Bona new year — and gay gezunt!
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!