Thursday, April 8, 2010

Essential Yiddish: Part One


I grew up with Yiddish-speaking parents. Of course, both of them were born in Eastern Europe so that makes sense. While they each spoke about five languages, Yiddish was the language they spoke to each other and, although the oldest sisters were fluent in Yiddish, they lost it when they started school. By the time sister number seven was born, my parents were forced to speak to their Yiddish-illiterate children in one language only: English. 

They tried to speak Yiddish to me but, as the number six child, you can bet I wasn't listening. As a American child of the 1960s, Yiddish was somewhat of an embarassment to me. I looked on it with some hostility since it was always used to keep secrets from me and because it was used for the incessant chattering of a billion uninteresting grown up conversations.

Of course, I changed my mind later. Too late. Long after my brain had frozen onto English and I only knew Yiddish adjectives and exclamations. But those Yiddish adjectives and exclamations color my world. I can't live without them. I teach them to my children and to my Amerikanish Jewish husband (his family? No Yiddish). And today, I teach it to you. Well, a first lesson, anyway.

Five Yiddish words you can't live without.

1) Drek - Crap or substandard junk. You can eat something and pronounce it "drek," or you can buy something shoddily made and declare it "drek." Needless to say, this one comes in handy.

2) Goniff - The jerk who sold you the drek - literally, a thief. A person who steals you blind. A pronouncement on his soul for being a thieving liar.

3) Schlmozel - You for being a hopeless dupe who got swindled by the goniff who sold you drek.
[Shl-mah-zle]

4) Schpilkes - How you feel inside now with your guts churning after you were such a schlmozel for buying such drek from that goniff. [Shpill-kiss]

5) Meshuganah - Crazy, insane. How you feel when you think about the goniff who gave you such schpilkes when he sold you the drek and made you into such a schlmozel. [Mesh-u-gah-nah]

Feel free to use these words however they fit into your life. You can pepper your speech with them for a little color. You can throw them around when you're angry so no one will know what you're talking about. Or you can do what my mom did: you can teach your children these words and then mutter commentary on the people around you under your breath so that only your children know that you have a steady stream of Yiddish criticisms rolling off your tongue while you're beaming at the synagogue ladies. 

Does your family have any vestiges of an Old Country language it still uses? Any secret language? Will any of these words come in handy? Did your parents try to give you something you cast off but later appreciated?

41 comments:

  1. In our family we have a kind of secret code that is shorthand in certain situations..
    When the kids act up in public when they were younger and they needed a swat on the rear..our code was "do you need to go to the bathroom'...where we would administer said swat.
    Then When my daughters and I are out and about and there is some woman with WAAAAYYYY too much makeup on I say "You can never have too much blue eyeshadow". Which is a quote from 'my girl'...the movie...
    Then, when political correctness runs amok and they shut off water to farmers in california, making them destitute and having them stand in line for the very food they could have been producing had the politicians not cut off the water for some midgety fish, or they make a kid take off a t-shirt deemed 'too offensive' or they stop someone from praying in public or they ponder the intricacies of non inclusive language in school textbooks...either my husband and I will look at each other and say "Yes, but what we really want to know is how this will affect your average middle class latino family".
    Which is actually a quote from Cnn news on declining high school graduation rates in southern california from a few years back.
    We thought the comment was so ridiculous that we have used during the most meshuganah news stories the media trots out to entertain us. Of course, we are the shpilkes that put up with this drek and that's why we have so many Goniffs in our government which inevitably makes every one of us shlmozels..I think the words WILL come in handy.

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  2. Why is it that every time I go to get my tires rotated or oil changed, I become a schlmozel with schpilkes because they insist I need all new everything. Goniffs!

    (How'd I do??)

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  3. I love this. and am sending my raisedmethodistnowcallshimselfaJewbyChoice husband your way to read it as well.

    MizFit

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  4. I found you blog through another blog during a Friday Follow blog hop. I look forward to reading your blog on the kinderlach are back in school next week!

    http://keepitsimplesister-mommymommymommy.blogspot.com/

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  5. Having grown up in the NYC metropolitan area, this all sounds very familiar. I think I'd feel right at home in your house!

