‘For a goy,’ a Jewish friend once told me, ‘you sure use a lot of Yiddish words’.
‘Yes I do, bubala,’ I replied, ‘and there’s a good reason for that.’ I proceeded to explain why, although I’d been born and raised a Christian (up to a point), I gave free rein to my ‘inner Maureen Lipman’. You see, although my Hungarian father had converted to Protestantism at an early age and lived a secular life, he was forever coloured by the cultural Jewishness of his forebears. And this manifested itself most clearly in the linguistic sphere.
I’ll give you a for-instance. My dapper dad took a dim view of sloppily-dressed people, whom he described as schlamposh, a Hungarianised adjective stemming from the Yiddish schlump, meaning a slob. I inherited this word from him, to the point where it’s always the one that springs to mind when observing a slovenly individual. It’s the perfect, onomatopoeic word.
Another word my parents liked to use (yes, even my Catholic mother) was dreck. Garbage, junk. ‘What’s this dreck?’ I can still hear them say, with a look of disgust, as though examining something yucky stuck to the bottom of a shoe. An evocative word, but for full effect must be spoken with its proper, phlegmy Mitteleuropa pronunciation.
I also remember them referring occasionally to some shady character as a ganef (scoundrel, rascal). Although I’ve never used this word myself, its exotic sound instantly brings back my distant past, the way the madeleine cake did for Proust.
Of course, my family was not the only source of the Yiddishisms I so dearly cherish. You can’t grow up, as I did, amongst the Central European immigrant communities of New York, without being aware of Jewish linguistic flourishes (not unless you’re a bit of a schmo). The German-Hungarian district known as Yorkville, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, was kosher central back in the Sixties, when I was a kid. Many a Saturday did I accompany my parents as they schlepped around from deli to butcher to baker, buying the goods we needed to run our haimisch émigré household.
And then there was all the humour input during my youth from Jewish-American comics on TV and in Hollywood – George Burns, Jack Benny and Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Shelley Berman, Alan King, the Marx Brothers and right up to Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. The funny guys were almost all famously Jewish in those days. And their shtick was often flavoured with a hint of Yiddish. ‘Hey, get a load of the schnozz on that guy!’ and ‘Ha – what a klutz!’ and ‘Let me tell you about my mother-in-law. Boy, has she got some chutzpah!’
Also of lasting influence on me was the smash hit Fiddler on the Roof – first the play, then the movie. One of the best musicals of all time. And as Yiddish as a Matzo ball. I’ve seen it at least half a dozen times and it always makes me cry. Some might think it a tad schmaltzy but not me. I once met its star, Topol, when I was a green young journalist. I spotted him at a celeb-studded event I attended with a borrowed tape recorder and decided to do an impromptu interview. But I was nervous and kept pressing the wrong buttons on the recorder, while he looked at me as if I were a complete nudnik. (This is embarrassing, so please keep shtum about it.)
In my journalistic doings over years, a few particularly apposite Yiddish words have received frequent outings. For example, I might say to myself: oy vey, I’ve got to schmooze that editor again! But then, overcoming my reluctance, I launch into my spiel and pitch a new story idea. If they reject it, I think: what a schmuck. But if they give me the go-ahead, I feel all warm inside: ach, that editor, such a mensch.
It occurs to me that Yiddish should be taught as a second language in British schools. It’s got loads of indispensable words and is clearly easier to pick up than French. Heck, we practically speak it already. So the idea isn’t as meshuggeh as all that.