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What chutzpah! I should schmooze with that schmegeggie? Oy, vey! Yes, we're talking Yiddish here, the fershlugginer Jewish language that refused to die. After being urged by Ksenya Gurshtein, an up-and-coming blogger, curator, and art historian, I added a Yiddish page to the Coffeeblog. As a kid, however, I was encouraged to avoid the use of Yiddish around starchy white Protestant Anglo-Saxons and other neighbors who might look down on this all-too-colorful linguistic remnant of the East European ghetto, or at the very least, find it bizarre, very foreign, and well, too Jewish. And they should have found it very, very Jewish. Because Yiddish is, you should pardon me for saying so, very, very Jewish. Oy, is it Jewish! In fact, Yiddish means "Jewish." In Yiddish. As a kid I heard some adults call the language "Jewish" rather than Yiddish. They were speaking English when they said that, of course.
Back in the 1960's, when I was making my Jewish Hadj, I heard a joke. (What's a Jewish Hadj? Why a trip to Israel, of course. But I mean another joke.) The Israelis were experiencing, as they always do, culture shock among the sabras (native-born Israelis who grew up speaking Hebrew), old Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants to Palestine who were nearing the end of their lives, and the numerous Jewish immigrant groups arriving at the time who did not speak Hebrew well.
So, what was the joke? Here it goes:
What are the stages of life of a Jew?
- Speaking Yiddish.
Well, it seemed funny at the time. Now, that I'm 65 and revisiting Yiddish all of a sudden it's not so funny. But, actually, I don't speak Yiddish, like many who still do. Yiddish, proclaimed a dead language during the last century, is not going to the gas ovens of history without a fight.
So, tell me, you ask, what is this Yiddish? (OK, you didn't ask but I'm going to tell you anyhow.) Philologists call it Judaeo-German, because it is the language spoken by Jews who lived in Germany (called Ashkenaz, a Biblical place-name, by the Jews of the time.). It's mostly German, that is, an obsolete form of German (earliest written document was 1272), full of nuggets of Rabbinic Hebrew, just as an onion bagel is full of onions. Or should be. The Hebrew is pronounced quite differently from the Hebrew of ancient or modern Israel. Syllables are accented differently and vowel sounds are changed.
Now these German Jews, who originally came from the land of Israel and settled along the Rhine, eventually migrated elsewhere, and were actually invited to settle in Poland, Russia, and other such places. They brought Yiddish with them, and they added words from the local Slavic languages to Yiddish. And the local Slavic people added Yiddish words to their languages. Sometimes it's hard to tell which started where (read my blogpost about tsatskes for an example.)
You may have heard of the Yiddish Theater (it still exists!), which was very big during the early 20th Century when zillions of Jewish immigrants were assimilating. Many Yiddish Theater veterans later did vaudeville, and from there went into the movies and then television. There's no business like show business. But the theatre was not the only major cultural flowering of the Yiddish language. Take Yiddish literature. It is said to have been started in 1863 with the book The Little Guy (Dos Kleine Menshele) by a writer who called himself Mendl the Book Peddler. Could it be that Tevye the Dairyman, from Sholem Aleichem's 1894 story of the same name, is the most beloved character of Yiddish literature, what with the hit musical Fiddler on the Roof, with music by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick? Here's the Wikipedia article on that musical in (what else?) German.Permanent Link to This Entry | | | Technorati Tag: Yiddish blog comments powered by Disqus Comments (View)
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