Please Explain: Yiddish

Friday, September 13, 2013

Chutzpah, glitch, klutz, schlep, and tchotchke are all Yiddish words that have entered into everyday usage. On this week’s Please Explain, we’ll find out all about the Yiddish language—where it comes from, how it’s influenced our culture, and its resurgence. We’re joined by Jonathan Brent, Executive Director at YIVO Institute For Jewish Research, and  Eddy Portnoy, Academic Advisor at YIVO Institute For Jewish Research.


Jonathan Brent and Eddy Portnoy

Comments [26]

Jagatheesan Chandrasekharan from Bangalore

Classical Yiddish

3. כאַגגאַוויסàנאַ סוטטאַ. -
די רהינאָסעראָס.

קלאסישע ייִדיש

58. מיטאַרבעטער איידעלע פריינט, וואס האָבן געלערנט דעם לערנען, בער עס און קען לערנען עס,
ווייסט די מינינגז דיספּעל ספקות, און אָפּצאָל אַליין ווי די איין כאָרנד ריינאַסעראַס.

Nov. 09 2013 10:58 PM
Bennett Muraskin from Parsippany, NJ

Yiddish literature worth its salt did not begin to be written until the mid-19th century, or maybe a few years earlier.

Everything before than was religious or completely derivative if non-Jewish literature.

Oct. 17 2013 03:55 PM

As an "Ultra" Orthodox Jew I consider myself a native Yiddish speaker (although my first language is actually English, and there surely are those out there who are considerably more fluent than I).

To address some of the comments.

Bennett Windheim:
Yes, "macht nicht vissendik" (lit. Make [like] not knowing) is accurate Yiddish and is a phrase that is still in constant use.

It is true, Yiddish is extremely similar to German as well as Swiss. The noticeable differences are the sprinkling of Hebrew and Aramaic(language of the Talmud) words and phrases, considerable differences in pronunciation, and the use of different scripts for writing (Hebrew letters vs Latin letters).

I've had the wonderful experience of overhearing a conversation in Swiss or German, being able to pick out most of the words, and understanding the gist of the discussion. Recently, I was watching a documentary where many interviews were in German, and I was able to follow most of what was said without resorting to the English subtitles. Its actually really exhilarating to discover that I can understand new languages without having to study them in depth!

Sep. 16 2013 03:45 PM
Jascha from Queens

@LL from UWS - re: Yiddish v. Alsatian: Yiddish and Swiss German also are not dissimilar. In fact, I've heard Swiss German been referred to as Alpen-Yiddish; but mind you, that was a joke by a Swiss Jew.

At any rate, Alsatian, Alemannisch (the dialect spoken in the State of Baden, South-Western Germany) and Swiss German all are geographically and linguistically close.

My wife's (American) grandparents used to travel to Switzerland in the 50s and reported that, in a pinch, they were able to get understood in Yiddish.

Having grown up in Switzerland, I'm fluent in Swiss German but while my dad's Yiddish was still quite good (his parents immigrated from Poland), sadly, mine is reduced to the usual "Newyorkese": I shlep to work and sit on my tuches, etc. etc.

When I overhear Chassidim speaking to each other in Yiddish in the street, I can barely make out a word - because they speak fast, but when I read it, I understand at least 75%. I reckon most German speakers would (if they read Hebrew letters, that is....)

Sep. 16 2013 12:58 PM
Nancy from Los Angeles

Loved this show.....Have studied basic Yiddish here in LA.....

Sep. 16 2013 12:56 PM

1. My brother took a Yiddish course at SUNY Stoneybrook decades ago. I chat with him in Yiddish. 2. An early grammarian for Yiddish was L.L. Zamenhof, creator of the easy, neutral second language, Esperanto. His Yiddish grammar manuscript is in the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. When Esperanto was created Yiddish was the majority language of his birth city, Bialystok. (The last known Jewish resident died a few years ago in Bialystok.) A museum for L.L. Zamenhof was opened there nearly simultaneously. (Zamenhof was mostly in Warsaw as an adult.)

Sep. 14 2013 01:25 PM
Mike from Tribeca

Often when he stubbed his toe or hit his thumb with a hammer, my Irish Catholic grandfather, who grew up in the slums of Montreal, would shout some choice Yiddishisms that he'd learned from his neighbors, and were definitely not meant to be heard by the ears of children.

Sep. 13 2013 02:03 PM
thatgirl from manhattan

For the caller from the LES: or my fave compound Yiddish word, which is unga shtupped!

Sep. 13 2013 01:57 PM
LL from UWS

An Alsatian man gave a talk at The National Arts Club about Alsatian and Yiddish. He and the writer, Michael Skakun, could communicate without knowing each other's language if Michael Skakun took out the Hebrew words.

Yiddish curses--great collection by Sholem Aleichem of his step-mother's curses.

My grandfather cursed his card playing partner with: "May a trolley car grow in your stomach and give you electric shocks! And may the conductor steal nickels!!"

Sep. 13 2013 01:57 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

I would make one suggestion for non-Jews who want to become stand up comedians, to look into taking a course in Yiddish.

