Yid­dish, without the in­hi­bi­tions

A lan­guage glossary and cel­e­bra­tion of a lin­guis­tic cul­ture that pulls no punches

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment -

stom­ach for the real prod­uct, best to steer clear. In­ci­den­tally, Sh­pinoza bin ikh nit (I’m no philoso­pher), but hear this: the true mod­ernist is the one who can en­joy the ins and outs of bona fide tra­di­tional cul­ture without hav­ing to agree with ev­ery un­der­ly­ing pre­sump­tion.

Rosten’s Joys of Yid­dish (1968) smashed some of the taboos suf­fered by Jews in west­ern coun­tries con­cern­ing their im­me­di­ate (or re­cent) fam­ily roots. For that gen­er­a­tion, “Yinglish” — Jewish slang in English de­riv­ing in part from Yid­dish — was enough of a self-rev­e­la­tion and, for some, a kind of gate­way into Yid­dish proper. Now, with ever fewer pre-Sec­ond World War sur­vivors around, there is a need for the real prod­uct. This book de­liv­ers hand­somely.

Ready, t hen, t o move on to the niceties of nu­ance, of, say: klipe, mazik, ruekh (all some­times trans­lated “de­mon” or some such); or a yid fun a gants yor (lit­er­ally “Jew of the whole year”) as op­posed to a rosheshon­enik (Rosh-Hashanah-only Jew).

Gey tref (go and guess what might turn out) — the sin­gle most im­por­tant cat­e­gory — is not the ex­pli­ca­tion of Jewish lore per se (which the au­thor does very well, cit­ing bib­li­cal and tal­mu­dic sources with grace). It is the em­bed­ding of thou­sands of years of Jewish lore in everyday sit­u­a­tions that are in­her­ently time­less. They are part of the per­ma­nence of Yid­dish. Olevhas­holem (of blessed mem­ory) of a de­parted soul is one thing, but when Michael Wex tells you all about “my job, olev-has­holem” and “my re­la­tion­ship, olev-has­holem” you are ver­ily on the road. Or take niskhomets vern, not in the sense of be­com­ing khomets­dik (chametz, for­bid­den on Passover) but “ide­o­log­i­cally tainted, no longer staunch and re­li­able” (no mat­ter what the be­lief sys­tem in­volved). Or oys mekhutn (not an in­law any more), with a spe­cial sting for any hu­man tie-up just ended.

Weaker parts of the book are, at one end of the scale, very oc­ca­sional at­tempts at play­ing Yid­dish a c a demic, a nd, at the other, more fre­quent in­vo­ca­tions of pop­u­lar cul­ture icons (from Far­ley Granger, Court­ney Love and Shirley Maclaine to Bart Simp­son and Elmer Fudd).

This works ter­rif­i­cally well in the au­thor’s stand-up per­for­mances, but is dis­pens­able for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions (and this is re­ally a book that will stand the test). On the other hand (and wow, does Yid­dish have ways of say­ing “on the other hand”), in cases like the Three Stooges, the Yid­dish im­pact is hugely rel­e­vant.

As for kvetch­ing (com­plain­ing in­ces­santly), di­verse though it is, it de­rives from the im­mi­grant gen­er­a­tion rather than the en­tire civil­i­sa­tion (which, in its own way, is pre­served in liv­ing cha­sidic and other charedi Yid­dish-speak­ing com­mu­ni­ties).Yid­dish can just as well pro­vide for as many chap­ters on op­ti­mism, self-con­fi­dence and a sense of sta­bil­ity. And who bet­ter to write that se­quel than Michael Wex?

The un­ter­shte shure (bot­tom line)? Be­sides be­ing a plea­sure for any­one, ev­ery Yid­dish stu­dent should re­ally — mamesh — have to read

it. Dovid Katz is pro­fes­sor of Yid­dish at Vil­nius Uni­ver­sity

Glit­ter­ing in the gold­ene me­dine: ac­tress Bar­bara Minkus as Amer­i­can Yid­dish the­atre star Molly Pi­con in 2004 show, Pi­con Pie

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.