Yiddish, without the inhibitions
A language glossary and celebration of a linguistic culture that pulls no punches
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