Talk with my fifty-something friend Alysa, and you’ll hear her lace her
conversation with Yiddish words like plotz (burst), oy vey iz mir (woe is me),
schlep (drag), nudnik (pest), meshuga (crazy) and schmooze (chat).
friend Judy tends to run on the softer side, embracing words like mamma sheyna
(beautiful little lady), kinderlach (children), nachas (joy), kvell (revel in
happiness), and gai shluffy (go to sleep).
And me? The Yiddish I seem to
favor runs to the likes of schnorrer (beggar), tsooris (troubles), schmatta
(cheap clothing), fahrshtinkenne (rotten), fercockt (stinky), and hok a chainik
Notice a pattern here? Humor in the first case, endearment
in the second, grouchiness in the third.
Alysa, ever the detective with
her Yiddishe kop (head), sniffed out this pattern and postulated a Sherlock
Holmes-worthy theory: Not only do the Yiddish words and expressions you heard as
a child tell a lot about the family you came from, but the ones you use often as
an adult tell a lot about you today.
This is all unscientific, of course,
but based on my own personal experience, I must concur. Of course, people who
speak Yiddish but are not fluent in the language know many words and
expressions, some of which have crept into everyday English, but I have observed
that they have a tendency to use the same words and expressions over and over
To the extent that this is true, I might conjecture that the
Yiddish we use is like a verbal fingerprint. In other words, certain conclusions
may be drawn about a person with regard to temperament, disposition, personality
As I was growing up, my mother spoke Yiddish when she
didn’t want her children to understand what she was saying. But my three
brothers and I often got the gist, until, as in learning any second language, we
actually came to understand many of the words.
For me, the language was
like a linguistic well that I eventually dipped into for everyday use, but as it
was spoken in my home, it had a preponderance of negative words and expressions.
It was those negative words and expressions that stuck with me and is the
Yiddish I most often pepper my conversations with today.
My parents were
loving and wonderful, but my mother... how can I say this tactfully... kvetched
(complained) a lot. And while I consider myself today to be a well-adjusted
person, I have some of my mother in me, and that kvetchiness expresses itself in
In other words, the Yiddishe apple doesn’t fall far from the
To be sure, Yiddish is a wonderful language with its own
idiosyncratic words, idioms and phrases. As with other languages, you just can’t
find any equivalent in English to convey the same meanings or nuances that many
Yiddish words and expressions have.
But from my second-generation
purview, what I’ve observed about the Yiddish language – and what I especially
like about it – is that it is a language with an array of colorful words and
expressions of endearment, and, conversely, of annoyance. It is also, to my
American sensibilities – and as many a standup comedian knows –
Altte kakker (old fogey), chazzer (pig), draycup (mixed-up
person), shmendrik (loser), momzer (bastard), er frest vi a ferd (he eats like a
horse) – these are disparaging words and expressions that have a ring of humor
to them because they are stock descriptions that were passed down and often
perceived as funny stereotypes.
Tatelleh (precious boy), maalechel
(angel), zeeskeit (sweet one), dee bist a lechtig kind (you are a child that
brings light), tzaddikel (righteous one), mensch (good person) – these are words
of endearment that can make the recipient feel special in ways that other
languages can’t impart. They are warm, tender words that bestow a unique kind of
My friends Alysa and Judy both have affable dispositions, to
be sure. They each know a number of Yiddish words, but in conversations with
them I notice a repetition of the ones I’ve mentioned. Accordingly, Alysa has a
sharp sense of humor, whereas Judy is soft-spoken – right on the mark with this
Yiddish-verbal fingerprint theory.
So what do you make of this? Are you
the Yiddish you speak? Are you a reflection of your Yiddish? As I said, it’s all
observational and not a bit scientific. But as empirical data goes (at least for
me), there might be a grain of truth to it.
Think about it,
The writer is an award-winning author of 13 books and a lecturer
at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York.