The joys of Yiddish

When I think about how lucky America’s Jews are to be so deeply embedded in American society, I get all farklempt.

June 15, 2019 21:28
2 minute read.
student learns yiddish reading

A secondary school student learns Yiddish during a lesson of Jewish history and culture at Solomo Aleichemo Jewish school in Vilnius, Lithuania. (photo credit: REUTERS/INTS KALNINS)


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The experience of the Jew in America has been unlike any other in the history of the Diaspora. Jewish culture has had a huge impact on America. And even though much ink has, of late, been spilled on stories about a revival of antisemitism and the negative impact of assimilation, there has actually been much growth and creativity.

It is easy, too easy, to focus on the evil and on the haters. And it is just as easy, unfortunately so, to overlook the good. One of the reasons we so often overlook the good impact Jews and Judaism have had on America is because the relationship between Jews and America is almost seamless.

Take for example, American English.

Reading Yiddish words like “tchotchke” in an article in the magazine New York has become almost as commonplace as reading the words “shlep” or “shlub.” And a parent telling their child to stop kvetching comes as naturally from the lips and hearts of WASPs as it does from our European immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents. In fact, when I hear that expression come “trippingly on the tongues,” as Shakespeare would say, of African-Americans, it makes me kvell.

Yiddish and Hebrew are spoken all over the US. And most people don’t even realize what they’re saying.

For those who follow the Scripps National Spelling Bee, this year’s competition was more exciting than the Super Bowl. For those who don’t follow, it is the national spelling championship for students from around the country. And this year, the judges ruled that the competition was over with eight spellers still standing. They named – incredible as it sounds – eight national champions and each one of the eight students was awarded the grand prize, because they ran out of words.

What I found even more amazing than the eight-way tie was three little words that the contenders were challenged with spelling correctly. Three little Yiddish words that have found their way into the American vernacular.

Two of the Yiddish words were given to a 7th grader – contestant No. 5, Rishik Gandshari from San Jose, California.

The first Yiddish word he was given was “Yiddishkeit.” He spelled it correctly. Later in the competition Rishik was given the Yiddish-Hebrew word “Keriah.” The judges explained to Rishik that the word derives from Yiddish. Actually, it comes from Hebrew. It means rending clothes during Jewish mourning. The judges defined it as tearing clothes in Jewish mourning ritual.

The third and last Yiddish word in this competition was “Lekach,” the honey cake eaten by Ashkenazi Jews on and around Rosh Hashanah. It was spelled correctly.

For my grandmother, the terms Yiddish and Jewish were interchangeable. For her and for many members of her generation, Yiddish simply meant Jewish. She would ask friends of mine if they spoke Jewish. She meant Yiddish, but her translation of Yiddish was Jewish, so they were one and the same. It made sense; “Yid” is Jew and “ish” is the language of the Jews. Just like Arabish, which is Yiddish for the language of the Arabs.

When I think about how lucky America’s Jews are to be so deeply embedded in American society, I get all farklempt.

The author is a political commentator. He hosts the TV show, Thinking Out Loud, on JBS TV. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern.

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