The 100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Shul

Those of you read this blog might have noticed that I am a secular Jew. I haven't completely abandoned ritual Jewish practices, but I definitely have secularized them. For example, I celebrate Passover, but in my own way, with something I call a minimalist seder: I get drunk on a bottle of wine and watch "The Ten Commandments." It's basically the same, but my four question tend to be along the lines of "What was Anne Baxter thinking?", which I think is the question the wicked child asks. All my questions probably are.

So there is not going to be a lot of religious Yiddish in this collection of 100 words. But, secular though I may be, I love the word "shul." I don't go in one very often, and, when I do, I'm usually more interested in what the caterer is up to than the rabbi, but "shul" is nonetheless my word of choice.

"Shul," you see, means "synagogue." And for those of you who are very new to the subject of Judaism, "synagogue" is from a Greek word meaning "assembly." And for those of you who are very, very new, and are temped to ask if synagogues are Jewish churches, no they are not.

But for the sake of continuing this discussion, yes. Synagogues are Jewish churches.

Synagogue has a stately sound to it, and the movement I grew up in, Reform, went even statelier, calling their houses of worship "temples." And many synagogues are stately, looking like somebody accidentally got some Masonic Temple designs in their Classical Revival blueprints.

That's the sort of place I went: Temple Israel in Minneapolis, which boasts a sanctuary so large that local symphonies will sometimes use it as a performance venue. There is a hidden choral balcony where heavenly voices emerge, chanting sublime classical Hebrew melodies over an unworldly pipe organ.

It's constructed to engender a sense of awe that is occasionally undermined by youth rabbis whipping out guitars and playing camp songs, but, still, the magnificence is genuine. It is a place that separates the sacred from the profane -- the words above the ark that contains the Holy Torah scrolls reads "know before whom you stand," and you can't help but know. The sanctuary dwarfs you, and everybody, and we are specks in God's eye.

I feel a little badly about calling such a place a shul, which is small and human and homely (in the Yiddish sense of the word, haimish, which means folksy and warm and home-like.) But I just like the word shul more, mostly because it is a Jewish word, rather than a Greek word, as synagogue is, or a Latin word, as temple is, and I like to use Jewish words for Jewish things.

Although, in fairness, shul is Latin -- it derives from schola, which meant "school," among other things. And it's also Greek, as Latin borrowed it from the Greek word σχολή, which also meant "school," among other things. But we Jews adopted it very early on, and, as far as I can tell, we're the ones who made it mean "place of worship," as all the other derivatives, including the English one, mean "school."

By the way, shul also means school, which it often doubled as, and still does. I had classes in the sanctuary at Temple Israel sometimes with my then Rabbi, a genial fellow who looked like Vladimir Lenin and would sometimes just completely lose his temper with our class and turn beet red, which certainly detracted from the sanctity of the place. Know before whom you stand? A Communist tomato, that's who.

But this is another thing I like about the word shul. Sure, education is supposed to be an elevated undertaking, but it is, in fact, a tough, irritating gig. Kids are pretty wretched. I don't blame them -- I was pretty wretched. I couldn't help myself, I was a teenager, and teenagers are basically maniacs.

Trying to get teenage Jews to shut up, sit down, stop playing grabass, and learn how many commandments there are, well, if that's a holy act, it's one with both hands in the profane. And at these times a more homely word seems right for the school-slash-synagogue where this happens.

There are also synagogues that actually are little places. European synagogues could be little wooden shacks. I went to a synagogue once in Bangkok that was a room in a hotel. A small, homely word seems right for a small, homely place. Maybe we humans should know before whom we stand when we pray, but, if there is a God, he should know who stands before Him -- small people, with small lives and small concerns, setting some time aside in their small, homely lives for something sacred. And he should see them in a place that frames their lives. A place that is likewise small and homely.

Maybe man goes to Temple, where can be elevated. But God, if He exists? God goes to shul.

Some examples of the use of the word shul:

The Tarnished Image, Louis M. Sandman: "The Jew, who is kind to his fellow man but does not come to shul, is a better Jew than the one who comes to shul every day, but is unkind to his fellow man and oppresses him."

Tevye the Dairyman: And, Motl the Cantor's Son, Sholem Aleichem: "During our first week here, my mother began asking around about a shul where she could pray on Shabbes. In New York, thank God, there is a shul on almost every street."

The Alster Files: The Truth as I See it, Joseph Alster: "Every morning before sunrise, the old man slowly and deliberately gets out of bed to do what he has been doing since the days of his youth — to prepare to go to his house of prayer, the shul.  "


Film: Der Purimspiler, 1937

This is the second Yiddish film made by actor/director Joseph Green, and, seemingly encouraged by the success of "Yidl mitn fidl" with Yiddish stage star Molly Picon, "Der Purimspiler" is a product of incresed confidence and skill. There is a visible increase in budget, as the Picon film was shot on location at an actual Polish shtetl, while this was filmed, from what I have been able to tell, on a constructed shtetl set built on a farm outside Warsaw, with additional footage shot in Kazimierz.

It's not a lavish film by any means, but it includes a circus parade and a beer hall concert, and both are marvelous and more advanced than the threadbare scenery and cramped settings of the earlier film. The camerawork is looser and more contemporary as well, featuring frequent moving camera shots that follow the characters as they move through the set.

The story itself is both delightful and melancholy, featuring a subdued, heartbreaking performance by Zygmunt Turkow, a playwright, stage actor, and the founder of several highly regarded theaters. He plays Getzel, an itinerant worker with the bindle and stick of a hobo, the ill-fitting clothes of a screen comic, and a face that looks Liam Neeson fashioned from a scarecrow. He wears a constant, timid, worried smile, and his performance is so subtle that he often communicates heartbreak just by letting the smile fade. He's also the titular Purimspiler -- a performer at Purim holiday events -- and has some talent for stage magic.

He wanders into a small Jewish village in a manner that is almost dreamlike, entering through an orchard on the end of town where a bevy of maidens dressed in Galitzianer folk costumes and Princess Leia side buns pick apples, all singing something that sound like the welcoming music to Oz. One, in particular, sings counterpoint to the others, seeming delighted by herself, and delighted by everything. This is Miriam Kressyn, one of the great actresses of Yiddish stage, who possessed an operatic singing voice and an almost explosive sense of bonhomie. Compared to Turkow's smile, hers is almost manic, and she throws herself through each scene with mannerisms that are obviously borrowed from the stage, but seems expressionistic in this film. She's an overlarge figure of youthful zest, and Getzel falls for her immediately.

He also goes to work for a local shoemaker who labors in dire poverty. There is a Yiddish expression, "ale shusters geyen borves," that means "all shoemakers go barefoot," and this film sometimes seems to be a dramatization of this. The shoemaker and his father are both comic characters -- every comic character in this film looks like Popeye with a stringy beard, including an actual sailor who shows up at the end of the movie -- and the shoemaker's father will sometimes wander into the scene with his own broken shoes and a pleading look on his face, only to be chased out.

But it's a happy poverty, and  Turkow is happy mooning quietly after the shoemaker's daughter but never telling her, which is honestly for the best, as she regards him with the same sexless affection she might have for an older brother. This can't continue for long, and doesn't. First a circus comes to town, bringing with it a cheerful performer named Dick, and he's played by Hymie Jacobson, and it's just about certain Miriam Kressyn will end up with him, as she was actually married to him at the time. He invites her to the circus (Turkow follows and is humiliated by a stage magician), and he woos her in the moonlight, although it doesn't go as well as he hopes. Frightened by a barking dog, he leaps into a tree, and when she laughs and asks him how he doesn't know that barking dogs don't bite, he says the most Jewish thing in the film: "I know. But does the dog know?"

Worse still, the shoemaker inherits a fortune and immediately becomes unbearably nouveau riche, which, if you're Jewish and look like Popeye with a beard, apparently means hanging outside the synagogue with men in black tops hats and sharing snuff. He also starts making plans to marry off his daughter, and not to some fly-by-night showman. It all culminates during a Purim party where Turkow has a very bad reaction to the shoemaker trying to foist his daughter off on the idiotic son of a local rich man. Turkow has been hired to perform, but instead he has a bit of a nervous breakdown, tearing off his mask and alternating between laughing and shouting at the shoemaker, telling him he'll never be anything more than a shoemaker.

He and Kressyn run off together, and Kressyn meets Hymie Jacobson again, who is now doing a little vaudeville act where he sings jazzy songs and dances strange little hopping dances that culminate in him pogoing in place. It quickly becomes obvious that Turkow is a third wheel, and a heartsick one. It all ends on an ambiguous note as Turkow slinks off the way he came, through the apple orchard, and the camera gives one last look at his confused, unhappy face.