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  6. I remember a few yiddish words getting tossed around when I was growing up. And one day I was posting on facebook about something to do with my son and the word that kept coming to me was "verklempt." I had to look it up to see how to spell it. But it just fit what I was trying to say.

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  7. Oh my god, this is hilarious! I can't tell you how hard I am laughing!

    I am also thankful to learn that I've been spelling "drek" wrong! Now I know!

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  8. Love it! Especially #4, which I never knew how to spell.

    My kids being of two heritages, two citizenships, and a mix of languages, they've grown up with bits and pieces of this and that. I hope they keep all of it!

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  9. Another good post - teach us some more secret code!
    Por Favor!

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  10. You can learn Yiddish at a high level with professional Yiddish teachers online. Find more information at http://eYiddish.org

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  11. Love it! I can't wait for the next lesson! I did know "schlmozel" but the rest are new to me! I am frequently surprised to learn that some words that I've heard all my life are actually Yiddish. (bubkes, chutzpah, schlep, putz, schmooze, schmuck, spiel and tchotchke off the top of my head) I had no idea those were Yiddish until I was an adult. And I totally had to look up how to spell tchotchke.

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  12. Linda, these are great. If you aren't doing it already, and you have ANY desire, you should think about writing a novel about a second generation Jewish family. You have a fabulous sense of humor. I am thinking MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, just Jewish and no wedding. Well, there could be a wedding. But, it is the characters and the colorful language and the personalities of the characters. I think you know what I mean. People are inherently funny. I love Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series. I don't know if you have read those or not. She writes very colorful characters. Anyway, something to think about. Thanks for the great Yiddish words. I am looking forward to incorporating them into my everday speech. That will be *fun.*

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  13. Love Yiddish and my kids love Yiddish. There is something so expressive about Yiddish words. They actually sound like what they mean!

    Right now I've got Schpilkes! I'm such a meshuganah!

    love and kisses

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  14. My parents had the last remnants of Yiddish which they would use to feebly conceal meaning from us kids, but you always figured out what they were trying not to tell us.

    A key word I remember is also a key concept to understanding something of the Jewish psyche: kenahora, literally the evil eye, but really it's about protecting against bad things happening, and helps explain why parents would brag about their kids to others but never say it in front of that kid lest they get a swollen head (and instead might get some sort of over-achieving complex).

    Even though I grew up around Yiddish, I find the Italian version of schpilkes, Agida, to be evocative.

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  15. Happy Friday Follow!! I am a new follower and thank you kindly for joining us today. Wishing you an amazing weekend -

    ~ Lynn
    http://www.middayescapades.com

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  16. Linda, this is hilarious. It will take me at least a year before I can fully (and correctly) integrate these delightful treasures into my vocab. So, by then I might be on my way to meet you! : )

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  17. I love it! Thanks for the Yiddish primer!

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  18. Chris, you're killing me! I love the idea of using a phrase from a news story that struck you as unbelievably stupid over and over again! That's funny! And, excellent use of Yiddish, girl!

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  19. Stacia, you're a genius at Yiddish! And, yes, Yiddish comes in very handy with any auto work!

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  20. Although Yiddish was heard during our Sunday family get-togethers, it wasn't really spoken at home. But so many of those words have stuck with me through the years. Farblondzhet (mixed-up), Shmendrik (fool)and of course we all know what it means to Nosh!

    I love reading your posts!

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  21. This is hilarious - I totally identify because I felt the same way about Hungarian when I was growing up. I recently read on a blog that the word "glitch" is originally from Yiddish. Does anyone know if this is true? Sounds a bit far-fetched (far-fetched is my own favorite Yiddish word:)).

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  22. I'm going to practice these right away!! I have a habit of saying crap too much, but now I have an even better word!

    I have several siblings that speak sign language and I'm always jealous about how they can talk to each other without others knowing what they're saying, even in the middle of a quiet place.

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  23. Oh, Linda, I love you. (gush) Both for your sage comment on my blog about marriage (tears, my running tears), and for this fun post.

    Wish I knew Yiddish. It makes me smile when I hear or read it.

    You are a dynamic woman, gifted with words, enriching my life & so many others. I'm so glad you write!!

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  24. Excellent definitions! I'm going to use each of these words in a sentence today to make sure I've learned them. You're a regular diplomat!

