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A Brief History of Yiddish

October 22, 2020 | by Mark Miller

I’m verklempt over these Yiddish words that have become part of today’s culture.

Did you know that when you give, get, or even talk about a massage, you’re dealing with a word that originated in Portugal as “massa” which means dough, and then changed into amassar which means to knead, then in French to masser, which means to knead or to treat with massage? That “penguin” comes from the Welsh “pen gwyn”, meaning white head? That the term ‘entrepreneur’ is derived from the French verb ‘entreprendre’ which meant to undertake or do something? That “ketchup” was derived from the Chinese “Ke-stiap”, a concoction of pickled fish and spices? That the Arabic word from which ‘lemon’ originates is called ‘Laimun’, defined simply as a yellow citrus fruit? That the word “cookie” came to us from the Dutch term “Koekie”, or cake? That “guru” is from the Sanskrit language and indicates an individual with influential leadership, exceptional knowledge, and deep, thought-provoking intelligence?

So many of our English words and terms are derived from the languages other countries, cultures, and religions, that it would perhaps not surprise you to learn that a multitude of Yiddish words and phrases have become an integral part of American culture. In that sense, Yiddish still lives and has achieved a kind of immortality. As well it should, as it is a colorful, humorous, and deeply expressive language that embodies the variety and vibrancy of life itself. It reflects a culture that has given us so much life, vitality and joy.

If you’ve ever ordered a bagel, a blintz, latkes or lox, attended a bris, described someone as having chutzpah, referred to a shoddy product as dreck, termed a minor malfunction a glitch, ordered kosher food, kvetched about something, complimented someone for being a mensch, or exclaimed “Oy vey!” – you were speaking Yiddish, or at least words derived from their original Yiddish.

But what exactly is Yiddish and how did it originate?

For nearly a thousand years, Yiddish was the primary, and sometimes only, language that Ashkenazi Jews spoke. Unlike most languages, which are spoken by the residents of a particular area or by members of a particular nationality, Yiddish – at the height of its usage – was spoken by millions of Jews of different nationalities all over the globe.

Yiddish is a Germanic language, originating in the 9th century and spoken by the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. It was written in the Hebrew alphabet and contained a mixture of words from Hebrew, German and Slavic languages including Russian, Polish, Czech and Bulgarian.

Prior to the Holocaust, according to Wikipedia, there were 11–13 million speakers of Yiddish among 17 million Jews worldwide. 85% of the approximately 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust were Yiddish speakers, leading to a massive decline in the use of the language. Assimilation following World War II and aliyah, immigration to Israel, further decreased the use of Yiddish both among survivors and among Yiddish-speakers from other countries. However, the number of Yiddish-speakers is increasing in Hasidic communities.

Most of the Jewish immigrants to the New York metropolitan area during the years of Ellis Island considered Yiddish their native language; however, native Yiddish speakers tended not to pass the language on to their children, who assimilated and spoke English. Yiddish was a second language to some and a first language to many. Parents spoke Yiddish only about matters not fit for the ‘kinder’ –. the children.

Many "Yiddishisms", like "Italianisms" and "Spanishisms", entered New York City English, often used by Jews and non-Jews alike, unaware of the linguistic origin of the phrases. Yiddish words used in English were documented extensively by Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish. In 1975, the film Hester Street, much of which is in Yiddish, was released. It was later chosen to be on the Library of Congress National Film Registry for being considered a "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" film.

In 1976, the Canadian-born American author Saul Bellow received the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was fluent in Yiddish, and translated several Yiddish poems and stories into English, including Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Gimpel the Fool". In 1978, Singer, a writer in the Yiddish language, who was born in Poland and lived in the United States, received the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Today, Yiddish words abound in American culture. You are no doubt familiar with “spiel” or “shpiel”, a sales pitch or speech intended to persuade. Less formally, we have “schmooze”, to make small talk or chat. From Fiddler on the Roof, we got “yenta”, meaning “a talkative woman, gossip, or scold.” And in a Barbra Streisand-themed Saturday Night Live comedy sketch featuring Mike Myers, the word “verklempt” was popularized, meaning “choked with emotion.”

Many of the characters Woody Allen played in his movies were described as “nebbishes”, with nebbish defined as an insignificant, pitiful person, a nonentity. Several steps up from that, would be a maven, or expert. But even if you have no expertise, what higher compliment could there be than if you were referred to as a mensch – a decent person or upright human being? Of course, you could very well be a mensch and still be a clutz – a clumsy person.

Do you have a schnoz – a big nose? Don’t let it drive you meshuga – crazy. Have some kosher lox and a knish. People who tease you aren’t worth bupkis – anything, nothing. They’ve got a lot of chutzpah – nerve, trying to antagonize you. Tell ‘em to go nudge – pester someone else. Hey, before you go, you’ve got some schmutz – dirt on your face. I’ll wipe it off if you hand me that schmatte – rag.

According to Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert, in their book, How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, Yiddish is alive and well in America today. “The study of Yiddish thrives in America, among teenagers and senior citizens, the religious and the secular, and everyone in between. Technology has made the language and culture available in wider ways. Young people are studying it. Scholarship related to it is prolific. Its musical rhythms and motifs have been borrowed by other traditions. It is part of movies, television, and radio. And the internet serves up lexicons, memes, recipes, and all sorts of surprising artifacts. Assimilation in the United States has indeed presented Yiddish with challenges, and it has responded impressively, dynamically, demonstrating its flexibility, complexity, and strength.”

And if you’re not impressed by all of that, feh!

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