I thought the film was simply lovely. It unspools like a fable, pausing frequently to give it's character a chance to do little bits of comic business or just to sing a little -- this isn't really a musical, even though sometimes an orchestra will well up, but instead just a world where people will sing when they feel like it, and sometimes the orchestra does not bother. It's a sad world too, but not an unhappy one -- people mostly seem wryly perplexed by their misfortunes, even Turkow, who does not have the bearing of a man who can handle much heartbreak.The film never lingers on emotional pain, even though it all seems to build around Turkow's unease and sadness.

There's also something very Jewish about that. Sadness is just another part of the experience of this world, just a daily companion. It's confusing, but, then, a lot of things are confusing, even things that are supposed to be happy, like fortunes and holiday parties. We may not understand it, we may not like it, but we bear it, and we move on.


Book: Adventures in Yiddishland by Jeffrey Shandler

Firstly, let me say that Jeffrey Shandler's 2006 "Adventures in Yiddishland" is a decidedly academic book. It's subtitle is "Postvernacular Language & Culture." It is sometimes written with the dry tone and scholarly jargon of a postgraduate lecture. Mr. Shandler is an academic -- he is the Chair and Professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers. The book was published by the University of California Press, the same group that published such popular titles as "Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature" and "Crossing Aspectual Frontiers: Emergence, Evolution, and Interwoven Semantic Domains in South Conchucos Quechua Discourse."

That being said, Shandler also collects Yiddish kitsch, which he calls tchotchkes, so he may be an academic, but he's not inaccessible. I found his book to be perfectly readable -- quite enjoyable actually. But, then, I pursued an undergraduate degree in Jewish studies, so it may also be that I'm the right sort of audience for this book.

One of the tip-offs that Shandler is an academic, rather than, say, an activist, is that he has an important central idea and has given it an entirely unsexy name. The phrase he uses, and, as far as I can tell, coined is "postvernacular." And it no doubt is the right word, the exact word for his idea. A vernacular language is, if you'll forgive me quoting Wikipedia, a "native language or native dialect of a specific population," and Yiddish was that, once. For a small portion of Jews -- either old or very religious -- it still is.

But for the rest of us, Yiddish is not our native language. It's not used as an everyday language of communication. In fact, for modern American Jews, Yiddish really has no formal place -- it's not used in the synagogue, nor the summer camps, nor usually the sorts of places where Jews get together to do Jewish things, except sometimes embedded as atomized expressions in English speech. And yet it persists in a variety of ways, and Shandler's book explores the various ways it persists. His tchotchkes are one example. Yiddishists educational programs, another. Klezmer another. It's a deep look into some of the obscure alleyways of modern Judaism, and the author takes great interest in the fact that Yiddish has been embraced both by Judaism's ultra-right and activist LGBT Jews.

Shandler makes the convincing case that Jews have a long history with postvernacular languages: We continued to study Hebrew long after it ceased being a spoken language, thanks to it being the language of the Bible, and we retained Aramaic long after most Jews stopped speaking it, thanks to it being the language of the Talmud. In this book, Shandler looks at the ways Yiddish has been maintained, and the reasons why.

Something goes undiscussed, and it's worth mentioning. Both the Torah and the Talmud are essential Jewish documents, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on your upbringing. (The very Orthodox still learn Aramaic, but, as a boy attending a Reform religious program, I did not.) Yiddish has no similar document, and while the language produced some very fine literature, we do not treat literature in the way we treat holy texts.

Most American Jews would be perfectly satisfied to read I. L. Peretz in translation, and would not feel the need to spend years studying Yiddish to read him in his original language. But most Jews are required to read the Hebrew of the Torah aloud at their Bar or Bat Mitvah, and there are Hebrew prayers at virtually all Jewish events, and so there is both a compelling reason to teach Hebrew and a mechanism for doing so. Further, Hebrew is the national language of Israel, and most modern American Jewish institutions have Zionist leanings, and so there is additional reason to teach the language. This simply does not exist for Yiddish. Or it does, but only in haredi communities that use Yiddish the same way the Amish use Pennsylvania German, as a way of separating themselves from the mainstream world.

Yet Yiddish continues among mainstream Jews. I think this is worth exploring, as Shandler has done so, because it indicates some inchoate value Jews find in the language, even when it isn't the language of sacred texts or a Jewish nation. And Shandler finds that the language is plastic enough to be meaningful to all sorts of Jews for all sorts of reasons. Yiddish is a language of nostalgia for some. A language of activism for others. A language of comedy for many. A language of poetry for a few.

It's good stuff to chew on, especially if you're like me, or, in my case, are me, as I am. And by that I mean: If you're someone who is not just engaged in Yiddish, but wishes to actively encourage its use by other Jews. Some Jews may want to use aspects of the language because it makes them feel more Jewish. Some may want to use aspects of the language because it Judaizes their experiences, as with GLBT Jews and Jewish feminists, who wish to describe the uniquely Jewish aspects of their experience and want to use Jewish language to do so. Some may want to know Yiddish songs, because they feel aesthetically attracted to the music. Or maybe some will want to use Yiddish as a sort of countercultural argot -- it wouldn't be the first time.

Most of these people will not be using Yiddish as a vernacular language -- even for non-Haredi Jews who are fluent in the language, as Shandler points out, must create infrequent opportunities to use Yiddish as a vernacular, and as a result there is something performative about it. So Shandler's book raises all sorts of tantalizing questions about how people currently use Yiddish, how they might use it in the future, and how that might come about.

It just needs a sexier name than postvernacular. But what? What? The Freshest New Beats of Yiddish? Yiddish on Fleek? Yiddish Young Boots? Yiddish AF?

I'm probably not the right person to come up with a sexy name.


The 100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Schmear

I don't know that Jews get to take credit for this word, but, then, credit is never given, it is always taken. In Omaha we invented one of the great Jewish sandwiches, the Reuben, and, son of a gun, wouldn't you know it, along comes Reuben's Deli in New York to insist that, no, they made it. Like New York doesn't have enough, they need to steal a Midwestern sandwich.

Shmear means "smear" in Yiddish, but it means the same thing in German and related languages. I find references to a Pennsylvania Dutch food called schmear-case from 1858, and it's apparently a soft cheese meant for spreading, and that's exactly what Jews are talking about when they say schmear.

But no matter. If the Pennsylvania Dutch brought the word to the New World, the Jews ran away with it. Indeed, its secondary usage, which is to mean "bribe," has been associated with Jews since at least 1785, when Englishman Francis Grose included it in his "A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue." This usage made it to America and never went out of style -- this past June two Florida politicians held competing bagel breakfasts, one of which was roughly ten times more expensive than the other. The competing campaign immediately put out a critical, if winking, press release "It isn’t clear what they can expect to gain from opting for the costlier bagels. Does that come with a schmear?"

Of course, the competing campaign could always claim they were asking an innocent question, as we do put schmear on our bagels. That's the way it's usually used nowadays, sometimes to mean cream cheese, sometimes to mean butter, sometimes to mean anything we could possible spread with a knife. There is a brand of almond filling from Love 'N Bake that insists it's a schmear. They also make cinnamon filling and call it schmear. They make a chocolate filling and call it schmear. One starts to get the sense that there is nothing Love 'N Bake won't put in a can and call schmear; I look forward to their haggis schmear.

So what is a schmear, really? Any condiment that can be schmeared, I suppose, so honey can be a schmear. Jelly is a schmear. Although, the less likely a Jew is to eat something in a deli, the stranger it will sound if you call it a schmear. Mustard is a schmear. Ketchup? No. Mayo? A schmear. Barbecue sauce? Get out.

Schmear should be used aggressively. Belly your way up to a deli counter and start hollering: "Does that come with schmear?" is a good starter. Or "What sort of schmear does that come with?" Or, "I'm on a diet, so go light on the schmear." And then tell them a little more, just a little more, it's just a diet, go ahead and pile it on. I think it's part of the reason schmear remains so popular. Nowadays, anybody can eat bagels, but it's still mostly Jews who make a fuss about schmear. It's a primal cry of ethnic pride. Try it. Go into contemporary bagel place and look over their menu, and then make a face at the person behind the counter and say "Canola butter? This is a schmear?"

Boom. Jewish.

Another usage of schmear is in the expression "the whole schmear," which, in essence, means "everything." You'd use it like this:

HAIM: Did you get your temperature took?
BERNIE: The nurse took my temperature, yes.
HAIM: And did she check your heart?
BERNIE: She was comprehensive.
HAIM: So she checked you all over?
BERNIE: Toe to tip.
HAIM: Even your ...
BERNIE: The whole schmear, Haim. The whole schmear.

Here are some examples of the use of the word "schmear":

The Cheaper the Crook, the Gaudier the Patter, Alan Axelrod: "Order a bagel and cream cheese in an oldschool New York deli, and you'll be asked if you want a 'slab or a schmear,' the cream cheese laid down in a slab or spread flat in a schmear."