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  25. Schlep. I am always schlepping my kids to places!

    Gnoog-enough! My mom said that a lot to my brother and me.

    Shana punim (my son) and shayna maydel (my two girls)

    Schmuck-an idiot. My daddy used that one a lot

    Plotz-I could just plotz I am so exicted!

    My family spoke Yiddish to hide what they were saying. Too bad. It got lost.

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  26. Miz - Did raisedMethodistnowcallshimselfaJewbychoice husband come on by? So funny! Thanks for visiting!

    mommymommymommy (somehow I know where you got that name! I hear it all the time!), thanks for blog hopping over! I visited you and enjoyed myself as well! And your later comment with Plotz! One of my favorite words! You're right, they shouldn't have used these words for secret conversations; they lost the language!

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  27. Maureen, they do say that if you grow up in New York, you're half fluent already!

    Waisting Time, that's what I love about Yiddish. Where is there one word in English that expresses what the word "verklempt" expresses so well? I get verklempt just thinking about it!

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  28. TKW, I love that "drek" was a part of your vocabulary already!

    BLW, I don't know how the word "schpilkes" will sound in the middle of a French sentence - it's a little clunky!

    Anne, I'm compiling lists of more Yiddish words for future lessons! Gracias!

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  29. Elias and Yiddish Translation - thank you for visiting! I visited your sites and they're great. Note to my other friends: if you want expert Yiddish instruction as opposed to my completely Illiterate Yiddish instruction, click on Elias' and Yiddish Translation's links!

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  30. Jennifer, I swear, I'd never know you were originally from Texas! Look at you with all that Yiddish! And who can live without the word tchotchke? (By the way, I had to copy your spelling!)

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  31. Robin, thank you for the compliment! I just finished editing (again) my memoir about growing up with slightly crazed Holocaust Survivor parents and six sisters in the Skokie of the 1960s - real world outside our house and World War II inside. Now I just have to get an agent...

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  32. Terry, you are a meshuganah! All my favorite people are!

    Bruce at Privilege of Parenting, Maybe kenehora will be in the second lesson. It is a doozy, containing not only Yiddish and an exclamation but that bit of Old Country superstition!

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  33. Midday Escapes, thank you for following. I visited your blog to and am following!

    Amber, you'll be the only one in Utah speaking Yiddish for sure! We definitely need to have a "Four Corners" bloggy conference - Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. That'd be you, me and TKW, right?

    Maria, thanks. Working hard on Yiddish primer #2.

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  34. Ellen at Weighting Around, oh my gosh, you got me laughing with that farblondzhet! Like, that's not exactly an easy word to say, right? No wonder our relatives were always spitting on the food with these pronunciations!

    Charlotte, yes, replacing "crap" with "drek" (though not a direct translation for the exclamation of "CRAP!") is a good way to have your kids not repeat what you say. They'll just look at you like you're nuts.

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  35. Terresa, you brought tears to my eyes with your comment. Thank you. It just reminds me that no matter the pain I go through, whether with the aches and pains of my marriage or something else, if it enables me to reach out a helping hand to someone else, it was all worth it. One day you'll do the same.

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  36. Absence, thanks and thanks for tweeting my post!

    BugginWord, thanks for visiting and have fun with the Yiddish!

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  37. I found you through Friday Follow. What a great post!

    Some of my favorite words. There was one summer where my favorite book was The Joys of Yiddish (which has a great "joke" that defines shmuck). I would pick words out at random and use them to replace swears. I normally had some idea what they meant, but most other people didn't. It was fine until I said something in front of my grandfather who called me on it.

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  38. You've got a really great blog here!

    Happy FF! I'm your newest follower! If you get a chance, will you please stop by and follow me too at http://www.mommylivingthelifeofriley.com

    Have a great weekend!

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  39. Jolly Green Mommy, Thank you for visiting! I'm heading over to your blog right now! I love the idea of randomly replacing words with Yiddish because it's like a code, and you can't get in trouble if no one knows what you're saying, right? (Unless your grandfather busts you!)

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  40. Hi Melissa, thanks for stopping by and thanks for the compliment! I enjoyed my visit to your blog as well!

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