The Top 10 Yiddish Words You Need to Know

English is a complicated language. It's this great mess of a thing, a Germanic dialect that has demonstrated an omnivorous appetite, devouring new words from a terrifying number of languages. And of course English did, It was the language of the British Empire, which once contained 458 million people and a quarter of the total land area of the planet, and so English absorbed words from the people Britain had colonized. It is also the dominant language of the United States and Canada, two great immigrant nations, and so English absorbed words from waves of new immigrants.

Yiddish was one of those languages. Perhaps some of it came from first generation East European Jewish immigrants whose sometimes created bilingual businesses, and whose patrons, both Jewish and non-Jewish, referred to using Yiddish words -- I suspect this is how "schmatta" entered English. Other words entered through the next generation, the children of immigrants, who peppered their English with Yiddish words, sometimes transforming the word or inventing new words inspired by Yiddish.

Whatever the process, English wound up absorbing a fair number of Yiddish words. I spent a few days working through a list of these words to see how common they are in English. Some are remarkably common, while others appear infrequently, sometimes in an exclusively Jewish context.

Below is my list of the 10 most common Yiddish words in English, based on how frequently they appear on Google. If you have an interest in Yiddish, this list is a good starting point, as these are the words you are likely to hear first and the most, and are the words that it will probably be easiest for you to make use of, as you can just drop them into an English sentence and they will be comprehensible to most listeners. In fact, you probably already know these words, and may not know that they originated in Yiddish.

The Top 10 Yiddish Words You Need to Know


Hoo boy, this is it, the most popular Yiddish word in English according to Google. There are probably some false positives in there, since schmuck is also a German word for jewelry, but even still this word towers above other Yiddish words that have entered English.

The word's linguistic origins are disputed, possibly coming from the German, possible derived from the Yiddish word for stick, and possibly from the Old Polish for snake or dragon. Wherever it's from, it's meaning nowadays is clear. Penis. It means penis.

It's also a word you use to describe someone you find foolish, or obnoxious, or contemptible. Anybody irritating can be a schmuck. You can call your dog a schmuck if he poops in your house. You can call yourself a schmuck for yelling at your dog. It's a very flexible word.

Note: Some people still think the word is vulgar. Those people may be schmucks.


I'm a bit surprised to discover this word is as popular as it is, as it is a relatively new term to describe a relatively modern musical revival. The earliest use of the word dates back to the 16th century or earlier, a portmanteau of Hebrew words, k'li zemer, describing a tool for making music, or, in simpler terms, an instrument. But the word klezmer wasn't applied to a musical genre until the 1970s, when musicians rediscovered earlier Jewish musical genres that were performed at dances and social events. These performers formed new bands to explore this music.

Modern klezmer is inspired by and derived from these earlier genres of (largely) East European Jewish music, in the same way that the bluegrass revival of the 1940s looked to the folk music of Appalachia (in fact, some of the early American klezmer musicians got their starts in bluegrass). And klezmer is also like bluegrass in the both have evolved into a modern genre. Should we just go ahead and say that klezmer is the Jewish equivalent of bluegrass?

No we should not.


The word we use for a clumsy person, klutz, derives from klotz, a Yiddish word meaning a wooden beam, and I don't know why. I know that Jews like to compare things to wood if there is some contempt involved: We call somebody with no personality a "shtick holtz," meaning a piece of wood, but that makes sense. Pieces of wood have no personality. Wooden beams are not especially known for being clumsy.

But, then, a klutz is clumsy without personality. We have other words for the world's bumblers and lummoxes, such as the schlemiel, whose clumsiness is directly related to their general misfortune, and the Kuni Lemel, an awkward simpleton. The klutz isn't a character. The klutz doesn't stumble with personality. The klutz is about as interesting as a block of wood, and just about as entertaining when it fall on you.


If I had to guess at a Jewish food that is likely to make a comeback nowadays, in this time of local butchers and nose-to-tail use of an animal, it would be schmaltz. This is rendered fat, taken from a chicken or a goose, and was used as the kosher alternative to butter or pork-based lard. Schmaltz was used to fry meat, but also was loved as an ingredient itself, often just spread on bread.

But schmaltz has a second meaning: In Yinglish, it is used to mean something that is excessively emotional or sentimental. Esquire used it that way all the way back in 1940, writing of a music act that "there's a lush, schmaltzy violin all over the place." It's not surprising a Jewish word was used for this phenomenon, as Jewish performers could really pile on the schmaltz, like when Al Jolson just starts blubbering about his mother.

It's worth remembering that people loved it. They loved the schmaltz, both from the bird fat and from Jolson. It's Jewish to like something that's a little too much, a little too strong, a little too sweet, a little too flavorful. My feeling is that in dining as in life, maybe we need to start to pile on the schmaltz again. 


It's popular to say that this is a word that has dramatically changed definition from Yiddish to English usage. In Yiddish, if you accuse somebody of chutzpah, it's a pretty damning charge. You're complaining that they have a hell of a lot of nerve, where do they get the cheek, the gall!

But in English, we tend to use chutzpah admiringly, as somebody with perhaps more daring than discretion. He just walked up to the boss and said it was time he got a raise! The chutzpah! And he got it!

I don't know that the uses are all that different. I just think Americans admire somebody who has a sort of crass verve. We like big, noisy blowhards, and we interpret their temerity as gumption. We live in a weird place, full of noxious go-getters, and we're told the nation was built on this sort of thing. And so we hear the word chutzpah and can't believe it is a complaint. Who wouldn't want to have chutzpah?

It's the same word. We just took an insult and made it a compliment, which is a perfect example of American chutzpah.


This may not be the most common Yiddish word in English, but it is probably the most common in the world of comedy. In Yiddish, shtick means "piece," and in the world of comedy, it's the comedian's bit, the thing they do. Gallagher's shtick, such as it was, was smashing watermelons. Carrot Top's shtick, such as it was, was prop comedy. Jeff Foxworthy's shtick, such as it was, was making fun of rednecks.

