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New York - The Yiddish You Speak: A Clue To Who You Are?

Published on: June 17, 2012 09:08 PM
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New York - Talk with my fifty-something friend Alysa, and you’ll hear her lace her conversation with Yiddish words like plotz (burst), oy vey iz mir (woe is me), schlep (drag), nudnik (pest), meshuga (crazy) and schmooze (chat).

Our friend Judy tends to run on the softer side, embracing words like mamma sheyna (beautiful little lady), kinderlach (children), nachas (joy), kvell (revel in happiness), and gai shluffy (go to sleep).

And me? The Yiddish I seem to favor runs to the likes of schnorrer (beggar), tsooris (troubles), schmatta (cheap clothing), fahrshtinkenne (rotten), fercockt (stinky), and hok a chainik (jabber on).

Notice a pattern here? Humor in the first case, endearment in the second, grouchiness in the third.

Alysa, ever the detective with her Yiddishe kop (head), sniffed out this pattern and postulated a Sherlock Holmes-worthy theory: Not only do the Yiddish words and expressions you heard as a child tell a lot about the family you came from, but the ones you use often as an adult tell a lot about you today.


This is all unscientific, of course, but based on my own personal experience, I must concur. Of course, people who speak Yiddish but are not fluent in the language know many words and expressions, some of which have crept into everyday English, but I have observed that they have a tendency to use the same words and expressions over and over again.

To the extent that this is true, I might conjecture that the Yiddish we use is like a verbal fingerprint. In other words, certain conclusions may be drawn about a person with regard to temperament, disposition, personality and upbringing.

As I was growing up, my mother spoke Yiddish when she didn’t want her children to understand what she was saying. But my three brothers and I often got the gist, until, as in learning any second language, we actually came to understand many of the words.

For me, the language was like a linguistic well that I eventually dipped into for everyday use, but as it was spoken in my home, it had a preponderance of negative words and expressions. It was those negative words and expressions that stuck with me and is the Yiddish I most often pepper my conversations with today.

My parents were loving and wonderful, but my mother… how can I say this tactfully… kvetched (complained) a lot. And while I consider myself today to be a well-adjusted person, I have some of my mother in me, and that kvetchiness expresses itself in Yiddish.

In other words, the Yiddishe apple doesn’t fall far from the Yiddishe tree.

To be sure, Yiddish is a wonderful language with its own idiosyncratic words, idioms and phrases. As with other languages, you just can’t find any equivalent in English to convey the same meanings or nuances that many Yiddish words and expressions have.

But from my second-generation purview, what I’ve observed about the Yiddish language – and what I especially like about it – is that it is a language with an array of colorful words and expressions of endearment, and, conversely, of annoyance. It is also, to my American sensibilities – and as many a standup comedian knows – funny.

Altte kakker (old fogey), chazzer (pig), draycup (mixed-up person), shmendrik (loser), momzer (bastard), er frest vi a ferd (he eats like a horse) – these are disparaging words and expressions that have a ring of humor to them because they are stock descriptions that were passed down and often perceived as funny stereotypes.

Tatelleh (precious boy), maalechel (angel), zeeskeit (sweet one), dee bist a lechtig kind (you are a child that brings light), tzaddikel (righteous one), mensch (good person) – these are words of endearment that can make the recipient feel special in ways that other languages can’t impart. They are warm, tender words that bestow a unique kind of affection.

My friends Alysa and Judy both have affable dispositions, to be sure. They each know a number of Yiddish words, but in conversations with them I notice a repetition of the ones I’ve mentioned. Accordingly, Alysa has a sharp sense of humor, whereas Judy is soft-spoken – right on the mark with this Yiddish-verbal fingerprint theory.

So what do you make of this? Are you the Yiddish you speak? Are you a reflection of your Yiddish? As I said, it’s all observational and not a bit scientific. But as empirical data goes (at least for me), there might be a grain of truth to it.

Think about it, bubeleh.

Content is provided courtesy of the Jerusalem Post

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Read Comments (6)  —  Post Yours »


 Jun 17, 2012 at 11:35 PM Rachel W. Says:

Narish geredt! It all depends on the day, the mood, and the company.


 Jun 18, 2012 at 12:29 AM ffkrn Says:

Abi gezint......


 Jun 18, 2012 at 06:10 AM bewhiskered Says:

Concerning the author of this article:

ער איז נישט א גרויסער חכם און נישט א קליינער נער


 Jun 18, 2012 at 09:44 AM Knaper_Chuchem Says:

This article reminds when being in Israel I noticed that every Israeli - regardless of his fluency in english - frequents the four letter word... Does this say anything about the character of an entire nation? Or perhaps their upbringing?


 Jun 18, 2012 at 12:18 PM komike Says:

What if you neither heard nor spoke Yiddish at home or really anywhere?Are you still Jewish???


 Jun 18, 2012 at 05:37 PM ShmuelG Says:

Reply to #4  
Knaper_Chuchem Says:

This article reminds when being in Israel I noticed that every Israeli - regardless of his fluency in english - frequents the four letter word... Does this say anything about the character of an entire nation? Or perhaps their upbringing?

It certainly does. Most Israeli men are very crude and, well, let's be honest, obnoxious. How could it not have an almost indelible imprint on their sons?


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