The English language—like the American population—is a melting pot, an amalgam of the many languages that have influenced it through conquest, immigration, and cultural blending. Over the years, I have written about Latin, French, and Greek influences on English in this column. But there is one I’ve never written about: Yiddish. We all enjoy eating bagels, but did you know the word comes from Yiddish? I’m sure you have heard many more of these words, but were not sure where they came from.
Yiddish is a Germanic language, originally spoken by the Ashkenazi Jews during the European Middle Ages. A blend of Hebrew, German, and Slavic languages, Yiddish was brought to America by central and eastern European Jews during the 19th and 20th centuries. The word yiddish simply meant Jewish, and it is still spoken today in a number of Haredi and Hasidic Jewish communities worldwide. In the 2000 U.S. census, 178,945 people in the United States reported speaking Yiddish at home—63% of whom lived in New York state (wikipedia). In 1975, the film Hester Street—most of which is in Yiddish—was released and in 2019, a Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof was mounted off Broadway by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (nytf.org). Google Translate includes Yiddish as one of its languages.
Yiddish is a colorful language, many of whose words carry moral or emotional connotations. It is written using the Hebrew alphabet, but our many borrowings have been assigned English spellings based on the sound of the words, so spellings vary. Let’s sample a few of the more common ones!
When I was growing up, my mother had a plethora of tchotchkes displayed all over the house, which it was my unfortunate job to dust and keep clean. This sometimes involved schlepping a bucket of water with me around the house. I was such a klutz that I frequently splashed or even dropped the bucket and dumped water all over. A few times I even dropped and broke a figurine. “Pay attention—don’t be such a draycup!” My mother would shout. Then she’d potch me on my tuchus so I wouldn’t forget.
My older sister had a lot of chutzpah. She would schmooze with the teachers at our high school to get away with a lot of things that weren’t at all kosher (like skipping class or smoking). She had quite a schtick: “Angelica was bitten by a snake and the doctor prescribed bed rest for a week,” she would write in her forged absence excuse. She had a whole spiel about having diabetes (not true) so she needed to nosh on bagels during class. I would noodge her to behave better, but she ignored me. My mother was verklempt when she learned of these antics, and she knew well how to lay on the schmaltz. “Oy vey!” she would cry, “How could you do this to your poor, devoted mother? After all the sacrifices I’ve made for you!”
My father was a true mensch, supporting a family of four on a government job while also renovating the handyman’s delight my parents had purchased for a song in an upscale D.C. neighborhood. There was rarely a glitch in his careful plans to expand the front porch or install a picture window. My mother, an actress and music maven, would kibitz with the neighbors—even the schmuck that lived next door—as they kvetched about their kids’ clothes, haircuts, or the schlock they brought into the house. She loved to give big parties where we would play piano and sing. The elaborate haunted house she designed in our basement at Halloween was the talk of the town. Overall, my family was a mishmash of talent and meshugaas—but I loved them all!
Yiddish words used in English (aka Yinglish) were documented extensively by Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish (2000, updated in 2003). The Modern Nosh, an authentic deli on Water Street in Charlottes-ville (which closed last fall—yet another victim of the pandemic) used to have cards on the tables translating common Yiddish words. Readers who know Yiddish should feel free to send me corrections for any mistakes I might have made. Mazel tov on getting vaccinated (if you have)!