A simple example would be the simple invective "Kiss my ass" versus the Yiddish "Kish mir in tuchis." Both say the same thing, but the inclusion of the "in" the tuchis deepens its meaning, if you get my drift. "Kish mir in tuchis" has far more impact than merely "Kiss my ass." It's the gravity of it :)

Sep. 13 2013 01:56 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I've actually met (separately) 2 Israelis who are getting PhDs in Yiddish studies/literature!

Sep. 13 2013 01:51 PM

The word yenta was not invented in America. It existed a long time in Russia. My mother graduated from Yiddish school in Russia, was fluent in reading and writing. When we lived in Russia, she used this word very often when I was talking gossip or small talk.

Sep. 13 2013 01:51 PM

I referred to Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish for the final word on spelling when I made T-shirts for a marathon with my motto: A journey of 26.2 miles begins with a single shlep.

I've noticed that folks seem to prefer to spell it schlep from the German schleppen.

Also, I took a Yiddish class at Yivo years ago and was told that the Modern Yiddish word for email is blitzpost as compared to shlep-post. Is that true or was the teacher pulling my leg? And is Modern Yiddish a real thing?

Sep. 13 2013 01:49 PM
Debbie from Woodmere

Queens College offered Yiddish when I attended there.

Sep. 13 2013 01:48 PM
Stephen from Teaneck

Could you talk about Yeshivish, the newly developing Judeo-English patois?

Sep. 13 2013 01:45 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Yenta is Yiddish for Yvette, and was the name of my blessed grandmother who was murdered in the Ghetto of Boremel. Of course, a "yenta" has come to mean busybody and a gossip always nosing into other people's business.

Sep. 13 2013 01:43 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

The Zionists were very much opposed to Yiddish and fought it tooth and nail in Israel, to make sure that Hebrew be the national language again. Yiddish represented the ghetto and the weak, helpless Jew who can be slaughtered at will. Just a language for standup comedians and fools. It's only in recent decades that some secular Jews in Israel have taken up Yiddish for fun, or for the ultraorthodox, but never again for serious literature. But Yiddish literature was quite rich at one time.

Sep. 13 2013 01:38 PM
Mike from Tribeca

Off topic but apropos of something, congratulations to Philip Levine, the former U.S. poet laureate and WNYC's former Poet in Residence, for being awarded the Academy of American Poets’ Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievement.

Sep. 13 2013 01:36 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

To Fred

Already by the time of Jesus, many Jews lived in Rome. As a result of the Jewish revolts, many Jews were brought as slaves to Rome, but were soon purchased by their Jewish brethren in Rome. Some say more than 30,000 Jews were brought as slaves and redeemed. The Romans used the money to build the Colosseum. Soon thereafter, some Jews followed the Roman armies as traders into the Rhineland. The first Roman city in Germania was Koln (Cologne). It is said that Hebrew was heard spoken in Cologne, and we have records proving that Jews lived in Cologne at least from the 3rd century. Yiddish developed form a mixing of Hebrew and that old German from that period, and Hebrew characters are used to write Yiddish.
Jews lived in the Rhineland but later were expelled and many went further east into what became Poland and in the region. They met up with converted Jews from the Khazars and taught them Yiddish as well.

Sep. 13 2013 01:30 PM
Fred from NYC

Could you talk a bit about the origins and history of Yiddish. I am German but could understand a lot of the conversations of my ex-girlfriend's parents who came here from Eastern Europe.
My last name is Schwarz, the German word for black, yet many people here in NYC automatically assume that I must be Jewish???

Sep. 13 2013 01:15 PM
Lothar Brieger from Manhattan

The term "shtum" for 'Quiet" has become very popular in the UK but never caught on here.

Sep. 13 2013 01:12 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Yiddish is the funniest language, but only if you understand it. It is impossible to transmit it to non-Yiddish audiences via another language. It always falls flat. You gotta be a Jew for it to resonate. All you goyim and non-Yiddish speakers don't know what you're missing.

Sep. 13 2013 12:05 PM
Brian Zumhagen from Queens

People often describe Yiddish as a dying, or even as a dead language, but I find myself listening in on Yiddish conversations all the time on NYC streets and subways. It's just that it's almost always ultra-orthodox Jews having the conversations. The gulf between those communities and secular Yiddishists in academia is longstanding. I'd love to hear Eddy's take on ways that scholars and other enthusiasts can bridge that gap.

Sep. 13 2013 10:57 AM
Bennett Windheim from New York

@LeonardLopate My dad had a great expression. When his advice what just to "pretend like you don't know nothing" he'd say, "Just macht nicht vissen dik". E.g. You've learned your friends are getting a divorce, but you're not supposed to know. "Just macht nicht vissen dik." Don't know if it's legit Yiddish, but I've always loved this expression and use it the confusion of everyone I ever say it to.

Sep. 13 2013 10:27 AM
Elaine from Baltimore

Ed: the language you are referring to is called Ladino. Maybe you were thinking of Marrano Jews - a disparaging term for the Converso Jews of Spain and Portugal during the Spanish inquisition who were forced to convert to Christianity but still secretly practiced Judaism.

Sep. 13 2013 10:19 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Please compare Yiddish with the Jewish dialect that came out of Spain - begins with an 'm', thanks.

Sep. 13 2013 09:06 AM

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