A little Yiddish

Most of you know that I speak a little Yiddish which I picked up from my Grandma Rose. Sometimes it seems that a Yiddish word or phrase perfectly captures the essence of a situation or describes a person in a way that just doesn’t exist in English. Though I toss off these words and phrases with ease, I never knew anything about the history of the language, so I decided to do some research.

From Aaron Lansky’s very interesting book titled Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books, I discovered that Yiddish first emerged in the 10th or 11th century among Jews who lived along the banks of the Rhine River. Like “Black” English, it became the “in” language spoken by people who marginalized and were often separated  (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not) from the majority population (in this early case, Germany). Because the first Jews to speak it incorporated their Hebrew roots, they used the Hebrew alphabet, deriving as much as 20 percent of the vocabulary from both Hebrew (the language of the Torah) and Aramaic (the language of the later sections of the Talmud). When the Jews were expelled from much of Western Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, many moved to what was then the undeveloped Polish empire. In that migration, they added local Slavic languages to their Yiddish including Polish, Ukrainian, and White Russian. Those settlers represent most of the ancestors of American Jews today.

Before the second half of the 19th century, Yiddish was primarily a spoken language. According to Lansky, what little Yiddish literature did exist up to then was intended for women or uneducated men who were unable to read Hebrew. Imagine!  However, with the influence of the Western Enlightenment, by the early 20th century, there was a vast collection of written cultural works – newspapers, magazines, plays, books, music – some even written by women!

Still, many Jewish intellectuals were loath to promote Yiddish as anything more than bastardized German – not a language at all and certainly nothing to be proud of – especially for those anxious to assimilate into mainstream American. I know if my mother hadn’t died when I was 7, I’d never have learned any Yiddish at all. It was only because my Grandma Rose raised me that I picked up at least some words and phrases. Though I really can’t speak it well, there is something about the language that makes me smile- especially when I think of Grandma Rose and her friends coming by the apartment in Brooklyn to farbengen – to eat, talk and argue. Passionate discussions about anything from parenting to politics over a plate of blintzes with sour cream or a bowl of cabbage soup- that’s what I remember from my childhood and I guess that’s where I get what my boyfriend Reed calls my “need to question everything, my love of making waves”.

To quote Lansky who was describing his difficulties getting Jewish philanthropists to fund his project to save Yiddish books, “”for many…Yiddish was worse than dead; it was a specter, an unwelcome reminder of the immigrant culture they had worked so hard to forget.” What’s really interesting is that there’s apparently a renewed interest in the language among some of my generation (I’m 21 – born in 1974). And if you don’t believe me, read Lansky’s book or go to the National Yiddish Website

In future blogs, I’ll try to explain some of the Yiddish words in Dead Air for those of you who need some translation.


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