In retrospect, perhaps we should not have used the Yiddish word shtick, but, if a comedian has some identifiable comic bit, just call it a "such as it was."


The etymology of this word is disputed. It might have originated with a German word meaning "dregs," but it also might have originated with the Yiddish word for "to strike," shlogn. Presumably, if the latter etymology is correct, it is because something is so awful you want to hit it.

Schlock refers to some sort of inferior good, anything crummy. It can be a literal piece of merchandise: A cheap plastic watch can be schlock, and there used to be electronics stores in New York that were called schlock shops that sold this sort of trash. But nowadays, schlock is frequently used to refer to movies, thanks to a vogue for Yiddish that hit Hollywood in the late 60s. Trashy movies are schlock, which is funny, because you used to see them in the grindhouse theaters of Times Square, right next to the cheap electronics stores.

So there, in a few blocks in Midtown Manhattan, was the schlock capital of America. I know Times Square has rebranded itself as the Crossroads of the World or the Heart of the World or whatever they are calling themselves nowadays, but, honestly, I preferred the schlock.


It's not surprising to discover this is one of the most popular Yiddish words in English, even though it is probably mostly used by Jews. A shtetl was a small town in Eastern Europe; if you've seen "Fiddler on the Roof," the town they live in is a shtetl. Ninety percent of American Jews are Askenazi, and most of our ancestors came from Eastern Europe, and, for us, the shtetl looms very large in our imaginations.

In fact, the story of the Jews of Eastern Europe is pretty complicated, and there was a vast urban population of Jews that had nothing to do with the shtetl and sometimes made fun of it in literature and plays. But the sad fact is that most American Jews learn very little about their Eastern European background, and so just sort of assume we all lived on shtetls. I suspect "Fiddler on the Roof" probably influences the American conception of European Jewry more than we would like to admit.

It could be worse, I suppose. Sholem Aleichem, who wrote the stories "Fiddler" was based on, also wrote a story about white slavers called "The Man from Buenos Aires," and, had that been adapted, American Jews might all be wearing Panama hats and dancing the Tango.

Although, now that I think about it, I'm not sure that's worse.


Schmooze comes from a Hebrew word meaning "gossip" or "slander," but that's not really how it is used in Yiddish, which has a different word for the same purpose: rekhiles. There is a gossipy quality to schmoozing, but rekhiles is the gossip that can hurt -- from rekhiles and secrets flee like they are demons, a Yiddish Proverb advises.

Nobody flees from schmoozing. No, it typically refers to the sort of casual, idle chit-chat shared by friends or coworkers, when you talk about nothing in particular and nothing particularly important. Were you talking with Bob? Oh sure. Did he tell you about his surgery? No, we were just schmoozing for a minute.

Sometimes schmoozing has an agenda, however. Because it is friendly and intimate, it can be useful for those who socialize with purpose, for whom every social interaction is an opportunity for social climbing. If you want something from somebody, it helps to schmooze them a little.

Do not do that to me. I always know when somebody wants something from me, and I will flee you like a demon.


I am thrilled that nu is one of the most used Yiddish words in English, although perhaps I am stretching things a little, as nu isn't a word so much as it is a useful noise. In English we have things like this, like when we say Hm? in response to something somebody has said. Nu is like that, but with a lot more mustard.

I can't give a sense of the incredible flexibility of nu in this short space, but its main function is to forcefully send a discussion over to another person. Let's say your sister has gone on a date and you want to know how it went, but she is not being forthcoming. You might say, so, nu, do you like him? And if she doesn't want to respond, she might say, nu, when did it become your business? And the ball is right back in your court.

You can actually start of an entire conversation with just this noise. Try it. Just look at a Jew, raise your eyebrows, and say "Nu?", and they will be forced by some subconscious programming, buried deep inside them, to provide some sort of response. It's primal. Even the most secular Jew, one who eats bacon they cooked on shabbos, will feel obligated to respond.

Of course, he or she can always respond with "Nu?" Two Jews can do that all day.


Week 34: Books of Proverbs

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 231 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 130 hours
I have reviewed 2,838 individual flashcards

I have taught myself, to some extent, 129 Yiddish proverbs, and my goal just now is 150. Let me provide some context: By "taught myself," I mean, "barely know." These proverbs come up in my flashcards, I never remember how to say them in Yiddish, I have to re-memorize them every time, and then they go back into the flashcards to pop up again in a few days, at which point the process starts anew.

That being said, when I started this, the process for memorizing proverbs was brutally hard. I just pounded them into my head by route repetition, and felt myself forget them the moment I correctly identified the Yiddish. Now, the proverbs come sort of easily, and I often find myself remembering a substantial amount of an already-learned proverb, if not the whole thing. And there are some proverbs that have finally wedged themselves into my unconscious and I can pull them out whenever I want. I can tell you how to say "Everybody comes to America except God," (Ale forn kayn America khutz Gat,) I can tell you how to say "He should drink so much castor oil," (Azoi fil retzenoil zol er oistrinken), I can tell you how to say "On money stands the world" (oifgelt shteyt di velt.) So the proverbs are coming, bit by bit.

I think there are a few reasons it's getting simpler. The first is because I am trying to learn less proverbs all at once. I was learning something like five per day, and now I do two per day. The second is that I try to be judicious in the proverbs I choose, picking shorter ones that use a lot of words I already know. Both make it easier for me to learn new proverbs.

But I have also found that older, longer proverbs are coming easier, and I think it is because my brain is just figuring out Yiddish proverbs. They no longer seem like a mass of Yiddish, but discrete units of meaning that are individually easy to memorize, and easy to link together into sentences. I've also started to learn the form of proverbs, and there are a few, but they are recognizable patterns of language, so now I can just plug a new proverb into a pattern I already know.