Heidegger and Unconcealment, Mark A. Wrathall: "Consider the example of the salmon schmear. It is because I ordered a salmon, not a strawberry, schmear and because, in the context of bagel shops, one's order is generally fulfilled, that I am primed for my bagel to come with a salmon schmear. The pinkish color of the schmear in that context leads me to anticipate the fishy flavor of a salmon schmear."

Blood Atonement: A Dahlgren Wallace Mystery, Jim Tenuto: "'My claim to fame,' he boasts, 'is introducing a decent bagel and a schmear to the state of Montana. That, and klezmer music. You think any of these cowboys ever heard klezmer music before The Cowboy Vey Deli opened?'"


Cooking the East European Way: Lazy Cabbage Rolls

This is a Ukrainian/Russian dish called "lenyvi golubtsi," which I am told translates as "lazy cabbage rolls," presumably because the meal is usually the sort of thing you'd put into a roll, but you couldn't be bothered. This may be the best-named food yet -- how many other cultures have recipes that insult your work ethic?

I have located a recipe that finely chops the ingredients, adds rice, gets squeezed into little balls, and then deep fried, but I was feeling especially lazy, so I went with the simplest recipe. This is a mix of shredded cabbage, diced carrots, tomato paste, onion, and ground beef (as I am a vegetarian, I used a vegetarian substitution). The whole of it is fried on a stovetop and left on a low heat for a while, and then just plopped onto a plate and seasoned with salt, pepper, and, this being an Eastern European dish, dill.

The results are pure comfort food, and, as a Minnesotan, a comfort food that was unexpectedly familiar. We have a rather famous local meal called hotdish, which is a savory casserole, and there are two types -- those made with a tomato base, and those made with cream of mushroom soup, which we call "Lutheran Béchamel." This tastes like the sort of thing a Minnesotan with tomato sauce might whip up, although, in Minnesota, you never know what they might throw in -- cocktail weenies, wild rice, chow mein noodles, even marshmallows, god help us. 

I decided to try an experiment and mix the leftovers with a traditional Minnesotan hotdish ingredient, egg noodles, which also seemed appropriately Jewish, because if I dumped some cinnamon on the resulting dish I could pretend it was a kugel that went terribly wrong somehow. 

And in answer to my own unstated question: Yes. Lazy cabbage rolls on top of egg noodles is a hotdish. In fact, there is an almost identical Minnesota recipe called Cabbage Hamburger Hotdish. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by this, or by the fact that almost everything I have made so far tastes oddly familiar. Despite Minnesota's insistence that it is the unrecognized seventh Scandinavian country, we also boast a sizable Eastern European population, especially in the the Twin Cities, Duluth, and the Iron Range. 

I suppose it had never occurred to me that Eastern Europeans were secretly inserting their ingredients into Minnesota hot dish recipes. But now I know. The intention of this project was to explore the recipes of Eastern Europe, but I've come to the realization that I've already explored a lot of these recipes. They were just loaded into casserole dishes and served in church basements.


Week 25: Idioms

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 174 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 95 hours
I have reviewed 2,439 individual flashcards

I've been working on idioms lately, specifically from Fred Kogos' book "A Dictionary Of Yiddish Slang & Idioms." Kogos has another book that is a collection of Yiddish proverbs, and I'll start on that next.

This is part of my building toward being able to construct Yiddish sentences, and it both has and has not been helpful. Most of us express ourselves pretty idiomatically, so it's important to know that if someone says, in Yiddish, that you should stop knocking a teakettle, that it means you're bothering them. But I don't know how useful knowing this is when it comes to more general conversation, unless that conversation happens to be about someone who actually has a teakettle and has started knocking it.

Kogos' book can be a little frustrating, as it's literally just a list of words and phrases. They are transliterated without also being offered in the aleph beys, the Yiddish alphabet, and the words are not offered in any sort of context, so, with many of them, it's not entirely clear how you might use them. One critic on Amazon wrote that "This book appears to be a first draft. No pronunciation help. Does not show how use the words. It would be worth buying if the author finishes it." The review was written in 1998, and the book was published in 1969. Additionally, Mr. Kogos passed away in 1974, so it's probably safe to say that no second draft will be forthcoming.

I've learned about 200 idioms from Kogos' book, which is a fraction of what he has to offer. I picked the ones that seemed most immediately useful to me, and will likely go back and add more to my vocabulary in the future. But I am going to give myself an idiom merit badge, and memorizing 200 idioms seemed like a perfectly decent accomplishment.

Their grammatical value is probably limited, as idioms, by their nature, are not always entirely proper sentences. But they are easier to learn than proverbs, as they are usually only a few words. I've already added a few proverbs into my mix of flashcards , and some of them I have had the devil of a time trying to memorize. Here's one, loosely: You should see something you want but not have the money to buy it. It took me an entire week to remember how to say this sentence.

But as I have learned idioms, I have found my ability to learn and remember longer sentences has gotten better. It's a different skill than simply learning a new word -- I have to learn the sentence in smaller groupings of a few words at a time, generally words that seem logically clustered together. In the above example, it might break down like this:

1. You should see
2. Something you want
3. But not
4. Have the money
5. To buy it

That's not precise, of course, because the Yiddish doesn't translate exactly the same, but it gives a sense of how I cluster words. And parts of the cluster I memorize quickly, while other parts I seem to misremember every time.

I plan to learn 200 proverbs, and I will be curious to see if it gets easier to learn them with practice, or if this will be a constant challenge. I will also be curious as to the effect memorizing Yiddish proverbs has on me. Individual words might offer some insight into the Yiddish world (for instance, the fact that Yiddish speakers use the same word for "foot" that they do for "leg," and that the word for "toe" could fairly be translated as "finger from leg," which is, frankly, bizarre.) But proverbs provide a more complicated glimpse into the Yiddish mind.

Years ago, I memorized a particular Yiddish phrase which I have often pulled out as a sort of party trick, which translates as "It's best to learn to shave on a stranger's beard." I memorized it because it was humorous and also a bit odd, but once you memorize something, you end up thinking about it a lot.

And I have learned more about beards. I have learned that, before the era of the safety razor, shaving was a spectacularly dangerous undertaking. It was easy to get nicked by a straight razor, and a nick, back in the days before we understood the need for cleanliness,could lead to infection. These infections could turn fatal. Composer Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin died of a nick that became septic in 1915. Henry David Thoreau's brother contracted tetanus from a razor and died of it. A bad shave could be so dangerous that, without a dependable barber, many men chose to forgo a clean shave, which may be why there were so many beards during the Victorian era.

So this little gem of Yiddish is literally suggesting that if you've got to learn how to shave, and somebody might die from it, it probably should be a stranger. At least, that's how I take it, and I suppose it's good advice, if a bit sociopathic. Of course, these phrases were often meant ironically, and a little psychopathology can really spice up a joke.

It's a good lesson in another way: Even the most innocuous Jewish phrases can hide a sharply ironic worldview. Hidden in a simple Yiddish sentence there might be a razor, and advice for who it should kill.


The 100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Tchotchke

There are gaps in the English language. They are easy to find, because we try to fill them with existing words, and then pedants complain that we are misusing the word. Take "ironic," as an example. We don't have a word that means "novel coincidence," so we've shoved "ironic" into that spot, and it doesn't really belong there. Critics may carp endlessly about Alanis Morissette's song "Ironic" -- and their carping does seem endless, because the song is 26 years old -- but the singer was using the word the way a lot of people do, because it's the word that fits, even if it isn't the right word.

"Kitsch" is another word that acts as a placeholder for a word we're missing. Technically, kitsch refers to bad taste that people mistake for good taste, like Thomas Kindade paintings. There are also objects that are tacky but people love ironically, and the word for that is "camp." But we have no English word for objects we know to be tacky but love anyway and without irony, like Pet Rocks or velvet clown paintings or lawn ornaments.

People often use "kitsch" to refer to these objects, but it's a poor fit, as these small things rarely pretend to be great art and their owners rarely mistake them for great art. I'd like to offer a Yiddish word to fill the gap: tchotchke.

Properly, the word is pronounced tzatzke or tsatske, depending on its spelling, and comes from a Slavic word meaning trinket. In Yiddish, it typically refers to little baubles or toys, but often with a hint of affection -- there's an idiom, tsatske der momma's, and it translates approximately as "mother's favorite" or "mother's pet."

What qualifies as a tchotchke? Any little geegaw or doodad, I suppose. My grandfather's longtime partner Florence loved little statues of elephants and filled their apartment with them. These were tchotchkes. Snow globes are tchotchkes. Collectable plastic figures from popular television shows are tchotchkes. Plastic jewelry are tchotchkes. Party lights are tchotchkes.

