A Yiddish shpiel


May 28, 2012

Nobel laureate Isaac Singer once said: “Yiddish language has been dying for a thousand years, and I’m sure it will go on dying for another thousand.”

He may be right.

The distinct and expressive language is being revived around the world in universities, private classes, popular culture and theatres.

Most Jews spoke Yiddish in Europe before World War II and later it was introduced to other countries when Holocaust survivors migrated.

Descendents, television personalities and even non-Jews now use the language to convey meaning in as few words as possible.

Jerry Seinfeld used ‘shiksappeal’ as a play on the Yiddish word ‘shiksa’ to describe a person who was appealing but non-Jewish.

Sitcom character Fran Fine in The Nanny complained about having ‘shmootz’ (dirt) on her new skirt and having to ‘shlep’ (carry) something up the stairs.

Monash University Yiddish Lecturer Ena Burstin told InkWire that American media had influenced Australians’ use of ‘Yiddishisms’ or ‘Yinglish’.

“Australia’s cultural cringe and inadequate funding of the arts means we turn to America for popular culture,” Ms Burstin said.

“Many Yiddish speakers and their descendents are active in theatre, film and TV where they are able to introduce words which become popularised here.”

Ms Burstin said there were more than 300 Jews and non-Jews studying Yiddish at various institutions and community programs across Melbourne.

There are more than one million native speakers spread around the world including in Israel, London and Australia with the dominance being in the United States.

Ms Burstin said the Yiddish language could survive anything.

“It has been dealt many tough blows, including the murder of millions of speakers in the Holocaust,” she said.

“But new Yiddish writers, singers and actors continue to emerge allowing the culture to continue to evolve in dynamic ways.”

Even TV character Doctor House said: ‘better to have shtupped and lost than to not have shtupped at all’.

There are now theatre performances, choirs, poetry readings, musical events and even global Facebook conversations in Yiddish.

Ms Burstin said she often posted social media comments in Yiddish.

“Today’s technologies enable and enhance global communication in our language,” she said.

“Humour is central to Yiddish culture, and many words, terms and phrases become popularised because of the comic or ironic possibilities they embody.

“These words give non-Yiddish speakers a taste of our delicious language, and may encourage further learning.”

Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at Adelaide University Ghil’ad Zuckermann said he could see how Yiddish was considered a dying language.

“In the ultra-orthodox context it is not disappearing but in terms of secular Jews, Yiddish is extinct,” Professor Zuckermann said.

“Ultra-orthodox communities choose to speak Yiddish because they see it as the mother-tongue and Hebrew as the holy-tongue, only to be used for prayer.”

He said the percentage of children who spoke a language determined whether it was dying or endangered.

“A language can have 100 speakers and it can be healthy,” Professor Zuckermann said.

“It is not about numbers.

“It is about speaking the language across all age groups, especially the children.

“I think it is very important to have as many languages as possible in the world.”

Professor Zuckermann said using Yiddish terms when speaking English was common in some countries.

“Yiddish is so apparent and trendy in America that even black fellows like Harry Bellefonte have songs with Yiddish words in them,” Professor Zuckermann said.

“Sometimes Yiddishism is so integrated that words turn into a loan word where you totally forget about the Yiddish origin.”

He said as words moved from one language to another, journalists everywhere were feeling comfortable using terms such as ‘klutz’ (clumsy) or ‘chutzpah’ (nerve).

In 2007, non-Jewish White House Press Secretary Tony Snow used the word chutzpah to criticise comments made by former president Bill Clinton.

Professor Zuckermann said the throat clearing noise of the ‘Ch’ in chutzpah, which was not like the ‘ch’ in ‘chair’, had not stopped people using the word.

“I have heard people say instead ‘hootspah’, ‘shoosebah’ even ‘cletsmah’,” Professor Zuckermann said.

He said there were some theories that the Australian word ‘cobber’ came from chaver, meaning ‘friend’ in Yiddish.

There were also loan phrases such as ‘Joe-Shmo’ and ‘I should live so long’ which had also entered the English language usually unacknowledged.

Even the sayings ‘I would not even give my dog that’ and ‘I need it like a hole in the head’ have Yiddish origin.

Professor Zuckermann is a consultant for the Oxford English Dictionary and said he had put many Yiddish words into it.

Yiddish teacher Aviva Freilich (pictured below) said she agreed to some extent that the language was being revitalised.

“More people are learning it than in the past 50 years but I am not sure how many will end up speaking it or be able to use it,” Associate Professor Freilich said.

“My grandparents spoke Yiddish but I only understood a little and therefore I have only passed down a few words and expressions to my children.”

There are currently six Jewish people aged over 50 attending Professor Freilich’s class once a week.

She said most participants chose to study the language because they remembered some from their childhood and wanted to learn more.

Dianella Yiddish speaker Percy Kotkis said it would be very sad to lose such a brilliant and expressive language.

“I just love listening to it and speaking it when I get the opportunity, which is not often,” Mr Kotkis said.

“There is just an amazing array of ways to curse in Yiddish.

“If you’ve got a headache, you can describe it in five to six different ways.”

He said Yiddish was a very descriptive language and many words were so catchy that they had entered the English language.

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