I should say that one of the reasons I decided to teach myself proverbs was because so much of what I had learned consisted of individual words, and I felt like I needed to learn those words in context, in a sentence, to see how they fit together. I don't know that proverbs are ideal for this -- I suspect Yiddish is not generally spoken in epigrams that speak in vast generalities (If one should find oneself in a distant place ...). But I do not think the proverbs are unhelpful either, in that they force me to memorize some of the fundamental ways Yiddish grammar is used, from the ways words are modified based on gender, plural, tense, etc., to the way certain bits of language are used that help shape a sentence.

But more than anything, I taught myself proverbs because I wanted to know a bunch of Yiddish proverbs. And, ultimately, that must be the main motivation for my learning anything. As I have mentioned before, at this moment I don't know if there will ever be a moment when I actually have use for spoken Yiddish, or how often those moments might happen, so my relationship with Yiddish must mostly concern itself with whatever gives me pleasure this moment, and I will enjoy on my own, even if I never have any real use for it.


Jewish Summer Camp Movies: Indian Summer (1993)

There isn't much the 1993 film "Indian Summer" is remembered for. One of the stars, Kevin Pollak, used to mention the film in his comedy act, saying "Thank you for seeing it" to uncomfortable laughs from the audience, who did not see it. Pollak, who is a world-class impressionist, only has one story from the film: He used to call costar Alan Arkin's voicemail and leave messages in Arkin's voice, reminding him to buy food for the dog, which must have been bewildering for the older actor, who would not remember ever having made such a call. There is a thin line between comedy and gaslighting.

I don't know that I get to include "Indian Summer" in my list of Jewish summer camp movies. With something like "Meatballs," even though the camp in the film wasn't explicitly Jewish, it was made by filmmakers who attended Jewish camps, and so it's possible to argue that the film's camps are secretly Jewish. Not so with "Indian Summer" -- it's based on a real camp in Ontario, Camp Tamakwa, and Camp Tamakwa is not a Jewish camp. As far as I can tell, Tamakwa is instead the Platonic idea for summer camps, the real-world equivalent to the Khaki Scouts camp in "Moonrise Kingdom." It has the rustic cabins on a scenic lake, the faux-Indian mythology, the rugged American and Canadian back-to-natureness of the whole thing. There are no mezuzahs on the cabins, no guitar players working their way through "Ani V'Ata," no youth rabbis coming out on shabbos to lead services.

And yet there is a pervasive Jewishness to the whole thing, reflected in the film. The place was founded by a naturalist named Lou Handler, a Jewish former prizefighter from Detroit, and a Canadian outdoorsman named Omer Stringer. Although the camp is nondenominational, it has long drawn a significant number of its campers from the Jewish community -- even to this day, the camp's website says that "Most of the campers and staff are Jewish," and there are nondenominational services for the sabbath, but they are Friday night, when Jews have their shabbos services.

And, I must say, I find something Jewish in the sheer muchness of the camp, if you will. There is something exceptionally second-generation to it, to its dedication to an idealized vision of summer camp. This was a generation that often worked overtime to show they were as American as the next guy, and the results were that they were often more American than the next guy. So it wouldn't be enough just to go to camp. American Jews had to go to Camp, capital C, the most camplike camp ever.

"Indian Summer" was made by Mike Binder, who has had an unshowy but respectable career in Hollywood, and was a longtime veteran of Camp Tamakwa. As a result, of all the films I have written about so far, "Indian Summer" is the one that most carefully details the experience of campers, who are usually just sort of left in the background of these sorts of movies as the counselors and counselors-in-training get into R-rated hijinks. The film is essentially an essay of the folk traditions of Camp Tamakwa, from their private language to the various physical activities the counselors put the campers through.

There are, I should note, no actual campers in the film. Instead, the story is about former campers, invited back for a week by the film's Lou Handler, who is even called Lou Handler in the film, and is played with typically delightful and subdued eccentricity by Alan Arkin. Like at the real camp, the returning campers are a mix of Jews and non-Jews, although it can be hard to suss out who is who. The film's female cast is largely non-Jewish, but for the terrific Julie Warner, but they are the sorts of actresses who have played Jews, and who you're tempted to go to IMDb to see if they might not be Jewish after all: Diane Lane, Elizabeth Perkins, and Kimberly Williams-Paisley.

The men are less ambiguously Jewish, including Pollack, Meatballs-veteran Matt Craven, and even Italian-American Vincent Spano playing a character named Berman. The strangest casting choice is film director Sam Raimi as a klutzy camp gofer, although it did lead to me discovering that Raimi is Jewish and attended Tamakwa. (This may explain why his Spider-Man movies felt the most Jewish of all, despite starring Irish-American Tobey Maguire, and despite the fact that the next Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield, actually is Jewish.) Also on hand is Bill Paxton in the middle of trading in the unimpeachable weirdness of his early roles for the aw-shucks Texas leading man of his middle career, and nobody would mistake him for a Jew.

I don't really know what to say about the plot of the film itself, which is sort of like "Love Boat" at a summer camp, in that each of the characters has some sort of romantic entanglement. I don't think the film passes the Bechdel test, in that I don't think there is a scene where the film's women aren't talking about men, but, weirdly, the film's women are much more interesting than the men. With the exception of Pollak, who is a prankster, the remainder of the male cast are mostly amiable nobodies, while the women are generally sharp-witted and believably wounded. I don't know if there is an equivalent of the Bechdel test for a movie where the women are more interesting than the men, but this passes.

If I don't have much to say about the film's plot, I do find myself obsessed with the costume design. Writer/director Mike Binder takes great paints to render the awesome physical beautiful of  Algonquin Provincial Park, the location of the camp, as well as the rustic tweeness of the camp, and somehow found wardrobe that perfectly represent this. Arkin in particular is frequently seen in a striped duffle jacket that just seems like the coziest thing ever. The whole place doesn't so much look like a camp as a set designer's version of a summer camp, with characters dressed in a costume designer's version of summer camp wear. Apparently the wardrobe choices are accurate, so much so that former campers assumed Arkin was wearing Lou Handler's old clothes.