Tchotchkes should be small, decorative, and relatively valueless. And this brings us to a second, and more troubling, use of the word: According to Leo Rosten, the word also refers to cheap or trashy women. I'm going to go ahead and say English already has plenty of words for such people, too many, really. We could do with less. We could do with none. So we don't need tchotchke for this purpose, and let's mutually agree not to use it for this purpose.

Here are some examples of tchotchke being used in a sentence:

"The Seduction by and the Abduction of Marilyn Monroe Or Tchotchke! Tchotchke! Tchotchke!," Harold Cohen:

AGATHA: I have other collectibles to show you. 
DUPREY: If they're just tchotchkes, don't bother. 
AGATHA: I have Mickey and Minnie. (Bringing them to her) 
DUPREY: A tchotchke.

"I'll take it: a novel," Paul Rudnick: "Aunt Ida's home was furnished in a clean, modern style, with a dense overlay of tchotchkes. Tchotchke was a Yiddish word; Joe's mother had told him it meant "'little things' or 'junk.'"

"My Last Splurge," Alicia Bones: "Grandpa thought we were saying Chulla's name was 'Tchotchke,' and he couldn't get over what a terrible name that was for a little girl. He kept saying, 'Caroline, tchotchke means a tacky little thingamabob! Tchotchke! A tacky thing!'" 

"Cooking Jewish," Judy Kancigor: "For as long as I can remember I have always loved old things. My mother knows that the quickest way for her to move a tchotchke from her house to my house is for her to tell me that it's old. Even faster if she tells me that it belonged to my grandmother, and faster still  is she tells me my grandmother brought it with her from the Old Country."


Dress British Drink Yiddish: The Pink Elephant Room at Grossinger's

When I was a boy, for a few years, I spent summers in the Catskills with my grandfather Jack, who had a little cabin up there. It wasn't much, but at least I got a glimpse of the world of the Borscht Belt, even if it was a the tail end of the institution. I remember it mostly as old Jewish men playing pinochle and second-tier comics doing very shticky routines. These were guys I saw on Carson, and I was amazed to see them doing completely different material, sometimes ending jokes with incomprehensible Yiddish idioms that had the old Jewish men in stitches. "What did that mean?" I asked my grandfather, who literally wept with laughter at the joke. "On a friend's beard it is good to learn how to shave," he'd gasp back.

If I am going to look at Jewish bars of the past, I might as well start at places like this. Catskill's resorts weren't exclusively Jewish, but they might as well have been. If you ever wanted to experience an alternative America, where the dominant majority is Jewish, where Yiddish was widely understood and spoken, and where the American diet consisted of kosher deli food, it was in the Borscht Belt hotels.

It was also the greatest expression of Jewish kitsch and specifically Jewish bad taste in history, and so, of course, if you're curious about what it might look like if Jews built bars for other Jews, here is where you start.

I'm starting with Grossinger's, mostly because I find the name of their main saloon delightful. It was the Pink elephant Room, and before that it was the Bamboo Room, and both are exactly the sorts of names I want bars to have.

First, a thumbnail history of both the Borscht Belt and Grossinger's. The Catskills developed as a Jewish getaway in the 1920s, mostly out of necessity -- Jews were routinely access to gentile-owned hotels and vacation resorts. By the 1940s and 50s, the area had exploded, offering perhaps 500 resorts. It was, in its time, one of the great incubators of American entertainment, providing opportunities for budding comedians and musical acts.

The Borscht Belt began its long decline in the 1960s, partially because Jews had accessed to a lot of the mainstream vacation opportunities that had previously been denied to them. The resorts struggled on for several more decades, but by the 1980s most of them had closed and the era of the Borscht Belt had reached its end.

Grossinger's was one of the Borscht Belt's largest resorts, having grown from a small kosher hotel in the early part of the 20th century to a 1,200 acre, 35-building resort community by 1972 -- it was big enough to have its own post office. In its heyday in the 50s and 60s, Grossinger's drew some huge acts, including Mambo King Tito Puento, who recorded an entire album there in 1960 called "Live at Grossinger's" that included a song called "Grossinger's Cha Cha Cha." Eddie Fisher met Debbie Reynolds at Grossinger's and married her there.

So let's talk about the bar. I haven't been able to locate anything about the Bamboo Room -- I presume it was tropically themed -- but the Pink Elephant Lounge is well documented. Firstly, it was pink. Pink carpet. Pink wallpaper. Pink cushions on the chairs. It even had a stuffed pink elephant hanging at the bar.

It was something of a hot spot for aspiring Lotharios: According to "Growing Up at Grossinger's" by Tania Grossinger, in its Bamboo Lounge days it had been called the Meat Market and Pig's Alley, and I found an online group consisting of only three people and "Dedicated to preserving the memory of sneaking into Grossinger's on Saturday night and meeting chicks at the Pink elephant lounge."

What was it like? Well, a former cocktail waitress from Grossinger's named Mindy Littman Holland offered a vivid description on her website, and I will quote a few passages:

"By the time we were two weeks into the summer, all of the virgins had been deflowered by golf pros and pool boys. I wasn’t a virgin going in – lucky me – but I was far more knowledgeable going out than coming in. 

I ended up dating a guy from Canarsie whose face should have been posted at every planned parenthood clinic in the country – wanted, dead or alive. The man was the knock-up king of the Borscht Belt. There was one woman he impregnated four times – and they still couldn’t figure out how to prevent it. He eventually stopped having sex with her in order to have sex with me. He was a real stand-up guy that way – and in every way, apparently. In fact, he was so fertile, I got a false positive pregnancy test from just kissing him!  No, I’m not kidding."

The bar was also used for entertainment. Ken Dornstein's book "The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky," the Pink Elephant Room was the location of morning samba lessons. According to the website The Schmooze, Grossinger's had cocktail parties on Friday and Saturday nights. According to "Growing Up at Grossinger's," the bar had an "entertainment area for musical groups and dancing." I'd love to track down more information about the sort of entertainment offered -- when I do, I'll append it to this article.

It's still possible to see the Pink Elephant Room. While the resort closed in 1986, the building still stands in a dangerous state of disrepair, and urban explorers occasionally peek in to take photos. The roof has started to sag inward, but the bar stools still stand, albeit stripped of their pink cushions -- from the photos I have seen, none of the bar's signature color remains. Neither does the elephant.

All that remains are memories, I suppose, of cha cha dancers and late-night hookups.


On Being a Yiddish Hobbyist

If there is a bane of existence, it is tunnels. I live in Omaha, where there are a lot of tunnels. The town was originally very bluffy, but was graded in the early 20th century, and so a lot of houses were just left on little hills and tunnels were built to exit out onto the streets.

The whole city was built on a network of tunnels that were used for various public works, from water pipes to electrical wires to sewers -- every so often a street collapses into a sinkhole and it is possible to see that Omaha's streets are essentially a sagging sheet of pavement laid out over a network of tunnels. And there were little dugouts under houses that weren't so much tunnels as they were fruit cellars. If your house is old enough, you might have one of those. There were also some tunnels used to move underground from building to building -- a lot of downtown was connected in this way.

And in Omaha, everybody seems to think these tunnels were used by bootleggers to movie illicit merchandise. I am the research specialist at our local historical society, and must field questions about tunnels all the time. In fact, I'm giving an interview on the subject today, despite having told the person who is interviewing me that I am a spoilsport on the subject.

And I am a spoilsport because, overwhelmingly, these tunnels were not used by bootleggers. Omaha was a town that ignored Prohibition, which it did so easily because we had a political boss, Tom Dennison, who was in cahoots with the city's mayor and police department. There is simply no need to run bottles of booze through tunnels when it is much easier to load them up in trucks and drive them to wherever they need to go, especially when you can do this without any fear of arrest. And I tell people this, and they look depressed, and then go back to happily discussing how Omaha tunnels were used by bootleggers. I will never dispel the myth, and it will always be a thorn in my side.

I mention this as prelude, because I know what a pain in the ass hobbyists can be. They all clump up around a few subjects that they find especially exciting or interesting, some of which are pure urban legend. There is a persistent myth about an albino farm in a park north of the city that is perplexing and incomprehensible. I don't know why Omahans believe albinos live on farms, neither do I know why this scares people.

Hobbyists come in to do genealogical research, and I can see they are doing it wrong, and all of them insist on famous ancestors. Hobbyists research their own family home, determined to discover that it was historically important, and overlooking the things that make it really interesting, which are usually more quotidian but nonetheless valuable. Hobbyists call me to donate a newspaper about Kennedy getting shot, which we do not need another copy of, and it turns out they just threw out decades worth of private correspondence, which would be invaluable. Hobbyists get their facts wrong, go about researching history in a way that is frankly bizarre, and often construct strange, conspiracy-driven alternate histories based on faulty research.

