Week 7: Joe and Paul

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 51 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 20 hours
I have reviewed 639 individual flashcards

Had I studied nothing but the original 625 words I started with, I would be done with all 625 right now. Instead, I got bored and plugged in a few phrases, a few words I particularly like, and some song lyrics, and so here I am -- I'm at the letter X, and will probably be done tonight, a day later. It's not as tidy as I would like, but this is what happens when you get bored.

In fact, I am feeling the lack of tidiness. I have an additional 250 flashcards I have created, and they're all mishmash. I know a lot of words, but I have no real clue as to how I might turn them into a sentence. I need grammar, and I need it badly.

Additionally, I'm starting to see the value in these words lists, which I will detail in a moment. It's like the Yiddish world is a blur, but it is coming into focus. This will happen a lot faster if I focus on the most frequently used words, but that's not what I'm doing. I'm adding words in almost at random, and I don't intend to stop completely, but I am desperate to start really understanding the language.

So I downloaded a Yiddish grammar book called "Grammar of the Yiddish Language" by Dovid Katz (available here) and found a list of the most frequent 1,000 words in Yiddish (available here). These will be my primary study tools, although I intend to keep adding phrases from my Berlitz book as well.

Let me tell you, I was suspicious of the whole "learn 1,000 words" thing, because, for a long time, I was accumulating vocabulary but couldn't understand anything. Now I've past the 500-word mark, and I'm getting tantalizing glimmers of comprehension. I listen to a lot of Yiddish music, which, for a long time, has been a series of "buh buh yai di dais" and little else, and now words are popping out all over. While I do not understand individual sentences, the shape of the songs are starting to form, as well as their subjects. I'll listen to a song and suddenly realize the singer is singing of fish in the sea, or of various rabbis doing the twist, or of millionaires on Delancey Street.

There is a song I have gotten obsessed with. It's called "Joe and Paul" and was by Borscht Belt comedians The Barton Brothers, although apparently it was originated by Red Buttons. The song is a parody of an actual Yiddish radio commercial by Brooklyn clothing store magnate Paul Kofsky (there was no Joe; he made his partner up). The song is a relentless Yinglish melange, a machine gun blast of slangy Yiddish and English pronounced like Yiddish, and it seems like it's the summit of Yiddish study for me.

If ever there was a piece of comedy stripped of context, it is this one. There is no Joe and Paul any more, no Yiddish radio, no commercials, no Borscht Belt, and few Yinglish speakers. Worse still, the song is done in a Poylish accent, so I couldn't understand it even if I understood it.

Except I do. I'm not sure when it happened, but it all sort of clicked last week. There are stretches I don't understand, admittedly, but more that I do. Maybe if you were raised with Jewish humor, as I was, this sort of thing works on an intuitive level, because I seem to be following the song about the twisting rebbes pretty well too. (It's a real song, by the way: "Der Chassidcher Twist" by Mike Burstyn, which will probably be the subject of a future post.)

Whatever is going on, it's hard not to want more.