drugs — the twins enter a mythological world of Chinese fable. From profane to sacred, and back to profane again. In the pod, I interview Marilyn Chin, who like the twins in her novel, had an overly protective Old World grandmother raising her. Chin can still recite her grandmother’s curses and sayings, delivered in the Toisan sub-dialect of Cantonese. She also recites a super-punning poem from her 2002 collection, Rhapsody in Plain Yellow.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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