There is a thin line between Jewish camping and glamping, I guess.


Week 33: The Bad Essay

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 224 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 126 hours
I have reviewed 2,788 individual flashcards

Eagle-eyed mathematicians among you might notice from my stats above that I missed a few days of study this week and did not add many new cards to my flashcard deck. I am having a bit of a problem, and it is less one of will than it is one of sleep. I adjusted my schedule a few months ago to take my dog out at 6 am -- previously I had been taking him out at 7 am, but sometimes he seemed frantic and I did not want him to be uncomfortable.

This has turned out to be unworkable. It simply threw my schedule off to such a degree that I was not getting the amount of sleep I needed, which led to a lot of naps, which led to me sleeping when I would otherwise add new flashcards, or study, or just have the sort of life someone has when they are awake.

Additionally, because of a backlog of words and proverbs I was having trouble memorizing, my study time just kept ballooning. One must be a bit organized if one if going to study a foreign language on one's lonesome, but, in this instance, one was not so very organized that one could handle both exhaustion and increasing time commitments.

I have started taking the dog out at 7 am again, and he doesn't mind it. I don't think he desperately needed to pee. I just think dogs are crepuscular, and so are full of pep at dawn and twilight, and when we first got the dog dawn was at 6 am. Now dawn is at 7 am and he seems perfectly happy to sleep until then.

I have also changed my program. I have reduced the amount of Yiddish proverbs I teach myself to a few per day, and have started to learn vocabulary from a specific Yiddish instruction book. And that brings me to what I like to call "The Bad Essay."

The book is called "Say It in Yiddish," is a small Yiddish phrasebook, and was authored by linguist Uriel Weinreich, along with Beatrice Weinreich, who was an author and ethnographer, as well as being Uriel's wife. Uriel, in particular, is a well-respected name among Yiddishists. Although he died at the terribly young age of 40 in 1967, in his short life he managed to contribute an awful lot to the study of Yiddish in America, including having authored a book on college Yiddish in 1949 and an English-Yiddish dictionary published posthumously.

"Say It In Yiddish" is also the subject of the Bad Essay I mentioned. It was written by author Michael Chabon in 1997 and published in Harper's under the title "Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts." Chabon had purchased the book some years earlier, and it had long perplexed him. He called it "Probably the saddest book that I own" and detailed his confusion that there would be a book of everyday expressions in Yiddish put out after the Holocaust. If I can pull of paragraph that seems to summarize Chabon's bemusement, it is this:
What were they thinking, the Weinreichs? Was the original 1958 Dover edition simply the reprint of some earlier, less heartbreakingly implausible book? At what time in the history of the world was there a place of the kind that the Weinreichs imply, a place where not only the doctors and waiters and trolley conductors spoke Yiddish, but also the airline clerks, travel agents, ferry captains, and casino employees?
Chabon got pushback on this from the Yiddish community. I don't know how much, but, knowing Yiddishists, a little can feel like a lot. He claims YIVO complained to him, they say they never did, but whoever complained, it is understandable. Because when Chabon asks "What were they thinking, the Weinreichs?", it's a question with an answer, and it's an answer he didn't look for.

Jeffrey Shandler provides the answer in "Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language & Culture." Firstly, he points out that this was not a project instigated by the Weinreichs, but instead by the president of Dover, and that there was a time and place when the phrasebook could be used. The time was 1958, when the book was published, and the place was Israel, where there was a sizable number of Yiddish speakers, as there were in Paris, Montreal, Mexico City, and other places in the world that had a large settlement of European Jews.

Despite Chabon's assumption, Yiddish was not then a language of ghosts, and still isn't. So Chabon's essay was built on a false premise, albeit one that remains popular: That the Holocaust exterminated Yiddish, and any phrasebook that came out after the Holocaust was an act of invention, an act of pretending there was a world of Yiddish speakers still out there.

Here's the thing, though. Very little of Chabon's essay is dedicated to "Say It In Yiddish." Most of it is dedicated to him attempting to imagine where this book might have been useful, his own act of pretending. He imagines Jews moving to Alaska after the Holocaust and setting up an arctic world, a sort of alternate Israel based on Yiddish and Eastern European Jewish culture. Here is how he describes it:
It is a cold, northern land of furs, paprika, samovars and one long, glorious day of summer. The portraits on those postage stamps we buy are of Walter Benjamin, Simon Dubnow, Janusz Korczak, and of a hundred Jews unknown to us, whose greatness was allowed to flower only here, in this world. It would be absurd to speak Hebrew, that tongue of spikenard and almonds, in such a place. This Yisroel–or maybe it would be called Alyeska–is a kind of Jewish Sweden, social-democratic, resource rich, prosperous, organizationally and temperamentally far more akin to its immediate neighbor, Canada, then to its more freewheeling benefactor far to the south. Perhaps, indeed, there has been some conflict, in the years since independence, between the United States and Alyeska.

If this sounds familiar, it is because this essay led to Chabon's book "The Yiddish Policeman's Union," his multiple-award-winning 2007 novel. It is possible to level the same criticisms of the novel that Yiddishists did against the Bad Essay: That it presupposes that modern Yiddish is such an impossibility that the only way to engage in a literary exploration of the subject was to invent an alternative world.

This is a fair cop, but, at the same time, Chabon's book is one of the few truly popular works of modern fiction that takes seriously the idea of a secular Jewish world informed by both Yiddish and by Eastern European Jewish culture. The book is a vast act of imagination dedicated to the subject of Yiddish, and I haven't crunched any numbers, but I suspect that there are quite a few people out there who this book inspired to take an interest in Yiddish, and who now have an idea of what a modern world would look like were Ashkenazi American Jews to embrace a less-assimilated version of Ashkenazi Jewishness.