And that's what I am to Yiddish. I know it. I am a lone hobbyist living in Omaha, studying the language on my own. I am not an academic on the subject. I am not even a Yiddishist. I'm just a lone weirdo with a peculiar leisure-time activity. I have known a lot of autodidacts in my time, and know just how weird and incomplete and misinformed their self-education often is, and know I am likely the same regarding Yiddish. I'm literally inventing my own way of learning Yiddish, and doing so on the fly. I don't have the background to know if anything I am studying is credible, and I don't have a community of scholars and experts to bounce my work off of. I don't even have native speakers in my life, but for the coarse Yinglish I grew up hearing my father speak.

And yet.

And yet, after you work at a historical society long enough, you start to develop a grudging appreciation for the hobbyist. Regional history is often mostly in their hands, because nobody else cares enough to do the work. Certainly nobody else is going to construct their family tree for them, or research their house. As a result, history is personal to them, rather than academic, and tends to be a living thing, rather than a museum piece.

Hobbyists sometimes engage with the past creatively. It's how I got my start in history -- as a playwright rather than a researcher. And those creative works may not be great history, but they can also serve as great popularizers of history. As a historian, I wince at "Gangs of New York," the Herbert Asbury book that republished rumor and urban legend as fact. But as a creative person, it delights me. It produced the Martin Scorsese film, of course, but has also influenced more than that -- it created new interest in genuine scholarship regarding the era, as well as new creative works. I've done both: I spent a long time researching Mose the Fireboy, a character that appeared in the books that turns out to have been based on a real person, and I also wrote a play based on another character, Sadie the Goat, who almost certainly wasn't a real person.

This blog is an experiment in Yiddish as a hobby, even knowing all the attendant problems and irritations that this guarantees. It's an activist blog, in the sense that it is intended to encourage others to explore Yiddish, and Yiddish culture, as a hobby. And this is deliberate. Because I want to encourage greater use of Yiddish, to popularize it, to encourage its continued use as the language of secular Judaism. This won't happen if the language is an academic subject, because there are a lot of people, like me, who don't have the money or the access to Yiddish in the academy. Moreover, I think it is important to encourage post-vernacular uses of Yiddish. As much as I appreciate the Yiddishist dream of restoring Yiddish as a widely spoken Jewish language, I don't think the years of study and Yiddish immersion that this requires is reasonable or even possible for many modern Jews.

I don't know that I can actually encourage Yiddish as a hobby. I think it is possible, because the popularity of books like Michael Wex's "Born to Kvetch" suggests there is still a great deal of  interest Yiddish out there. But even if there is interest, I might not be the one to popularize. I spent years in Minneapolis as a cultural critic, aggressively lobbying for the sorts of thing I thought Minnesotans should celebrate, and was mostly ignored. It may be that my particular tastes are just too far off the beaten path for others to share.

And there is another risk: That I am successful. That a growing group of Yiddish hobbyists follow my lead, memorizing long lists of Yiddish words for sex organs and gathering in bars to create Slivovitz cocktails. I know these people, because they're the same ones who ask me about tunnels. They will get Yiddish wrong. They will be interested in things that aren't important and ignore things that are important. They're the same people who took the word "chutzpa," which was a Yiddish expression of indignance at impudence, and turned it into an expression of approval for someone's nerve and mettle.

But they get to. That's what happens with a living language -- it's defined by the people who use it, even if they completely reverse a word's meaning, as has happened with the word "literally" in the English language. It's the hard lesson I have learned on the subject of community building, which is something I have been quite interested in in the past few years. I learned, to my chagrin, that a community isn't developed, but develops on its own, in the spaces where it is allowed to develop. And a community has its own agenda and interests, and has the right to those agendas and interests, and the best you can do is add your voice, rather than try to steer.

If there ever is a community of Yiddish hobbyists, they are going to decide what Yiddish means to them and even what words mean. They will decide how much Yiddish they want to know and how they use it. And not only is that their right, there literally is no other option but to let that happen. And how can I complain? It's what I am doing.

So here's a starting point: The Yiddish word for tunnel is "tunel."


The 100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Klutz

You probably already know the word "klutz," because it's a word we need in English but didn't have until we borrowed it from Yiddish. A klutz is, of course, a perpetually clumsy person, borrowed from the German word meaning "lump." The closest English equivalent I can think of is "butterfingers," which doesn't have the existential, full-bodied quality that klutz does. A butterfingers might accidentally drop his science project. A klutz drops it, tries to retrieve it, kicks it against a wall, and at that moment it explodes.

"Lummox" had a bit of a run, but there is a hint of stupidity in the word. The lummox is clumsy because thy're an unthinking animal. They are a beast who smashes things without knowing it. The lummox at least is afforded the dignity of being unaware. The klutz's wretchedness is compounded by awareness. The klutz knows they are a klutz, and hates themself for it. The klutz will always do their best not to be a klutz, and that will make things worse.

Nowadays, klutzes are everywhere. The Westerly Sun newspaper recently asked "Are you really a klutz in the kitchen?" The Janesville Gazette wrote of the Simpsons that "the father—Homer Simpson—is always an idiot, always a klutz, always the least intelligent character in any episode." CNBC titled a recent story "How a klutz like me saved $$$ doing DIY repairs."

For a word of such popularity, it was adopted relatively recently into the English language. If I had to guess the moment klutz entered the English language, I would guess it happened in 1968, and was the result of the publication of Leo Rosten's "The Joys of Yiddish." He included the word in his book, and the book was a bestseller and something of a national phenomenon. I suspect more than a few Yiddish words made the jump into the mainstream following the publication of Rosten's book; it's certainly the moment klutz starts making an appearance in the national press.

The earliest newspaper reference I find is from the syndicated column "Earl Wilson's New York" from February, 1970, which quoted actress Michele Lee as saying "I'm a klutz." The New York Times didn't use the word in an article until 1974, in a profile of actress Valerie Harper, who said ""I always felt like a klutz next to those other skinny girls, as we twirled our adorable little parasols."

I suspect the word's popularity has another source: There's Klutz Press out of Palo Alto, California, which publishes instructional books for the self-diagnosed klutz: "Juggling for the Complete Klutz," "The Klutz Book of Knots," and "The Klutz Book of Paper Airplanes." They began publishing in 1977, and I can't recall the last time I went into a bookstore without seeing their books prominently displayed. If a language is a dialect with an army and navy, as Max Weinreich said, then an idiom is just slang with a endcap at Barnes and Noble.

Here are some examples of the word klutz used in a sentence:

The Heebie-jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk, Steven Lee Beeber: "They also let Handsome Dick [Richard Manitoba of the Dictators] gradually take over as lead singer, substituting his comic rants and drunken klutz antics with a guttural approach to singing and shouting at the audience."

Current Biography Yearbook, 1980, Volume 41: "One of the charter members of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, the late-night show's original troupe of stand-up satirists, was Gilda Radner, a gawky, ratchet-voiced live wire whose stock in trade is the artful klutz."

Women who Love Sex, Gina Ogden: "He thought he was supposed to know how to do everything, and he felt like such a klutz. He was a klutz. But I loved him."


Cooking the East European Way: Fried Egg with Onion

Various sites list this as a Russian/Ukrainian recipe, but I had a hard time tracking down whether or not this is true. Finally I located a recipe called "oğanlı yumurta," which seems to mean "bulbous eggs," which is about as delightful a name as imaginable.

The recipe I made was quite simple: Chop up some onions, brown them in a pan, and then fry an egg on top of them. If I can trust Google translate, the original version also includes spices, sometimes red pepper, sometime paprika, and in some the onion are chopped into rings instead of being diced. Nonetheless, the recipe is essentially the same.

It is, as you can guess, a recipe with a strong onion flavor to it. We tend to use a light hand with onions in America, sprinkling a little raw chopped onion onto hamburgers and sandwiches as flavor, or breading and deep frying rings of the stuff. I don't know if I have ever met somebody who has just cooked an entire onion and then eaten it, even though this is a popular recipe throughout the world. I suspect the reason for this is our fear of having bad breath, but you're just going to have to set this fear aside to enjoy this meal, or other Eastern European meals that make extensive use of mounds of onion or garlic. And I haven't even started making food our of cabbage.

I like a cooked or browned onion. The vegetable develops a pleasing sweetness when cooked, and pairs well with egg without overpowering the flavor of the egg. It's a simple dish, but because it thrusts the flavor of the onion so much into the forefront, it feels like nothing an American would ever make. You see, in American, we have egg with maybe a little bit of onion.

In Russia, we have onion with maybe a little bit of egg.


The 100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Schlock

Once upon a time, it seemed like everybody in Hollywood spoke Yiddish. In fact, if there was a story set in Hollywood, characters would speak Yiddish, just to let us know it was a Hollywood story. "Bubbeh!" an agent might say. "Come here and sit, I have such news! Let me tell you the whole megillah!"

