100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Introduction

I am a third-generation American Jew. Most of my grandparents came to this country from Eastern Europe, and brought Yiddish with them. They spoke it, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout their lives, and my parents, as second generation Jews, grew up exposed to Yiddish as a vernacular language.

I grew up with their Yiddish, which was less the language of everyday speech and more a language that served particular purposes. My father liked to swear in Yiddish, but also remembered some specific Yiddish phrases that he'd use when he felt like it.

Because I went to a Jewish high school, I was also exposed to the day-to-day Yiddish of religious Jews. These were members of the American Orthodox community, and, while they had not maintained Yiddish as their first language, as the Hasidic community has, they made frequent use of particular Yiddish words. So while I am not fluent in Yiddish, I have a solid grounding in what "The Joys of Yiddish" author Leo Rosten called "Yinglish." Specifically, Yiddish or Yiddish-inspired words and phrases that have entered the English language, if only in the Jewish community, and are understood by English speakers.

But we're now several generations removed from the Yiddish speakers that first came to America, and even generations removed from their children. This has likely eroded Yiddish usage, at least among the average American Jew. In 2010, only 10 percent of American Jews were the sort of Orthodox who I grew up hearing Yiddish from. In the same survey, 30 percent of American Jews were non-denominational, and the number of Jews who identify as secular keeps rising. Additionally, quite a few Jewish children are the products of intermarriage, and may not have been exposed to as much Yiddish as a result.

None of this is meant as a complaint, of course. I am a secular Jew, and all of my nephews and nieces are the products of intermarriage, so when I discuss these trends in modern Judaism, it's not merely an abstraction. Instead, it's my own family I am talking about.

I have not been able to find any surveys about how much Yiddish might be in the lives of the average American. In my own family, it ranges from some to none, with my older cousins in New York making use of quite a bit while my younger cousins in the Midwest having, at best, a passing familiarity with a few of the more common words. In an earlier blog entry, I mentioned that it seems like there is a lot of Jewish comedy just now, but it doesn't seem particularly Yiddish-inflected. I don't know whether this represents a lack of Yiddish usage on the part of the comics or a fear on their part that Yiddish won't be understood by a wider audience, but it represents a change in American Jewish comedy, a movement away from Yiddish.

I've titled this project "100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know," and the intention is to provide a starting point. I've composed this list out of Yiddish-based words that were common in English when I was younger and are still valuable. They express something uniquely Jewish, or something inexpressible in English, or are words that benefit from having a Yiddish variation.

This list is by no means comprehensive. There are only a few words on the list that explicitly refer to Jewish religious practices, as there are so many Yiddish-derived words in the Orthodox world that it would easily expand this list to many hundreds or even thousands of words. The list is meant for average American Jews, and they might not find the word "shammash," which refers to a salaried sexton at a synagogue, especially useful. I've also left off the names of specific foods, although you will find a few general culinary terms.

There are some fairly common Yiddish words I have left off the list. If you wish to learn how to be racist or homophobic in Yiddish, there are other places to do so.

There are words that probably should be on this list, because they reflect the experience of modern Jews. There is a Yiddish word, veltekh, that literally means "worldly" but also means "secular," and it's the word I like to use when referring to secular Jews. There is a Yiddish words for the Holocaust, Churbn, that I likewise prefer, because it seems right to use a Yiddish word to name something that happened to Yiddish speakers. But neither are commonly used in the American Jewish community, and this is a list of words that are actually used, not words that I wish were used. Perhaps that will be another list, later.

Should everyone actually know these 100 words? Perhaps not. It's an idiosyncratic list, compiled by a secular Midwestern Jews based on Yiddish usage from almost 30 years ago. Not all American Jews are Ashkenazi, and as I speak no Ladino whatsoever, it's pretty brash of me to expect Sephardic Jews to learn Yiddish. Non-Jews might find the list interesting, but probably can get by just fine without knowing a single word.

That being said, as my essays on each of the words will demonstrate, these are words that once had tremendous currency in the United States, even outside the Jewish community. The words on this list were selected because they have proven to be especially easy to drop into everyday English, or especially durable in some other way. If you end up being exposed to Jewish culture from the middle part of the 20th century, you're probably going to experience these words, and so knowing them contributes to your general Jewish literacy. Some of these words even had a moment when they were adopted by the larger community, and perhaps will again.

I presume no previous exposure to Yiddish with this list. Some of you may know every single word on here and wonder why such a list is necessary. Some of you may never have heard a single one of these words and wonder why a list like this requires so many insults. Some might look at the list and see glaring absences, words they grew up with and cannot believe were left off. Others may be bewildered by the presence of some of these words and feel they barely deserve a mention, much less the honor of having a place on a list like this. And some of you Yiddishists will complain that these words are not actually Yiddish, or are used differently in actual Yiddish.

You're all correct, every one of you. Go, make a list of your own. The world will be better for it.