If I take a lesson from this, it is as follows: It is okay to be wrong about Yiddish sometimes. Of course, I did not have to work too hard to come to this conclusion, as I am fairly sure that most of my engagement in Yiddish is wrong in fundamental ways. But somehow I don't think we would have wound up with "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" if Chabon had not been wrong about Yiddish, if he had understood that there was a post-war resurgence of Yiddish, so much so that in many of the biggest cities the language could serve as a sort of Jewish Esperanto: One need not speak a dozen languages to get along in Israel, Mexico City, Paris, and Montreal. One merely need to speak Yiddish and find the Jewish part of town, and all of a sudden knowing how to say "Where is a hotel?" or "I need a doctor" became very useful.

In fact, Chabon has inspired me. I decided to work my way through "Say It In Yiddish" specifically because of his essay, because I wondered what value the book might have nowadays to a lone Yiddish student studying on his own in Omaha, Nebraska.

I'll report back.


Dress British Drink Yiddish: Cel-Ray Soda

I have started to get the feeling most of the world has not heard of Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, as it wasn't for sale anywhere in Minneapolis when I was a child, and I would only see it in delicatessens in New York when visiting family there. In fact, it was only available in these delicatessens, for reasons I will detail in a moment. But that still doesn't excuse the general cultural ignorance of the rest of America, as Cel-Ray, often simply called Celery Tonic, has made appearances as a heroic prop in films such as "Serpico," "Funny Lady" (it's all James Caan drinks in the film), "Tootsie," and "A Chorus Line." It's even mentioned in a Seinfeld episode, and if people could learn and remember babka from Sienfeld, they can learn and remember Cel-Ray.

I recently watched "Isn't She Great," the somewhat frantic biopic of "Valley of the Dolls" author Jacqueline Susann. Screenwriter Paul Rudnick includes a scene in which he sends a WASPy editor, played, appropriately, by David Hyde Pierce, to edit Susann's manuscript, but is constantly interrupted by deli-based irritations. These are usually generated by Nathan Lane as Susann's husband Irving Mansfield, and in one scene he walks around bellowing for celery tonic.

So Cel-Ray isn't just a weird soda -- if you haven't had it, it literally tastes exactly like celery. It's a deli soda, and, more than that, it's a Jewish soda; the New York Times wrote about it in 2011, saying that it has been called the "Jewish champagne" since at least the 1930s. There is a long and detailed history of the soda on Serious Eats, but here are the highlights:

It's an old drink, dating back to 1868, and was informed by Eastern European savory and lightly fermented drinks like kvass. Cel-Ray was long marketed as a health drink, thus the reason why it is often called a "tonic" long after the FDA decreed it shoudn't be, which happened a shockingly long time ago: 1900. Even as American tastes started moving toward sweeter sodas, Cel-Ray retained its popularity with Jewish diners, who felt it paired especially well with salty, meaty dishes, and so Dr. Brown's continued producing the stuff and selling it in New York delis, and did not offer it elsewhere.

But the deli has declined and Cel-Ray's customer base has expanded, to the point where it is relatively easy to buy it in New York, and is drunk by a wide variety of New Yorkers who apparently have no idea that the rest of the world doesn't know that this is a thing that is done, and would find anyone who did this to be mad. It has also become almost inconsequentially easy to order the stuff via the Internet, and so, while the traditional deli may be in decline, we are at a strange moment when just about anybody can enjoy something that was once unique to the deli.

And thank goodness, because even if you are unsure about just drinking a celery flavored soda, I can tell you unambiguously that Cel-Ray is a dynamite cocktail ingredient. It can easily be subbed in for any drink that requires seltzer, and generally imparts a slight umami quality without tasting specifically like celery -- especially in drinks that use lemon or lime, Cel-Ray creates a subtly deeper flavor, and a welcome one.

But there is one drink in particular that I have found especially benefits from Cel-Ray: The Bloody Mary. Don't be shy with the stuff either -- add in at least two shots of Cel-Ray per drink, just enough to give the cocktail a light effervescence. As deli patrons long ago discovered, Cel-Ray pairs perfectly with thick, savory flavors, and the Bloody Mary is the thickest, most savory cocktail I know. It's so thick that the celery soda doesn't even thin out the drink appreciably, but instead imparts that recognizable peppery/radishy celery flavor, which many people already associate with the Bloody Mary thanks to the use of celery salt on the glass rim.

In fact, using Cel-Ray in the cocktail frees you up to explore different sorts of salts on the rim. We have used creole seasoning with great success, but that's not an especially Jewish choice. Here's an opportunity for a little mixological innovation. I suspect just about any deli spice would go along with this drink, especially the sort of spice rub that delis use to flavor their meat, which typically includes onion, garlic, pepper, and coriander. Or one might attempt a return to the sorts of Eastern European flavors that originally produced Cel-Ray, including dill, paprika, horseradish (already popular in Bloody Marys), and mustard.

Anyway, obviously this version needs a Jewish name, and I have a suggestion: While there are multiple origin stories for the Bloody Mary, one of them credits the drink to a Harlem-born Jewish New York entertainer who frequented the 21 Club, a claim that is supported by a 1939 article by gourmand and columnist Lucius Beebe. Whether the Bloody Mary was actually invented by this entertainer will forever be in dispute, but let's at least name this version, made with the Jewish champagne, after the man.

Let's call it the Georgie Jessel.


Dress British Shop Yiddish: Yiddish Etsy for August

I grew up with a specific sort of Jewish aesthetic, and I suspect many of us did. There was some Zionist fine art you could count on -- in my house, it was a print of Salvador Dali's "Aliyah - The Rebirth of Israel" painting. Most of my friend's parents had something by Yaacov Agam, the Israeli op artist. Some had Marc Chagall prints, or similar, but it was all very modern and very tasteful.

