While the popularity of the Yiddish language has diminished, it is still an integral part of Jewish culture.
My first clinical position as a young physician in the 1970s was working for the clinic’s Jewish owner, a doctor in his late 50s. Knowing I was Jewish, he often spoke to me in hushed Yiddish. For 13 years I nodded and smiled knowingly whenever he took me aside to tell me something he didn’t want anyone else to hear. I can now confess that, alav hashalom (peace be upon him), I understood maybe one word in 20.
In reading through so many of the interesting posts on the Jewish History Facebook page, the stories, the food, the people and places of treasured memory, there is often a common thread, either spoken or implied, that bridges generations past and present to one another. And that’s our Mamaloshen, our mother tongue: Yiddish. It is an integral part of our cultural mosaic, forming the nexus that bonds us to our unique heritage.
Most of our English words are Latin derivatives. I took Latin for two years; it is very technical and sterile, almost devoid of emotional depth. But whereas Latin may be the language of the brain, Yiddish is the language of the heart. It seems to emanate from deep within the soul, embracing us with its nuance and warmth.
I wish only to pay homage to this wonderful, rich language that was spoken frequently by my father’s generation (often to keep secrets from the kinder, or children). Sadly, Yiddish is now just a quaint, fading remnant of its former self, sustained by descriptive words or phrases and epithets.
I believe that Yiddish is the most descriptive of all languages. Everything else appears anemic and two-dimensional in comparison. It’s almost like comparing a painting to a sculpture.
“Fat” in English becomes shmaltz in Yiddish; the word almost oozes out of our mouths as it reminds us of the taste and globby, soft, smooth texture of our Bubbie’s knadlach (matzah balls) with chicken fat. It was the first thing I asked for after they pulled out the chest tubes following my bypass surgery, but sadly, it wasn’t on the heart-friendly menu at Beaumont.
One of my personal favorites is shmatte. It makes me smile whenever I say it. I can sense its dismissive connotation as you visualize every detail of the ragged old garment. The word also implies a negative critique of the wearer, as in, “Look at that woman, wearing such a shmatte!”
Tchotchke, which has, at last count, 19 different spellings, is the catch-all word for anything of little value, yet the word is not necessarily demeaning because it can include items of fond memory or interest. The word is almost playful and much more descriptive than its English equivalent, “knickknacks.” It has the added bonus of amusing us when non-Jews try using it in a sentence.
“Pride” in English becomes kvell in Yiddish. You can almost feel your chest swell with happiness as it comes from deep within your soul.
Saying kvetch in Yiddish actually contorts your mouth, mirroring the complaining, cantankerous mood it represents.
Meshuganeh, describing a crazy person or a state of mind, requires almost no translation at all; but it helps if you can roll your eyes and stick your tongue out at the same time. It’s used so often, it has its own abbreviations: meshugah or meshug.
The word “shame,” often just a mild reproach in English, becomes the much more visceral shandah in Yiddish. The word is often spoken slowly to add emphasis and in somber tones describe the offense. You can really feel the severity of the condemnation.
Nosh. You gotta love “nosh,” a quick little snack which is reflected by its single-syllable pronunciation. You can actually feel the anticipated joy of something special to eat when you say it. I always thought the best name for a deli, hands down, was the Nosherie! Genius!
Schlep. Describes not just the act of carrying something, but also imparts an additional nuance: the mental image of the struggling schlepper, usually me, huffing and puffing.
I could go on, but I’ll leave it to you to fill in your own special words and memories.
Zei gezunt (Be healthy).
Dr. Fredric Gold is a retired physician, residing in Bloomfield Hills, who tries to see the humorous side of life.