From The Record, July 21st
To help lighten up our so-far dreary July, I decided to review a classic this month. No, not your Charles Dickens/Jane Austen kind of classic! I’m referring to that venerable tome on Yiddish, The Joys (accent on the “oy”!) of Yiddish. I owned a copy of the original 1968 paperback edition of the late Leo Rosten’s totally delightful work for many years, but eventually replaced it when it became too dog-eared and worn out to read without having it fall apart. The new edition, revised and updated by Lawrence Bush, with wonderful line drawings by R.O. Blechman (including the cover drawing of a stork in flight wearing a yarmulke and delivering the “new edition”) now occupies a place of prominence in my bedside bookshelf, between Born to Kvetch and Growing Up Jewish, and just above The Optimist Sees the Bagel, the Pessimist Sees the Hole. Are you sensing a theme yet? My little collection of Jewish-related books is truly a tiny fraction of the number of such books you might find in a really Jewish household, in which there are entire libraries of books such as Exodus, Marjorie Morningstar, and the complete works of Philip Roth!
When I was growing up in 50s-era suburban New Jersey, my mother would converse with my grandmother and other elderly relatives in Yiddish when she didn’t want my sister or me to know what they were saying. What else was a girl to do except learn a few choice Yiddish phrases, for self-defense purposes? Enter The Joys of Yiddish. Author, humourist, and linguistic scholar Leo Rosten was already one of my favorite writers, and his foray into the world of Yiddish in the North American context did not disappoint. (Of course, I never told my mother that I actually knew at least a few of the words she thought comprised a secret, adults-only language.)
One of the very first things Rosten notes for non-Jewish reader is that Hebrew and Yiddish are very, very different from each other, although there are a few similarities, much like English and French. The language of the Jewish bible, or Old Testament, is Hebrew; the language of the shtetls of Eastern Europe was Yiddish, sometimes erroneously referred to as Jewish, and is a variation of German, with some Hebrew, Russian and various other languages thrown in. Rosten is also quick to point out that, although it is an alphabetically arranged list of words/phrases, this is a wordbook, not a dictionary: As he puts it,
“…a lexicon of certain foreign-born words that
- Are already part of everyday English (chutzpah, schmaltz, schlemiel);
- are rapidly becoming part of English (megillah, shlep, yenta);
- should be part of our noble language, in my opinion, because no English words so exactly, subtly, pungently or picturesquely convey their meaning (shmooz, kvetch, shlimazl, tsatske, etc.)”
There are also many expressions in English that use no Yiddish words but are unmistakably Yiddish in origin: “You should live so long,” “My son, the doctor,” “I need it like a hole in the head,” and “He knows from nothing,”…and many, many more.
Yiddish linguistic devices have also entered the English language, unparalleled in conveying “…nuances of affection, compassion, displeasure, emphasis, disbelief, skepticism, ridicule, sarcasm, scorn.” For example, fearful curses sanctioned by nominal cancellation: “A fire should burn in his heart, God forbid!”
Clearly, how something is said is almost as important as what is being said. Shifting the stress in a sentence can change its meaning completely. As Rosten notes, ‘“Him you trust?” is entirely different and worlds removed from “Him you trust?”’ And this is but a small sample.
Jewish humour is famous the world over (think Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld), and Rosten, who died in 1997, was an undisputed master. Nearly each highlighted word or phrase comes vividly alive through the inclusion of a gently humorous example. To wit:
Bubeleh, a term of endearment, is widely used for “darling, “dear child”, “honey”, “sweetheart”. Jewish mothers call both female and male babies bubeleh. This carries the expectation that the child in the crib will one day be a grandparent [Bubby is an Americanized nickname for Grandma].
A Jewish mother sent her son off to his first day in school with the customary pride and precautionary advice: “So, bubeleh, you’ll be a good boy and obey the teacher? ….When he returned that afternoon, his mother hugged him and kissed him and exclaimed, “So did you like school, bubeleh? You made new friends? You learned something?”
“Yeah,” said the boy. “I learned my name is Irving.”
A combination of Yiddish and English is called, of course, Yinglish, and we hear it everywhere. “In the United States, Jewish immigrants … cheerfully borrowed English words, altered them to suit their own resilient requirements of case, mood, and inflection…” “One thing is certain: It was Yiddish that created the unique and radiant culture, a triumph over excruciating adversity, of the shtetl. And it is in Yiddish that that civilization—so poor, so rich, so realistic, so romantic, so frightened, so brave, so raucous, so sensitive, so anxious, so gallant, so pathetic, so proud, so cynical, so sentimental, so irreverent, so pious, so resigned, so passionate and honorable and majestic—is preserved.”
To read, or even leaf through, this book, offers the reader a poignant look at the Jewish character through language. Today, Yiddish is enjoying renewed life in theatre and literature, and as the subject of scholarly inquiry in higher education.
Nu? So, read it, already! The New Joys of Yiddish, coming soon to Lennoxville Library!!!