I'm not that. I'm pretty sure that the "Dress British" part of the equation in my blog title referenced Brooks Brothers-style suits, and yet here I sit wearing a grey newsboy cap, a herringbone vest, and bright red jeans, like Ron Campbell has drawn me into the "Yellow Submarine" movie. My tastes tend toward the loud and the fun, and so, when I am looking to buy something Jewish, I turn to Etsy, where you can find a menorah built on top of a T. Rex.

It occurs to me that if you are planning on going a little Yiddish, as I have, you're going to want it to affect your design sensibilities. It is not enough to spend an hour a day memorizing flashcards. One must also be ready to redecorate. It's not enough to practice conversational Yiddish aloud. One must also be ready to revisit one's wardrobe, which is certainly insufficiently Yiddish.

So occasionally I will do a roundup of my favorite Yiddish items from Web. And we'll begin, as we must, with Etsy.

1. Yenta Juice Stemless Wine Glass, myChaiDesigns, $16.00

As you probably know, a yenta is a busybody or a gossip, based on a character from the Yiddish stage. I don't know precisely who this wine glass is for, but I can't help but imagine a Jewish Auntie Mame-type, or Ruth Gordon from "Rosemary's Baby," wandering around in leopard prints, slightly tipsy, occasionally declaring how much she loves her yenta juice.

I generally don't like people very much. This is someone I could love.

2. Yiddish cross stitch, LatelyLana, $30

The Yiddish is a little off here -- "afen" and "yam" should be two words. But so what, when you can have a lovely cross stitching of the Yiddish idiom "Go shit on the sea"? It's just what is needed to make a house a heim, and a slightly rude heim at that.

3. Oy Vey Stud Earrings, GoldenSwear, $14.99

I don't know what to say. I just find these pretty.


4. Yiddish phrase printable art, StitchAndSpirit, $5

This is an Etsy phenomenon -- art that you just download, print up, and frame on your own. I rather like this example. Firstly, it's a great Yiddish phrase: Der shlof is der bester doktor, or "sleep is the best doctor." Heck, it could just read Der shlof is der bester and I would agree, because sleep really is the best.

The graphic is adorable too. I just can't stand it. I want to put one above my dog's bed, because he really likes to sleep, and he is likewise adorable. This is how I make interior design decisions, and I refuse to apologize for it.

5. Nafkas and Ganifs t-shirt, DairyMeat, $20.09

I can't approve of this sort of ironic use of Yiddish, this appropriation of gansta themes coupled with inappropriate Yiddish. Approximately, the t-shirt says "hos and thugs," and I can't approve, as I said. I really can't.

I can't bring myself to disapprove either, though.

6. Hebrew alphabet cufflinks, minjean3, $23.00

These are the most tasteful thing I am going to recommend today, and I crave a pair with the letters mem and shin, for the letters of my name, or the letters tav and yud, for trakht and Yiddish, or "think Yiddish." These are custom made, so you can select whatever letters suit you best.

Now I just need to get some shirts that require cufflinks.


Jewish Theater: A Brokhe A Blessing by Rokhl Kafrissen

This story is about a playwright named Rokhl Kafrissen, and about a new play that she has written, largely in Yiddish, called “A Brokhe A Blessing.” Kafrissen writes a marvelous and sometimes marvelously irritable blog about Yiddish called “Rootless Cosmopolitan,” as well as a film blog I rather enjoy called “Movies Metaphors and Monsters.”

The former blog is instructive to me in a variety of ways. Kafrissen has been a Yiddishist for two decades or thereabouts, having studied the subject at Brandeis, and she has been part of New York’s Yiddish theater scene for almost as long, running English supertitles to Yiddish plays.

It’s hard not to be jealous of Kafrissen’s access to Yiddish from this linguistic desert Omaha, where, as far as I can tell, the last Yiddish play produced was in 1974, when the National Touring Company of Yiddish Theater performed a series of skits at a local college, and the last Yiddish classes were in 1980, offered only once by a short-lived local Jewish organization.

The blog is instructive in that it offers a perspective on Yiddish informed by long involvement in the language. Kafrissen frequently complains about how Yiddish is treated by the media, as an example, where it is endlessly presented as a dying language, where every new course or band or play or youth group in Yiddish is excitedly declared a revival, and where basic misconceptions abound, go uncorrected, and get passed from article to article. Kafrissen is a defender of Yiddish as a language, and rankles at the endless jokey, uninformed lists and online quizzes that present a degraded, unresearched Yinglish as Yiddish.

Kafrissen is also very funny, with a blistering Twitter presence, which is how I first discovered her a few months ago. This was about the same time there was a reading of her play as part of Yiddish New York featuring Ben Rosenblatt and Yelena Shmulenson, both fixtures in NY’s Yiddish theater community. Those of you who have seen the Coen Brothers’ film “A Serious Man” will recognize Shmulenson from the Yiddish prologue, where she stabs the great and recently deceased Fyvush Finkel with an icepick. There is avideo of the reading online, which you may watch, but I will also briefly summarize the play.

Illustration by Jenna Brager
The story is set in Brownsville, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, in the 1950s, and benefits from the tremendous specificity of time and place. This was my father’s Brownsville, and he used to talk of growing up in a largely Jewish and Yiddish-accented neighborhood of aspiring gangsters and Holocaust survivors, as well as an uncommonly large group of Jewish boys who would go on to be pharmacists. 

“A Brokhe” features the first two groups, the aspiring gangsters and Holocaust survivors, and their uneasy relationships. Primarily, it looks at Dora, a scholarly and often-acerbic Polish refugee, and Kas, a small-time hood with oversized ambitions. Kas also has a bit of a yen for Dora, but the play is more about disconnection than connection, as Kas’s life in the underworld is on a crash course with Dora’s family.

The script is smart and classically composed, and brims with period detail, including an obsession with Jewish wrestlers. It also happens to have about 30 percent of its dialogue in Yiddish, and this is why I was interested in the play.

