Bona new year — and gay gezunt!

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT&ANALYSIS/ -

Danny Finkel­stein is, as read­ers of this page well know, a men­sch. Look at him. With his tal­ent, he could come on like a ganzer macher, but in­stead he gives us a haimishe piece about 50 rea­sons why he’s glad that he’s Jewish (JC, De­cem­ber 29), and the whole thing is an anti- kvetch about how his mish­pochah make him platz. And, as Danny al­ways does, first he makes me smile, then nod, then he gets me to think­ing. The re­sult­ing shtick is this: two rea­sons for be­ing glad that I’ve led the life I have. But first, the pro­logue.

All right. Dad is a Jew, Mum is a goy. Jewish­ness in my child­hood con­sists of th­ese things: 1. Be­ing told that I am half-Jewish and go­ing to school to tell ev­ery­one, though hav­ing no idea what it means. 2. My dad lik­ing par­tic­u­lar things from the del­i­catessen, in­clud­ing round rolls with a hole in them that my friends don’t seem ever to eat, which he pro­nounces bye-galls and which he con­sumes with cream cheese. 3. The very par­tic­u­lar in­to­na­tion and ac­cent that my fa­ther has, which is not Cock­ney, and which I can also hear when the ac­tors Syd­ney Tafler, Harry Lan­dis and Al­fie Bass speak. (Pin­ter has it, too, but he has spent too much time with the English aris­toc­racy and it has be­come over-bom­bas­tic.) I heard it again yes­ter­day when Philip Green was be­ing in­ter­viewed. 4. Peo­ple ask­ing me: “Where does ‘Aaronovitch’ come from?” And, 5. My grand­mother, tooth­less, wrin­kled like an over-aged ap­ple, shuf­fles round her Clap­ton flat wear­ing a head­scarf and speaks some­thing that is not English, be­cause it’s Yid­dish.

We’ll leave her for a mo­ment. When I was 10 and had my own first tran­sis­tor ra­dio, my favourite show was “Round The Horne”. If you don’t know it, you can catch it on BBC7. I don’t dare for fear (al­most cer­tainly un­jus­ti­fied) that it hasn’t worn well. “Round the Horne” was, es­sen­tially, the model for the bro­ken come­dies that we now en­joy so much in Bri­tain, with their catch­lines and re­cur­ring char­ac­ters. So there was Ram­bling Sid Rumpo, the folk mu­si­cian; there was the cou­ple from “Brief En­counter”, Charles and Fiona; and there were Ju­lian and Sandy, who al­ways seemed to be run­ning some kind of shop into which Ken­neth Horne would stray and then wish he hadn’t.

I had no idea, at that age, that Ju­lian and Sandy were gay, be­cause I had even less un­der­stand­ing of gay­ness than of Jewish­ness. I knew that they spoke in a very par­tic­u­lar man­ner and also that they used words that no one else used. One ex­am­ple, re­dis­cov­ered on Wikipedia, comes from an ad­dress to a court: “ Omies and palones of the jury, varda well at the eek of the poor omie who stands be­fore you, his lal­lies trem­bling.” Makes me laugh.

Later, of course, I gath­ered that Ju­lian and Sandy were feygeleh; later still, that many of th­ese fab­u­lous words were not made up for the show but were ac­tu­ally part of an ex­ist­ing jar­gon, which could con­sist of up to 500 words, and which was called Po­lari (from par­lare, to speak). Po­lari, ap­par­ently, had bits of Ro­many, bits of Cock­ney rhyming slang and bits of East End Yid­dish, and was used in con­tra­dic­tory fash­ion — or so it is said — by the more work­ing-class mem­bers of the gay com­mu­nity, both as a form of se­cret com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and as a badge of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. It was pop­u­lar in the Mer­chant Navy. You can now find the Old Tes­ta­ment in Po­lari on the in­ter­net, and my favourite line from Ge­n­e­sis is: “And Glo­ria cack­led, Let there be sparkle: and there was sparkle”.

The Po­lari lex­i­con gives the word “crazy” as “ meshigner” — clearly from the Yid­dish. I am not sure whether my grand­mother ever used the word to me even though she was gen­uinely a bit meshugge. The em­i­gra­tion, the hard life of Ed­war­dian and in­ter-war East Lon­don and maybe her per­sonal demons had all tor­mented her. But since I was old enough to know that what she spoke was not un­in­tel­li­gi­ble, tooth­less English, but un­in­tel­li­gi­ble tooth­less Yid­dish, I have loved the lan­guage.

Some of the most pop­u­lar Yid­dish words should have found a home in Po­lari, but seem­ingly didn’t. “ Zaftig” from the Ger­man saftig (juicy) mean­ing plump and full­fig­ured, would have been per­fect for Ju­lian and Sandy. As would pisher (a no­body), potch (to slap) and the word I used ear­lier, platz — to burst from emo­tion. Platz!

Of course, though Yid­dish is a lan­guage and Po­lari is just a jar­gon, they have one thing in com­mon, which may ex­plain why they sound so won­der­ful. They both were able to take ex­ist­ing words and to make use of them, leav­ing alone those that weren’t so in­ter­est­ing or didn’t make such a good noise on the lips. Eek!

I am not gay and only Jew- ish, but if I have two rea­sons to be thank­ful for my life, it is get­ting to know some­thing about both Yid­dish and Po­lari, those sad-hi­lar­i­ous, life-filled lan­guages of of­ten per­se­cuted mi­nori­ties. Bona New Year!

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