That trend seems to have come and gone, and I don't know if it was every really true or if it was just a convention. I lived in Hollywood in the 90s and the only people I ever heard speak Yiddish were beggars in the Orthodox neighborhoods, who would approach me on Friday afternoons with hands outstretched and beg "Tzedakah fun Shabbos" -- "charity on the sabbath." These beggars didn't seem like they were Jewish, but I suppose that beggars, like stand up comedians, do better if they know their audience.

There was a Yiddish word I used to actually hear in Hollywood, and hear people in the entertainment industry say: Schlock. It means "cheap" or "trashy," and that's exactly how it was used. In fact, there was a 1973 movie by John Landis called "Schlock," which was created as a spoof of low-budget genre films, exactly the sort of movie that people dismissed as schlocky. Landis is Jewish, but there is still every reason to believe he expected his audience would know what the world meant.

You would think this usage would be pretty old, and maybe it was -- there were a lot of Jewish studio heads, and I can imagine them complaining about the quality of their films in Yiddish. But it didn't become a public affectation until surprisingly late -- as far as I can tell, "schlock" hit the mainstream in 1964, when Life Magazine defined the word in an article about electronics cheap stores in New York, calling them "schlock stores." The same year, Paul Krassner's "The Realist" published a piece about trash literature, and the author wrote "The movie magazines were, like all good schlock, basically dishonest."

I'm not sure why, but the word seems to have entered the zeitgeist then. Something was in the air in the 60s that would encourage swinging young folks to seize an antiquated Yiddish word as their own. According to San Francisco Magazine, low budget youth movies used to fly hippies in to provide background color, a practice they called "schlock parties." Steve McQueen complained to newspapers in 1967, saying that he hoped his film "Champion" would be "the kind of film the professionals won't laugh at, as they have at the schlock Hollywood cranks out and calls racing film."

"Schlock" just kept growing in popularity, and remains popular, with film critic Richard Roper authoring a book in 2005 called "Schlock Value: Hollywood At Its Worst" and the Alamo Drafthouse nowadays offering a film series called Temple of Schlock.

It's a word that seems permanently stuck to bad movies, but it doesn't need to be. Here are some other uses of the word. If you want to use it in the fashion of groovy 60s Hollywood, go ahead and do so, but remember anything junky can be schlock.

Catskill Culture: A Mountain Rat's Memories of the Great Jewish Resort Area, Phil Brown: "What waiters and busboys really feared the most was working in a schlock house. How can I describe a schlock house? In Yiddish, schlock means junk, but the colloquial usage refers to something of poor quality, especially if it has pretensions. In the Catskills, what many people termed a schlock house was a run-down hotel, which, if full, held maybe 75-100 guest. Above all, the schlock house was disorganized and crude. It had no real facilities beyond a pool, handball court (often with many cracks in the pavement), perhaps a decayed tennis court, and sometimes a hoop and backboard on crumbly pavement. Entertainment in some of the very small hotels might be quite circumscribed -- some didn't even have a band and hence couldn't present singers."

New York Times review of "Lady Boss" by Jackie Collins, 1990: "In the latest installment in her continuing saga of Lucky Santangelo, the mobster's daughter who starred in 'Lucky' and 'Chances,' Jackie Collins combines the usual schlock novel ingredients: a Hollywood setting; a rich, gorgeous heroine; a generous sprinkling of movie stars, studio bosses, tycoons, socialites, scheming relatives and hangers-on; and a sex scene (or two) per chapter."

How to Talk Jewish, Jackie Mason and Ira Berkow: "Any time you see something you consider cheap, you say 'Ech, schlock'. It's low-class."

Yiddish: A Nation of Words, Miriam Weinstein: "Although some chronicled life in the new state, Yiddish writers more typically took as their subject remembrance, an attempt to make sense of their Yiddish-speaking past. They turned out novels and memoirs of lives that had been lived in Yiddish, a body of work that spanned the spectrum of high art and low schlock."


Film: Eli Eli (1940)

My father's family owned a poultry farm. I don't know much about it, and need to interrogate my father more, as they were New York Jews who lived in Brownsville in Brooklyn. Maybe nowadays the neighborhood is filled with urban farmers, but back in the 1940s when you said "Jew" and "New York," the next thing people thought of usually wasn't "chicken farm."

The farm was elsewhere. I have always had the idea it was in New Jersey, but I might have just made it up. Perhaps it was in upstate New York -- my grandfather had a summer place in the Catskills for many years. Maybe it was in Connecticut. I don't know. All I know is that once in a while my father mentioned that his family members would go out of the city for a weekend, collect eggs, and bring them back to sell.

I mention this half-remembered information because I watched a Yiddish film recently that's set on a Jewish chicken farm in Connecticut, and so while that might strike some viewers as surprising, it seemed about right to me. The film is called "Eli Eli" and was lensed in 1940, and I hoped it would help fill in some of the details about Jewish chicken farming. It didn't, alas. (There is another reference I can turn to one day, "Comrades and Chicken Farmers: The story of a California Jewish Community" by Kenneth Kann, which tells the true story of a sort-of war that broke out between Communist and non-Communist Jewish chicken farmers in Petaluma, California.)

"Eli Eli" barely concerns itself with chickens at all. No, it's a film version of the sort of Yiddish stage shows that were dismissively called "shund," meaning "trash." This was light melodramatic fare, often featuring broad comedy, and usually included a few musical numbers. "Eli Eli" has all this, and it's melodrama is one of family.

Our Jewish chicken farmers, an elderly couple played by Max Badin and Esther Field, immediately lose their chicken farm to the bank. The couple has two children, a son in Philadelphia and a daughter in New York, or maybe a daughter in Philadelphia and a son in New York -- the film subtitles perhaps one line of dialogue for every 20 spoken, so it was a bit hard to get the exact details. Each child takes one of the parents into their house, which nobody seems to think is odd. Perhaps in the 1940s is was common for old married couples to be split up when there was a financial crisis, but it seems unusually cruel nowadays.

It's supposed to be cruel. The film was directed by Joseph Seiden, who had a sizable career making Yiddish films, but also a notable career in English-language trash: In 1938 he scripted a film called "Sex Madness," which an IMDB commenter admirably summarized: "This sex exploitation film includes wild parties, sex out of wedlock, lesbianism, etc. After going to a 'casting couch,' a chorus girl contracts syphilis."

Yiddish-language trash is not English-language trash, of course, so "Eli Eli" replaces the garish spectacle of sexual exploitation with something equally traumatizing in the Jewish community: terrible children. In fact, the version of the film I have, from Alpha Video, has scrawled across their box cover bold yellow text that looks like it would belong on a psychotronic film: "ABANDONED BY THEIR HEARTLESS CHILDREN."

And make no mistake, having rotten children is just as life-destroying in this film as syphilis is in "Sex Madness": By the film's climax, the father has been accused stealing $60 and driven out of the home, and the mother lies dying in her bed, unconscious and unable to communicate, mostly because she was not invited to a birthday party.

It sounds a little hysterical, and it is. This is a world in which all older Jewish men look like Grandpa Joe from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory" and spend their entire day smoking pipes with long stems. It's a world that builds a protracted and completely unrelated song and dance number around the unlikelihood of romance between a Litvak and a Galitzianer. It's a film that bases its entire plot around children being utterly awful, and yet the children themselves are, at worst, occasionally a little grumpy. It's as though the entire film was written from the point of view of one of those stereotypical Jewish mothers that were in vogue in the mid-20th century, who might threaten suicide if you forgot to call last week. It's weird, and, weirder still, we're expected to sympathize. We're expected to understand that if you fail to invite your mother to a party, she might literally die, and that's a perfectly reasonable reaction.

There isn't a lot to recommend the film, technically speaking. It's a flat, ugly piece of filmmaking, looking something created by a filmmaker who saw a lot of Poverty Row melodramas and tried to recreate them out of cardboard. The plot is, as you have gathered, ludicrous. There are two comic performances in it that feel like a favor to the film's producer, as though he had said, listen, I'll bankroll this, but I have a son and a daughter in vaudeville and it's not going very well for them ...

And I love it. There has been a trend recently to ransack the world of trash and exploitation films and turn them into campy musicals, and I don't know how this film has been overlooked. It's already ready to be converted into a musical, as it features songs by the incomparable Sholom Secunda, who wrote "Bei Mir Bistu Shein." His songs are perfect -- lead actress Esther Field has a magnificent, sobbing singing voice, and he wrote songs for her that sound cantorial, as though the subtext of every song you hear in a synagogue is that there is a very unhappy mother somewhere.

Somebody needs to turn this into a play. Maybe I will. After all, I have the background in Jewish poultry farming.


