Week 23: The language for tragedy

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 161 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 85 hours
I have reviewed 2,256 individual flashcards

I was going to post about the fact that I have completed another project and rewarded myself with another fake merit badge. I learned 100-plus words for sex, and I was going to talk about how silly and circumspect many of the terms are, and how had it is to find genuine, non-insulting terms for anything but the most common heterosexual encounters.

And then tragedy interrupted, in the form of the largest mass shooting in American history (not counting governmental massacres of our indigenous population, which of course count). It was in a nightclub in Florida and targeted the LGBT population there, the exact people Yiddish either never mentioned or had insulting words for. I suspect there was a gay Jewish underworld that had their own Yiddish slang, but I haven't located it yet, and I would like to. I think you should always call people what they choose to call themselves.

Related to this, there is a group called the League for Yiddish, and here is how they describe themselves on their webpage: "The League for Yiddish, Inc., was founded in 1979 by prominent Yiddish linguist and professor Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter in order to provide organizational support for the modernization, standardization and use of the Yiddish language in all spheres of daily life. With devoted members on six continents, the League for Yiddish is one of the few organizations in today's Yiddish cultural and linguistic world that conducts its activities almost entirely in mame-loshn."

I know about them through their Facebook page, which I joined recently. And today I was met with a startling post on that page: A list of words related to the shooting. Assault rifle = Di shturenbicks. Mass shooting = Dos masn-shisterai. Swamped with victims = Farfleytst mit korbones.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Based on their mission statement, these are exactly the sorts of words we need and exactly when we need them. That being said, there are words missing that we would also need: Gay bar. Drag performer. Gay. Lesbian. Bisexual. Transexual. Homophobia.

These didn't appear on the list, and are still absent in my vocabulary, and I could not find them by doing a search on the remainder of the League's Facebook page. I suppose they might be in the organization's comprehensive English-Yiddish dictionary, should I want to shell out $60 for the thing. But I find it odd that these words don't appear on the Facebook post, because the absence of these words erases the identity of those who were murdered, erases the specific circumstances of the murder, and only gives us the words to talk about the guns, the killer, and, when we discuss those he targeted, the only word we get is "victim."

I'm a little surprised, because we Jews are usually pretty sensitive about the language of tragedy, having been forced to make so much use of it ourselves. I was at an Anne Frank exhibit years ago that received substantial criticism because it all-but erased her Jewishness, which the curators admitted they thought was incidental to a more universal story they were telling. I was among the complainants, and my complaint was that Frank was not targeted for universal reasons, but specific ones, because she was a Jew, and so to erase her Jewishness was to do a disservice to her memory.

I don't think any erasure was intended by this social media post, but, then, it's rarely intended. It just happens.

It's odd, though. If we are lucky, we should only have to discuss mass shootings infrequently -- more frequently that we might hope, but these words are not high on the list of those I wish to know.

On the other hand, like most Americans, I have friends and family who are LGBT, and I have no Yiddish right now to discuss this in a modern way, despite having just completed a project in which I learned Yiddish words that address sexuality. And I don't know how this is possible, as everyone is just now making a fuss about "Indecent," Paula Vogel's play about Sholem Asch’s Yiddish-language drama “God of Vengeance,” which explicitly addressed lesbianism all the way back in 1907.

Google translate gives me the Yiddish word "lesbian" for the English word "lesbian," and I suppose that's the word I shall have to use at present. Perhaps Jewish lesbians did use the same word in Yiddish that we use in English -- it dates back a hundred years or more. But I don't know for sure, and feel certain there were Yiddish words used by Yiddish-speaking lesbians, and wish I knew what they were.

In the book "Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality" authors Anna Livia and Kira Hall claim there are no formal Yiddish words for gay but for the clinical "homoseksualist," with "feygele" being a problematic alternative -- although it means "little bird" and has been claimed by some Jewish members of the LBGT community, it also has a history as a homophobic slur. Apparently there was some efforts to claim "freilekh," which is the Yiddish equivalent of "gay," but I'm not sure this was done by Yiddish speakers nor do I know if it ever developed any currency.

I guess my feeling is that if you're hoping to make Yiddish contemporary, it would be nice to popularize words for the lives of the LGBT community, rather than the words for their deaths.