I don’t know Latin. I never studied it and I never prayed in it. But, I know that mea culpa means ‘my fault’ or ‘my mistake’ (a.k.a ‘my bad’); modus operandi means ‘method of operating;’ and carpe diem means ‘seize the day.’ Latin, as it turns out, only was used conversationally for a very short time and has not actually been spoken en masse for centuries. As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for the Christian clergy, linguistics, and ancient literature, the language would have disappeared altogether with the fall of the Roman Empire.
The situation with Yiddish is completely different. A language that was birthed by diaspora Jews in Europe around the 10th century, it evolved primarily from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and German languages and became the mother tongue – the mahmeh loshin – of millions. In addition, Yiddish books, songs, theatre, film, newspapers, and humor – while perpetuating the language – served to create a distinct culture of Yiddishkeit. [Go rent or see Fiddler on the Roof.]
It’s been reported that there were about thirteen million Yiddish speakers right before World War II. Sadly, roughly eighty-five percent of them perished. Today the number of speakers is less than two million, but it’s important to note that this significant decline comes as a result of three main factors. First of all, Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors and their children are rapidly disappearing. Secondly, the language is rarely used by newer generations of Jews who are assimilated in and have acquired the native languages of the societies in which they choose to live. More importantly, with the creation of the State of Israel and the rise of Zionism, the proud use of the Hebrew language has dramatically increased instead. Today, many see Yiddish as a language of an oppressed and exiled people.
While mostly elderly and Orthodox Jews still speak it today, Yiddish words have become part of the American English dictionary as well. [Do we thank vaudeville and Borscht Belt comedians for this?] Words like chutzpah, bubbie, klutz, shlep, kvetch, mentsh, nosh, shtick, bagel, shmear, schmooze, shlemiel, shlemazel, and even schmuck have become commonplace in our English vocabulary. And even though most people don’t fully appreciate or know the real definitions or nuances of the words, I’m still gratified that – in some funny way – this ‘dying’ language still lives on.
I don’t speak Yiddish fluently, but I comprehend quite a bit. [I learned at an early age that my parents and grandparents always spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want the kids to understand what they were saying. So I became a quick study.] I mostly cherish the traces of wisdom, humor, and even irreverence in the various phrases I learned from my grandmother over the years. Here are a few of my favorites with their loose translations:
Ich hob a kopf vaytig – I have a headache
[A must in every woman’s arsenal.]
Ich hob dich in drerd – Drop dead
[A very mean thing to say in Yiddish!]
Nischt far dir gedacht – It shouldn’t be said of or happen to you
[God forbid, you shouldn’t know of such tsuris.]
Zol zein ah zoy – Whatever will be, will be
[Always said with a tone of resignation.]
Oy vay, Ich been farklempt – I’m so flustered
[Actually, more than flustered but there’s no good translation here.]
Shayneh zeeseh punim – A pretty, sweet face
[Usually said about a little child.]
A farbisseneh punim – A sour (bitter) face
[Usually said about a moody, bitter woman.]
Di faygeleh fleeyen frum boym tzu boym – The bird flies from tree to tree
[Uh, I just like this. Okay?]
While I’m still years away from becoming a bubbie myself, I’m determined to brush up on my Yiddish. Not only do I want to keep this special language alive, but the sayings above simply won’t be enough to convince my grandchildren that I’m an authentic Jewish grandmother. And, while I’m at it, I’ve gotta develop the accent too…