Week 24: Six Months

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 167 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 89 hours
I have reviewed 2,338 individual flashcards

You never know what to expect from a project when you start it. I am just shy of completing six months of study, and I am not sure that I thought I would work on this project for so long. At the same time, I also thought that at six months I would be rattling off Yiddish like an old pro, which I knew to be unrealistic, but hoped anyway. Perhaps the value of not knowing what you don't know is that, without a sort of supernatural optimism, we might never start any projects at all.

At the moment, I do know what I don't know, and it's a biggie: I don't know how to fashion a really good Yiddish sentence. I had meant to address this already, but I started out by buying a book of Yiddish idioms. As it turns out, most idioms are neither very good sentences nor complete ones, but I still plunged into that rabbit hole and have memorized about 100 idioms at the moment.

It's been enjoyable, and so there is value in that, because if this project every gets boring, I risk wandering away from it. And there have been a dozen or so complete sentences in the mix, so now I know how to say "go bang your head against the wall" and "he twists like a fart in a foggy soup," the latter of which is just one of a surprisingly large number of Yiddish idioms that address flatulence, such as "neither a hit nor a fart" and the intensely disturbing "go fart in your own throat."

Once I finish with the idioms, I will movie on to Yiddish homilies and proverbs, which, for the most part, are complete sentences, and will allow me to see a lot of the words I have already used in the context of a sentence. Once I have completed that project, I will move on to memorizing a Yiddish phrase book, and once done with that I will get back to Yiddish grammar, which should make a lot more sense to me.

Another problem is that I currently am struggling with a massive pile of words that I just can't memorize, for whatever reason. I have been relying on sheer route repetition and a few simple mnemonics for this project, but these words defy me. I am going to have to come up with new ways to learn these words, because at the moment I am sometimes spending an hour a day on my flashcards, and it's the same 20 or 30 words again and again.

But since I am now six months in, I think it's worthwhile to take stock of what this experience has been like for me, and what I feel I have gotten out of it.

1. I undeniable have acquired a great deal of Yiddish. I feel like there is this huge stockpile of Yiddish words in my head that I just keep adding to. Some of it I can access instantly, some of it is a little buried and I have to struggle to remember it, and a lot of it I forget and remember and forget again. But it's there, and I know it, and it show up all the time. Yiddish can be a lot more fun then English, so I tend to say "untervesh" for underwear and "gatkes" for underpants in day-to-day use, just because I like the words more. Likewise "zitzer" is a more entertaining word for rear end and "vatnz" is a more entertaining word than  "pest."

The result is that I may not be fluent in Yiddish yet, but my Yinglish has really gotten entertaining.

2. This project started as a language project, and I thought I would gain enough Yiddish to be able to engage in basic communication, but maybe I would move on to another language program, because there are other languages I am interested in.

Instead, the theme of the blog that developed over the six months I have been working on it, "Think Yiddish," has started to expand and take over. Studying Yiddish led me to reading about the Yiddish language, which led me to reading about the uses of the Yiddish language, which led me to a lot of semi-related projects about Jewish history and culture. I wouldn't say I am surprised by this -- it's how my projects tend to go -- but it has been tremendously enjoyable.

3. It's been a pretty lonely project, which is strange. After all, Yiddish is a language, and language is a way for people to connect. But I haven't pursued finding other people to speak Yiddish with, and don't know when I will do so. Instead, this has been a project I have very much been doing on my own, and I am fine with that for just now. But eventually I am going to have to explore what it means to be a Yiddish speaker, and not just a Yiddish student.

4. By my count, I will have learned a little less than 5,000 words when I reach the end of my first year of study, which does not seem so far off right now. As I understand it, 5,000 words is the active vocabulary of many native speakers who do not have a higher education. I'm also led to believe it is enough words to understand new words from context. It's also the number of words learned by "linguistically disadvantaged
' students, according to a study I read, while more advantaged students know four times as many, so 5,000 words may be enough to get by in a language, but you're still going to be using language in such a way that, if you were a native speaker, parents and teachers would be meeting to discuss their concerns about your development. So I shouldn't get too cocky.

That being said, I listened to a new Yiddish song the other night and was shocked to discover that I was able to understand an awful lot of it. I don't really have a what I call a "listeners vocabulary," which is hard to develop when you don't actually get a change to actively listen to someone speak to you live and in person. I don't have the skills that allow me to catch what's being said when I heard someone speak, because even if I recognize a lot of the words, they just exist as words, and the sentences pass by without comprehension. If I listen a few times, I can figure out what's beings said, but the first time I heard something it might as well be Greek.

Not this song, though. It probably helps that it was a children's song "Yomele Yomele" specifically, but nonetheless I was thrilled to find myself following along on first listen and largely understanding everything.

Not bad for am isolated, self-invented language program guided mostly by whimsy. You too can understand a child's song in a mere six months of an hour or two of daily study just by learning Yiddish swear words and how to tell someone to fart in his own throat.

Lessons begin today.


The 100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Goy

"Goy" is a fraught word. People assume it's an epithet, a word snarled out by Jews when mentioning non-Jews for whom they have contempt.

And it can be. There's an expression in Yiddish, "goyishe kop," that literally means "gentile head," but should be translated as "moron head," or "big dummy head," or something similarly childish. As far as I can tell, the phrase isn't an especially mean-spirited one -- when Jews want to call someone else an idiot, they have far more scabrous Yiddish words they can turn to.

But goy mostly just means "gentile," because when you're a Jew, you need a word to describe people who aren't Jews. The origin of the word is innocuous enough: It's the Hebrew word for nation. In Isaiah 2:4, when the prophet declares that "Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war," it's goys he's talking about. That's the word he uses.

Some people still rankle. I presume it is similar to the fact that people nowadays respond badly to the word "cis," which is used as the opposite of "trans" when referring to gender. There's nothing per se wrong with the word -- it's a perfectly honorable Latin prefix meaning "on the same side of." It works well enough of the opposite of "trans," which, after all, means "across or beyond."

But people don't like it. As I recall, people didn't like the word "straight" when it was first used as another word for heterosexual either. They also didn't like the word "gay," as it suggested that people who were not gay were somehow sad.

I suppose it's just that the people who are the majority don't like it when people who are not start naming things. Most of the time, when a Jew uses the word "goy," it's innocuous, but it can be a bit irritating to be reminded that there are other cultures out there, and they consider you an outsider, and they have their own name for you, and they never even bothered to ask you if you like it.

"Goy" is often used with disinterest. There are gentiles in the world, yes, but we need not think about them too hard. This was dramatized in 2009: There's a long segment in "A Serious Man," the Coen Brothers film set in my childhood neighborhood of St. Louis Park. The segment is called "The Goy's Teeth" and tells the story of a dentist who discovers Hebrew writing carved into the back of one of his patient's incisors. The teeth seem to be communicating a message, but the meaning is obscure, and the dentist starts to have a nervous breakdown, not knowing why the message appeared or what it meant. Finally, he decides he can't ever know and just drops the subject altogether. "But what about the goy?" the film's main character asks his rabbi. "What happened to the goy?"

"The goy?" the rabbi responds. "Who cares?

Yiddish actually does have some insulting words that mean "non-Jews." A "shaygetz" is a non-Jewish man, and it also comes from Hebrew, but not from a neutral word, but instead from "sheketz," which means "blemish" or "abomination." There's a female form of "shaygetz" as well, which you've probably heard: "shiksa." Both can be used mildly -- sometimes a shiksa is even an object of desire -- but the word itself is a pretty unkind one. At best, shaygetz means "rascal," and one supposed a Jewish man might tousle the hair of a non-Jewish friend and call him a rascal, but even that seems a bit condescending.

Yiddish has a feminine form of goy too: "Goye." This is never meant disparagingly, except by people for whom anything non-Jewish is frowned upon. In the terrific Joan Micklin Silver movie "Hester Street," Carole Kane keeps referring to non-Jewish women as "goyes," and you can tell she doesn't think too highly of them.

But Jews need goys, especially religious Jews. For them, the Sabbath is mostly a day of not being able to do the sorts of things you sort of need to do. You can't turn lights on and off, for example. And before it was possible to get timers to turn the lights on and off for you, you got yourself a shabbos goy.

This was often a kid who lived in the neighborhood who would swing by the house and help out, and you'd throw him a little money, but it could also be somebody who was on hand to help out anyway -- if you lived in a high rise with a door man, he might swing by to turn your oven off, or whatever was needed. Nobody has ever used the word shabbos goy as an insult, and a lot of famous people have helped out their neighbors by working as a shabbos goy.

Elvis Presley was a shabbos goy. He helped out a local rabbi named Fruchter who happened to live in the upstairs apartment in Memphis. Interestingly, technically Elvis was Jewish -- his mother's mother was Jewish. In Judaism, if your mother is Jewish, or your mother's mother, you're Jewish. He certainly didn't consider himself to be a Jew, but the rabbis don't really take Elvis' opinion into account, so every time Elvis turned on his lights on Saturday he was acting as his own shabbos goy.