I started writing plays a very long time ago, in the 1990s, when living in Los Angeles, as part of a theater program for homeless teenagers led by actress Shelley Winters, which is, as you can imagine, a very long story. During this time I read “Vagabond Stars,” Nahma Sandrow’s history of Yiddish theater, and started working my way through a series of Yiddish plays in translation.

This affected me a lot. I wrote two plays in that time, one based on Alice in Wonderland, the other a retelling of the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev, which my mother’s family had lived through. Both were, essentially, Yiddish plays written in English, although I continued to work on the Kishinev play when I returned to college to pursue a degree in Jewish Studies, and, as a result, a lot of actual Yiddish started making its way into the script. Both plays have Purim shpiels in them; these were the short comic folk plays performed on the holiday of Purim, which Sandrow identifies as the earliest form of Jewish theater.

And I’m working on a Yiddish play now, or, more properly, a Yinglish play. Yiddish occasionally appears as a language, in complete sentences, but more often appears the way my father uses it, as a (frequently obscene) element in an English sentence. (As an aside, my father does not like that I keep writing about him swearing in Yiddish, but all I can say is maybe he should not have swore in Yiddish so much.)

A lot of playwriting is about solving problems, and one of the central problems in writing a play that uses Yiddish is Yiddish itself. One can, of course, write in Yiddish for a Yiddish audience, and this is still done. English-speaking audiences can still enjoy the play through the use of supertitles, which, as I have mentioned, Kafrissen has a lot of experience with. One can write in English and Yiddish and provide some mechanism for translation, such as my least-favorite trick in the playwrights arsenal, which has a character say something in a foreign language and then immediately translate it into English. One can try to contextualize Yiddish so that translation is not necessary, which is what I do, and is easier to do when writing Yinglish than writing Yiddish.

Kafrissen suggests supertitles for her play, which I am not sure is the best solution, but, then, the playwright need not offer the best solution to a staging problem. To a skilled director, a staging problem is not a problem so much as it is an opportunity. I once wrote a play with no stage directions at all – in fact, the characters themselves were unnamed, and the whole script is just a dialogue, with one character justified right and the other justified left on the page. Not only have directors successfully managed to figure out how to stage this play, it is my most-produced play. However, the question of staging Yiddish is one that keenly interests me, and is a question I will return to. When Kafrissen’s play finds a production, I will be eager to see how her artistic staff handles the Yiddish.

Mostly, I just continue to be thrilled that there is New Yiddish theater. It does not sound like there is a lot of it – in emails, Kafrissen has told me that a lot of what she sees and has worked on are revivals of older plays, and this has been borne out by what I have read about, which recently have included a revival of Sholem Asch's “God of Vengeance” and Yiddish version of both “Waiting for Godot” and “Death of a Salesman.” Kafrissen writes, "Revivals of older repertoire and new translations of world classics are important (and often exciting) staples of contemporary Yiddish theater. However, I would also like to see a commitment to develop and invest in new Yiddish works, like Shane Baker's ‘Big Bupkis,’ and of course, my own humble contribution to the contemporary Yiddish stage."

I will close with this: I used to participate in a lot of new play development projects, and one of the laziest questions that respondents would come up with is “why?” It’s as though they thought there was something profound about challenging every artistic decision. “Why now?” was one of the most popular ones, and is meant to force the playwright to examine what event motivated the action of the play, and why that even was necessary. I am not interested in why questions. There is only one necessary answer to why, and it is “because I wanted to,” and that an entirely valid artistic answer.

I can already tell that there are some meddling dramaturges out there who want to know why Yiddish. And this is a play that offers a solid answer to the question: It is a play about a specific immigrant experience, and this was the language spoken by this group of immigrants, and they were in a neighborhood where the language still had everyday currency, where even American-born Jews could understand and respond, to some extent. It’s a play that Yiddish makes sense in, and wouldn’t make sense if absent.

But, as I said, I am not interested in why questions. You probably have noticed that I am interested in how questions. How do we make a play? How do we stage a scene? How do we communicate something unfamiliar to an audience?

This play has a lot of fascinating hows in it. And the ones that interests me the most right now are the following: How is this play going to get a production? How is it going to have a life beyond that production, which is rare for new plays? And how am I going to get a chance to see it?

Exciting questions. I look forward to learning the answers.

(If you're interested in reading "A Brokke A Blessing," it is available through New Play Exchange.)


Week 32: Yiddish vs Yinglish

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 220 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 124 hours
I have reviewed 2,759 individual flashcards

Let me start out by defining something. There is a word that floats around in Yiddish circles to describe something that isn't Yiddish, but instead is mostly English, but is influence by Yiddish: Yinglish. The word is generally credited to Leo Rosten, who used it in his 1968 book "The Joys of Yiddish," but I think it might have predated him by a few years in a mongraph entitled "Yiddish in America: socio-linguistic description and analysis" by Professor Joshua A. Fishman. I may be wrong; I have not read the analysis, although Fishman later authored a piece called "Yinglish: A Language of the USA," and his academic specialty seems to be bilingualism, so even is he didn't invent the term, he's made a lot of use of it.

But Rosten was the first to offer a popular definition, calling it "Yiddish words that are used in colloquial English." English professor and folklorist Gene Bluestein would later add another definition for English words used by Yiddish speakers, calling it Anglish, so you end up with something like "schmuck," which is a Yiddish word that has been absorbed by English, as an example of Yinglish, and "Allrightnik," a word used in the immigrant community for Jews who were doing all right, as an example of Anglish. (Rosten also sometimes made the distinction, calling the latter "Ameridish.")

This is a useful way to distinguish the usage of specific words, but the idea of Yinglish seems to have expanded to describe another phenomenon: The blending of two different tongues, which creates something called a marconic language. These are common in immigrant communities, and two of the most famous are Spanglish, which is a blend of Spanish and English, and Engrish, which describes English used by speakers of East Asian languages. 

