Back when I was still working as a manager, several of my employees who had Spanish surnames and identified with Hispanic culture explained to me that they don’t speak Spanish because their parents never taught them the language. Wanting their children to succeed in school and in the Anglo culture, their parents abandoned their native tongue and spoke only English at home. These children grew into adults and regretted having lost a part of their heritage.
One of my employees made an effort to learn Spanish once she began working, but admitted that she’ll never speak the language anywhere near as fluently as she would have had she learned it as a child. I had other employees who married spouses whose first language was Spanish and learned to speak the mother tongue that way. Still others were never able to pick up more than a few rudimentary Spanish phrases. At least one conveyed to me that she feels cheated.
I’m starting to feel the same way about Yiddish.
Granted, I’m one generation removed from where my Hispanic employees were. My mother’s parents, who emigrated to New York City from eastern Europe in the 1920s, spoke fluent Yiddish, along with German, Polish and some Russian. They studied English in night school preliminary to taking and passing their citizenship exams. Once my mom and her sister were born, they spoke only English at home for the same reason that my employees’ Mexican immigrant parents did so. They wanted their children to become good, successful Americans.
Late at night, after the children went to bed, things were different, however. My mother would hear her parents having lengthy conversations, even arguments, in Yiddish and Polish. She remembers my grandmother waking up in the middle of the night and saying something in Polish that sounded like “jestche shitago” (“the baby is crying”) and wondering why she was talking about Chicago.
My father is even one more generation removed from the Old Country. His parents were born in the Bronx, and he never heard his parents speak any language other than English.
Although my mother’s parents mostly stuck to English when the kids were around, their conversation was peppered with the Yiddish words for those things that they either did not know how to translate to English or that had no exact English equivalent. I picked up a tiny fraction of these Yiddish words and phrases from my mother as I was growing up. While I can’t speak Yiddish, I’m grateful that at a least a few of those phrases stuck with me over the years.
Here in northern California, Yiddish is probably more exotic than Afrikaans or Esperanto. In my native New York City, however, a handful of Yiddish phrases (or English-Yiddish hybrid words sometimes called “yinglish”) have made their way into common parlance. Some of these eventually became known throughout the country via TV shows such as Seinfeld. For example, most people in New York (and many more elsewhere) know that tokhes is a Yiddish word for your rear end.
When I was a kid, I would sometimes ask my mother to teach me some Yiddish. She would comply by explaining the meaning of a few phrases, most of which I would promptly forget. So it makes no sense to me that I should still remember kick der finster (“look out the window”). Then there was the time that the entire family broke out in paroxysms of laughter at my attempt to say the word “moon” in Yiddish. From my religious school education, I was familiar with levana, the Hebrew word for moon, which is often used in Yiddish as well. Most commonly, however, the phrase telereh in himmel (literally “the plate in the heavens”) is used for “moon” in Yiddish. Unfortunately, whenever I tried to pronounce this, it came out as tepeleh in himmel, or “the potty chair in heaven.” I still crack up at the thought of shitting in outer space.
Today, my speech is mostly free of Yiddishisms. What I’ve noticed, however, is that when I’m under a lot of stress, and particularly when I am visiting with my parents, my flat California accent devolves into Brooklynese and the Yiddish phrases come to my tongue unbidden. Then there are other times when, from somewhere deep in my subconscious, things that I don’t expect come out of my mouth. My favorite example of this occurred years ago when I was attending law school and renting a room with kitchen privileges from a woman who had probably never seen a Jew before. Being a poor student, I was attempting to learn to cook by trial and error, and one day I asked my poor landlord if she had a ribayzin. She stared at me as if I had lost my mind, and it took me a couple of seconds to realize that I spoken the Yiddish word that I had always used to refer to a hand grater.
My wife, a native of northern California and a Christian, didn’t know a word of Yiddish when we were first married. Over time, she picked up quite a bit from me, causing me to understand that I still use more than a few Yiddish words that somehow sneak into my vocabulary when I’m not paying attention. Not only does she know what I mean when I mention a ribayzin, but she herself often refers to schmutz (dirt).
When I get on the phone with my mother, however, all bets are off. I catch myself referring to situations as fafaln (hopeless) or bashert (fated to be) and garments as being oesgevoxen (outgrown) or oesgekrokhen (the colorful Yiddish word for “threadbare” that literally means “crawled out,” as if the missing fibers had grown little legs and crawled away). I may refer to a bad joke as schmaltz (the Yiddish idiom for “corny” that literally means “chicken fat”) or my grandniece as a shayna maydele (pretty girl). If I’m having a pity party due to my current unsuccessful job search, I may intone oy vay is mir (“oh woe is me”). If I’m upset with someone, I may suggest that he or she is in serious need of a zetz in kopf (smack upside the head). I may refer to my unemployment check as a lokh foon a baygel (“nothing” — literally “the hole from a bagel”) or bupkes (“a hill of beans” — literally “tiny pieces of shit”). And if I’m attempting to refer to someone as a senior citizen (not my parents, mind you), I’ll probably call him or her an alter kocker (“old fart”).
Make no mistake, Yiddish contains many earthy, raw, base, even obscene phrases, just as every language does. Unfortunately, more than a few of these have become fairly well-known. And let me tell you, some of these are fighting words. For example, I hear that my mother and my sister recently had a screaming argument over the phone regarding the names of their respective cats. (Sadly, I’m not kidding.) My sister claims that my mother’s cat’s name is actually the Yiddish idiom for a certain male body part while my mother claims that my sister’s cat’s name is actually an anti-Semitic ethnic slur for “Jews.”
I try to stay as far away as possible from this kind of stuff. If I need to get off the phone because it’s late, I might suggest that my mother gay schlufen (“go to sleep”). But I won’t cast aspersions on anyone’s punim (face), nor will I refer to anyone as a meeskite (ugly) or a mamzer (bastard).
And I most certainly will not tell anyone to gay in dred (“go to hell”). I still remember the time, over thirty years ago, when my parents had a three-day fight after my father used that one on my mother.