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The oys of Yiddish

Your kids will learn Hebrew, so why not talk about them in Yiddish?

Ask a middle-aged British Jew if they know any Yiddish and they’ll say, “Well, yes, I picked some up as a child, as my parents always used to speak it when they didn’t want us to understand — things that couldn’t be said in front of the kinderlach.”

As a middle-aged British Jew, however, I’ve just realized that I’ve replaced Yiddish with Hebrew for the same purposes. In fact, I just asked my 14-year-old daughter what Yiddish meant to her. Her answer: “Old ladies wagging their fingers.” I have to rectify this situation on two counts: first, my kids’ Hebrew is improving, so it’s a waste of time to hope they don’t catch on, and second, I love Yiddish — and I would hate for it to die out.

Yiddish: A 'nu' lease on life? (photo credit: CC BY-SA twicepix, Flickr)
Yiddish: A 'nu' lease on life?

My peer group, happily, still uses lots of Yiddish. In fact, I just checked my Facebook page and someone has written, referring to the English weather, “Another ferkackty roof up kind of day.”

Not quite how I would have spelled it, but I get the sentiment.

Jews don’t like to be stereotyped, but ech, if we do it to ourselves then it’s not so bad. And if Jackie Mason does it then it’s positively hilarious. One such example is that we aren’t happy unless we’re complaining. When I think of the Yiddish words that I know, then indeed, most of them are negative.

Verkackte is a perfect example of this, and don’t make me explain the root of this one. Verschtunkene, verschimelt and verkrimpt are also fine, miserable examples, and all words that I remember my mum using in my youth:

Don’t put your verschtunkene socks in with my delicates.

If you don’t wrap the cheese, it’ll go verschimelt.

Your father’s verkrimpt again.

So Leeds 17 in the 1970s and 1980s was a hive of Yiddish activity. But alas, our German ancestors may have done more than just kvetch if they could have heard our corruptions. Sei gesunt became “seigy,” a farewell greeting. A schnorrer became a “right schnozz,” and there were many words, mostly pejorative, for a gentile. Just as the Inuit have myriad words for snow, our parents had countless ones for the poor cleaning lady. (I say “poor” cleaning lady, but ours was anything but, as my mother always sent her home with kosher delicacies and “things to try.”)

When I moved south to London, it became apparent that some Yiddish was spoken differently here. Actually, there are some words that nobody has even heard of. For example, I haven’t heard anyone say “nedogidacht” in about 20 years. The obvious ones are “bagel and baigel,” “schlep” and “schlap,” “schlof” and “schluf.” But my husband and I disagree, lots, and in this case, on whether the correct word is “sermischt” or “fermischt.” Either way, it’s another example of a lovely word that has no exact translation in English.

We associate New Yorkers with Yiddish, but now the cockneys are at it too. The producers of Eastenders love to slip a bit in amongst the Cockney Rhyming Slang: “I’m just taking my trouble and strife for a Ruby Murray but she ain’t half hucking mein kopf.” I’m belaboring the point a little; call it artistic license. In reality, I had to explain to my non-Jewish colleague the difference between “sedrate” and “sedate” even though she’d been working for a Jewish organization for seven years.

My paternal grandmother was born in Dublin and used more than a smattering of heartfelt Yiddish. When she said “oy weh ist mir,” you really did feel her pain. Not the biggest optimist in the world; everything was a “verschlepte krenk.” If you didn’t have much about you, you were “on salz” (“on” from the German word “ohne,” meaning “without”). But what she lacked in joie de vivre she made up for in kindness. The yakelti or dinst (cleaning lady) was treated like a princess in every way but in name, and she made plated meals for the gardeners. (One of my earliest memories is of plastic-wrapped gedempte chicken and salad with bits of ice on top. She never did get around to having that thermostat on the fridge fixed.)

I was used to my own family’s Yiddish and it wasn’t strange for me to hear my dad express what a “mechiah” it was to lie “oyschkisprayt” in the sun, in his own back garden. So, in the same way, when my grandma called me a faygele it was a term of endearment meaning a little bird, nothing else. However, when my boyfriend from London (now my husband) first met her, and she got over the fact that he was 100% kosher despite the blonde hair and blue eyes, he was rather taken aback to be called a faygele.

A faygele (photo credit: Haim Shohat/Flash90)
A faygele

So keep using Yiddish, folks. Your kids will learn Hebrew anyway, so talk about them in Yiddish. We need to keep Yiddish alive. After all, what other language has a word for a daughter- or son-in-law’s parents – machatenester? (I love that word – it sounds like an amalgamation between a Jewish busybody and a racquet-swinging celebrity.)

Yiddish rules. Oy vay.

About the Author
Author of Two Kids One Bathroom for The Jewish News. (Oh and there's a husband too.)