I grew up in a home where Yiddish and Yinglish were spoken – especially when someone said, "Sha. Not in front of the kinder!" Never have seven words so tantalized us. So naturally, by age eight, our fluency in Yiddish was mostly limited to the bad words.
Most frustrating were the jokes. Picture it. Our relatives around the table, listening to Uncle Hymie tell a joke – in broken English. After deliciously, Yinglishly described farmers, shlimazls, and a trainload of evil soldiers, these stories took at least 15 minutes to set up. There we were, my brother and I, along with a myriad of young cousins, listening raptly, eager to hear the punch line already. Finally, Uncle Hymie would puff up for his big finish ... "And then the shlimazl said ............... A finstere cholem auf dein kopf und auf dein hent und fiss."
The adults would collapse, repeating the ending. "But what did the shlimazl say?!" we'd beg. Their tears of hysteria in free-fall, they'd reply in unison, "Not in front of the kinder!"
We grew up punch line-challenged. It was clear when our relatives came here, they relished their inalienable right to say what they wanted, when they wanted in Yiddish – and torture us.
They relished their inalienable right to say what they wanted, when they wanted in Yiddish – and torture us.
Even as a child, I understood the power of Yiddish. Never in the history of language have so few words stood "in" for so many. For example, the word "mensch" means "person." But when a Yiddish-speaker uses it to make a point, it means a person. A gutte neshuma. A mensch among menches. (He's the one who donates to Israel and doesn't want a dinner in his honor.) That one word is a small thesaurus of adjectives for humanity, integrity, and goodness. Such is the majesty of Yiddish.
In fact there are thoughts I simply can't express without Yiddish. "Chutzpah" means "nerve." But way more. In humor or anger, English just doesn't cut it. Listen...
"Mrs. Farber had the nerve to bring her own turkey to our house for Thanksgiving."
"Mrs. Farber had the chutzpah to shlep her own turkey to our house on Thanksgiving!"
The first is way too polite, and probably ends the issue. The second is felt down to the spleen. "What an insult! Did that yenta think I wouldn't make enough? Was that witch showing off her hotsy totsy silver serving plate? Can you believe a normal human would do such a thing?! This, I'm getting to the bottom of!"
"Nerve" wouldn't make it onto the runway.
In the whole of Yiddish, there's no word that constitutes an emotional dictionary more than -- "oy." Those two little letters can indicate surprise, pain, relief, despair, or horror – for starters. The meaning varies from, "Oy, I gained five pounds" to "The IRS is auditing?! Oy Vey!" (The "Vey" adding more woe to the "oy.") Bigger than "too bad," it comes from the kishkas of Jewish trials.
On a similar note, "nu" registers anything from a sigh, a grimace, a sneer, to a grunt. Together, "oy" and "nu" make a Yiddish symphony!
"Nu?" said Dora.
"Nu," said Ruthie
"Nu??" said Leah
"Alright, already," said Dora. "This week I'll bring the bobka to Sisterhood."
Add a bissel superstition to the language of the persecuted and you get exquisitely executed euphemism and criticism. Heaven forbid anyone should think anything's going well, the evil eye may snatch it. Many a Yiddishe parent felt it was safer not to tempt fate by "happy" talk – or over-talking.
"So, your son moved to Park Avenue?"
"Eh ... it's a street."
"Mazel Tov! Your Rachel just got promoted!"
"Let's hope she keeps it."
"The pool dad put in is great."
"With his mazel he'll break his back with his swan dives."
My family, as most Yiddish speakers who came to the Golden Land, learned English, or more precisely, "Yinglish." But they held onto their "untranslatable" words, cadences, and style, while creating zingy new word meanings. Especially when the need for sarcasm arose, which, of course, was always.
If the Queen uses the word "lovely," you kvell. If my late mother said it, my brother and I would get excema. Here's what she'd say ... and what she meant.
"Darling, on you, it looks lovely." (Burn it.)
"Joshua, your girlfriend? Lovely, just lovely." (Bring me the Rolaids.)
"Mamala, your gift ... it was a lovely thought." (You couldn't have a better one?)
Which brings us to the Queen of Yinglish – the Question! Between a religion that reveres the Art of Debate, and our precarious relationship with the world, answering a question with a question was safer. I was 25 before I'd commit to a declarative sentence. A typical discussion: MA: "Uncle Moe told me a single lawyer joined the Temple. So come this Friday?"
ME: "How's Uncle David?"
DAD: "Would it kill you to come?"
ME: "Is his prostate still acting up?"
MA: "What are we, proctologists?
ME: "Will you ask him?
MA and DAD: "Oy ... why do we bother?"
My late mother also gestured to ward off evil eyes. One of her favorites was the ubiquitous, ever handy – spit. Heaven forbid, she'd say, "I hope my son passed his entrance exams – spitspitspit"– the neighbors could water their lawns.
"I hope my son passed his entrance exams – spitspitspit"– the neighbors could water their lawns.
To be fair, my family also learned "Englishisms." There was the great debate of 1968. Someone raised the question: "How do you say 'Happy Birthday' in Yiddish?" Oy, such goings on! My mother was stumped, and therein began a Yiddish version of "telephone" that could rival the Israeli underground. Ma called Tanta Norma who pretended to know. Dad asked the rabbi who referred us to a Yiddish teacher for a "literal" translation. Uncle Giddy disagreed violently. Cousin Malka, our first Ivy League graduate, cogitated. Clearly, the cheery phrase wasn't part of the Yiddish lexicon when running from Cossacks. A delegation met. Ma served cake. Finally, bubbe, virtual lightbulb overhead yelled her version of "Eureka!" A hush descended as our matriarch, swelling with pride, announced, "... The Yiddish is.... 'Heppy Boyzay!'"
Today, they're gone, these Yiddish speakers of my youth. I miss them every day. Yet their voices still echo. The words spoken in shtetls throughout Europe reverberate with a richness that is far more a Jewish experience, than merely a language.
My mother always called me 'a shaineh maidel.' When she died, I remember thinking no one in the world would ever call me a shaineh maidel again ... and mean quite the same thing.
Marnie Winston-Macauley is the author of "Yiddishe Mamas: The Truth About the Jewish Mother" and the award-winning "A Little Joy, A Little Oy" 2008 calendar. Her 2009 calendar can be pre-ordered on Amazon.