Here are a few quotes that show how the word "goy" is used in context:

Lenny Bruce: "Kool-Aid is goyish. All Drake’s cakes are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish, and, as you know, white bread is very goyish. Instant potatoes–goyish. Black cherry soda’s very Jewish. Macaroons are very Jewish–very Jewish cake. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish."

Schmoozing: The Private Conversations of American Jews, Joshua Halberstam: "Myron converts to Christianity. Next morning he gets up, dons his prayer shawl and phylacteries, and begins to recite the traditional morning prayers.  His baffled wife reminds him, 'Myron, Don't you remember that last night you converted to Christianity?' Myron slaps his forehead in dismay, 'Goyishe kop.'"

Three for the Price of One, Anna Tzelniker: "There is an old saying among Jewish actors 'If the "Goy" says it's Kosher, the Jew will eat it,' meaning that a Jewish actor becomes greater in the eyes of his Yiddish audience only after he has been acclaimed by Gentiles." 


Cooking the East European Way: Cucumber and Tomato Salad

It's been hot and muggy in Omaha, which is the sort of thing that makes the idea of turning on an oven and burners in the kitchen profoundly unappealing. Instead, I decided to make a Ukrainian salad, and a little research led me to something called "salat s ogurtsami i pomidorami," which literally means "salad with cucumbers and tomato."

There's more to it, of course. There's also pressed garlic, onion, and a dressing made of sour cream and mayonnaise. Oh, and the salad can be herbed as well, and a lot of recipes suggest dill, which is starting to seem like to go-to herb of choice for recipes from the former Soviet Union.

I feel a bit odd writing about this salad. I expected this project to be a voyage through the strangeness of a foreign palate, and, instead, this salad is extraordinarily familiar. I grew up eating something very like this, as did my girlfriend -- it's her go-to salad, and her diet is thoroughly Minnesotan. 

That being said, it's often not the main ingredients that make the meal, but the preparation and flavoring. We Minnesotans tend to just splash ranch dressing onto this sort of salad -- considering that ranch dressing contains garlic and dill, as well as a mayonnaise base, it's like we were trying for the Ukrainian recipe and just missed it.

And here's the difference: ranch is made with buttermilk, which has a tart sweetness. The Ukrainian dressing prefers sour cream, with its straightforward sourness, which is definitely one of the defining tastes in the Eastern European flavor profile. 

It is, I will allow, a subtle difference, but the Ukrainian dressing benefits from subtlety. I find that ranch dressing tends to overpower whatever it's put on, whereas the Ukrainian dressing allows the flavor of the cucumber and tomato to come to the fore.

Still, it's a bit like I sat down to make a Ukrainian breakfast and the results looked and tasted almost exactly like Cheerios. It's like I traveled to Kiev and the first thing I saw was a Paul Bunyan statue. It's like I signed up for an adventure packet and they sent me to my own apartment and told me to write a blog entry about Yiddish.


Dress British Drink Yiddish: Heering Cherry Liqueur

When you start researching Jews and alcohol, you run across one name again and again: Heering Cherry Liqueur. "'A little schnapps' to my grandmother and greataunt Mary meant a tiny crystal cordial glass filled with Cherry Heering," wrote Jayne Cohen in "Cooking for Jewish New Year." "A well-stocked bar must include soda, caffeine-free soda, diet soda, club soda, Creme de Cacao, Cherry Heering and Harvey's Bristol Cream," wrote Molly Katz in "Jewish as a Second Language." Jewish authors talk about growing up with it, and loving it, including Isaac Asimov, Elizabeth Ehrlich, and Sonia Pilcer. It seems like there was a time when no American Jewish liquor cabinet was complete without the Danish liqueur.

It helped that Heering has long been Kosher, and smartly marketed itself directly at Jews. And although the drink is sweet, it isn't cloying, and comes by its thick cherry flavor naturally, making it a terrific dessert drink. Better still, unlike the notoriously hard-to-mix Slivovitz, Cherry Heering is a tried-and-true cocktail ingredient, with two classic cocktails that feature the liqueur: the tropical Singapore Sling and the and the Scotch-based Blood and Sand.

So this was a liqueur that could be drunk as an after-dinner shot in the kitchen by your grandparents and mixed into cocktails in the basement rumpus room by your groovy parents.

This makes it a must-have for the Jewish bar, especially as their are a wealth of Heering cocktails with names that seem appropriate: There is, as an example, the Red Russian, which is just vodka and Heering, or the Heering White Russian, which is the same drink with cream or milk added.

Cherry Heering also mixes well with Coca Cola, creating an alcoholic cherry Coke. This may not seem like an especially Jewish drink, unless you've been to a delicatessen and seen how many Jews drink cherry Coke with their meat dishes. In fact, I feel this mixture needs a name, and "Heering cherry Coke" doesn't do it for me, so I'm going to call it the Wilensky, after the Canadian lunch counter featured in " The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz." The place is apparently somewhat famous for their fountain-made cherry Cokes.

One last thing: I should share the Yiddish word for "cherry," in case an inspired bartender concocts an especially Jewish Heering cocktail. It's "karsh," and I have a cocktail name to recommend, but no cocktail to affix it to: Karsh my Mellow.

Have at it.


The 100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Schmuck

"Schmuck" is probably the first Yiddish word I ever learned, as it was (and may still be) my father's favorite. And, oh, what a great, noxious, churlish, pistol-crack of a word this is, with its slurry start and hard-consonant finish. If it wasn't a curse word, you would think it was a curse word.

It is a curse word, though, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. There are some that will argue that this is an adaptation of an identical-sounding German word that means "jewelry," but the most convincing etymology of the word is the following: it comes from baby talk. This theory was proffered by author Michael Wex in his book "How to Be a Mentsh (And Not a Shmuck)" and is as follows:

"Schmuck" started with "shteck", which means "stick" in Yiddish. When parents would refer to their baby's penis, they would call it a "shteckl," because you can make anything small and adorable in Yiddish by adding an "l" sound to the end. This then became "shmeckl," which, indeed, is another Yiddish word for penis. And, finally, when the word was no longer cute, the "l" dropped off the end and it because "schmuck."

Schmuck is still used to mean penis, sometimes. But mostly it means ... well, a few things, none of them good. Here's a joke:

What's the difference between circumcision and divorce? With divorce, you lose the whole schmuck.

So, you see, it means penis, but also means someone you find contemptible. 

Depending on context, "schmuck" can mean "idiot," or it can mean "jerk," or it can mean "loser." It's a plastic term, less one with a set definition than a word that acts as a mantle to wrap your contempt in. The guy who accidentally started a fire? What a schmuck! The guy he set on fire? Poor schmuck! And you, watching the whole thing and not helping? Do something, schmuck!

Here are some quotes that demonstrate the proper usage of the word schmuck:

From Humour and Religion: Challenges and Ambiguities, Hans Geybels, Walter Van Herck: "An Orthodox Jew is walking down the street in a definitely non-Jewish neighborhood, when he hears someone talking in Yiddish. He turns back and finds an animal store, where he finds indeed a parrot that speaks Yiddish perfectly. 'This,' the owner tells him, 'is a real Jewish parrot. It can recite psalms in Hebrew as well.' The man buys the animal, puts a tiny kippa on its head and throws a little prayer shawl over its wings. In the synagogue the next Sabbath he bets with each of the men  for twenty dollars that the bird will speak Yiddish and sing a psalm. But the parrot stubbornly refuses to open its beak. The man is furious and goes home with the bird on his shoulder. Suddenly the parrot starts laughing: 'You schmuck, next week we'll return to the synagogue and bet for a hundred dollars each. And then I'll talk!'"

From The Ultimate Book of Jewish Jokes, David Minkoff: "Sadie tells Maurice, 'You’re a schmuck! You always were a schmuck and you always will be a schmuck! You look, act and dress like a schmuck! You’ll be a schmuck until the day you die! And if they ran a world-wide competition for schmucks, you would be the world’s second biggest schmuck!' 'Why only second place?' Maurice asks. 'Because you’re a schmuck!' Sadie screams."

The New Yorker, Volume 77, Issues 10-16:  “A schmuck is someone who does something that you don't agree with. ... The Eskimos have four hundred words for snow, and the Jews have four hundred words for schmuck."

Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss, Tom Davis: "We had submitted that script to SNL with 'schmuck' as Lincoln's word choice. But there was an objection even to 'schmuck,' which, our censor at the time, Bill Clotworthy, said was a Yiddish word for 'penis.' Al [Franken] recalled to him the Lenny Bruce explanation, 'Like a schmuck I drove all the way to Brooklyn,'  which, Al pointed out, did not mean 'Like a penis I drove all the way to Brooklyn." Lorne [Michaels], who didn't feel like going to the wall for this one, sent Al a memo: 'You can't say 'schmuck,' schmuck."