There are a variety of ways that languages can blend: Two groups without a common language can create a simplified mixture of the two that is called a pidgin language. If pidgin is used long enough, it can become the first language of a new generation, and at this time it becomes a creole. Or a language can absorb words from a foreign language, making it decidedly different than the standard version of the language, in which case it is a patois, which is the term used for any nonstandard or regional dialect.

A marconic language isn't quite one of these. Think of it instead as a language heavily spiced with another language, like, say, a Ritz cracker with a lot of paprika and dill on it, which, now that I have written it, sort of sounds delicious. Yinglish is definitely English, but with a lot of dill, if you don't mind me referring to Yiddish as an annual herb.

I've been thinking about Yinglish a lot, because, at this moment, I am far more of a Yinglish speaker than a Yiddish speaker, and haven't much choice about this. I have been teaching myself Yiddish as a language, and make use of that language when listening to music or reading Yiddish texts. But, when it comes to spoken Yiddish, I just don't have the opportunity to make use of Yiddish as a language, and probably never will except on infrequent occasions. Even if I were to move to, say, Brooklyn and immerse myself in a community of Yiddishists, I would still only use Yiddish as a vernacular on the occasions when I met with other Yiddishists, which, given how rarely I leave home and how much time I need to spend playing with my dog, would still be infrequent. I suppose I could do what early modern Hebrew speakers did and just insist on speaking Yiddish all the time, but I'm not going to do that.

So that leaves me with Yinglish. Lately I am feeling that all I am doing is teaching myself an increasingly sophisticated form of Yinglish, and it mostly consists of my girlfriend saying something to me and me reacting with a Yiddish word as a sort of joke. "You've got grey hairs in your eyebrow," she'll say, and I'll say "my bremen?" and she'll say "no, your eyebrows," and then she'll say, "Oh, that was Yiddish, wasn't it?" This is really a variation of an older joke I would do, where I would sing a Jewish song, like Avinu Malkeinu, and then shout at her to join in. She does not know how to sing Avinu Malkeinu. She manages to put up with me somehow.

I have titled this post "Yiddish vs Yinglish," but I suppose I should have called it "Yiddish & Yinglish." Educationally, I am pursuing Yiddish as a language, and am genuinely seeking ways to pursue whatever competence I can in Yiddish as a vernacular. But the way it actually plays out in my life is as a postvernacular language, a way to express my Jewishness through Yiddish, generally as a seasoning for English. And I am okay with both -- I think that Yinglish is an authentic expression of Jewish culture, and am thrilled to find new ways to use it, even if it just to irritate my girlfriend.

But there is a push and a pull between the urge to be fluent in Yiddish and the urge to express myself in Yinglish, and the more I learn, the more pointed this push and pull becomes. I suspect I am not the only Yiddish student to experience this, although I wonder if it affects me differently, in that Yinglish is my only day-to-day outlet for Yiddish here in Omaha.


The Negation of the Diaspora

Here's a fun little experiment: If you're studying Hebrew, try speaking in an Ashkenazi accent and see what happens.

I tried this experiment myself in college. I had left school for a few years and moved to Los Angeles, and, while there, hanging out in the delis and watching the frum Jews in the Fairfax neighborhood, I found myself curious about my own family's background. I developed a terrific interest in the history of the Jews in Europe, especially in Eastern Europe. This is where my grandparents came from, and yet I felt like my education had skipped something, despite my having attended a Jewish high school, Jewish summer camps, and years of religious education through my synagogue.

No, the story of Judaism that I learned basically looked like this: Bible. Destruction of the Second Temple. Babylonian Talmud. Holocaust. Founding of the State of Israel.

There were hints of European history in there -- some mention of the rise of Hasidism, some tellings of the tale of the Golem of Prague, a few other things, atomized moments of history, unmoored in time and unsettled in location.

When I returned to college, it was to pursue a degree in Jewish Studies, and I found myself especially focusing on East European Jewish history. It felt like it was my history, in a way that was more intimate and direct than the ancient Israeli story I mostly grew up with, and the story of modern Israel, which was not my story. I was not an Israeli, ancient or modern. I was an American Jew whose grandparents were Eastern European Jews.

I started taking Hebrew again. The first day of class, students are generally assigned a Hebrew name, or, if you're Jewish, you probably already have one. I was Tzvi in my synagogue's Hebrew school classes, but I had no desire to be Tzvi again. I already had a Jewish name, Max Sparber, and was named after my uncle Max, a dealer in rare books in New York, many of them Yiddish books or books on Judaica. There was no reason for me to trade out my actual Jewish name for an artificial Hebrew name. I don't know why I rankled, but I did. I have a better idea now.

I also insisted on using the Yiddish spelling of my name rather than transliterating it into Hebrew. My teacher fought me on this, but I suppose I gave her the choice of either letting me use the name I wanted and spell it how I wanted or of docking my grade for this odd rebellion. She chose to ignore it.

I had also learned how to read Hebrew using an Askhenazi pronunciation, the pronunciation used by European Jews, which dates back to at least the 11th century, and might be older. It is not the accent preferred by speakers of modern Hebrew. That is the Sephardi pronunciation, associated with the Jews of Spain. It was the accent chosen by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the founder of modern Hebrew, in part because it was the accent used by the Jews in Palestine, and apparently also because he just preferred it, despite hailing from what is now Belarus.

And, with that decision, and with the development of the State of Israel, a modern variant of the Sephardi accent came into prominence. It's the accent I was taught in religious school, it was the accent used in my Jewish high school, and it was the accent used to study Hebrew texts and teach Hebrew in college. I only heard the Ashkenazi accent when I heard my father and grandfather pray.

The accent

About this time, I started to use the Askenazi accent myself when I went to synagogue and used it when reading religious texts at college. And sometimes I would use it in my Hebrew class. I guess I felt about it the same way I felt about my name -- that it was a more authentic expression of my Jewish heritage, and I should be allowed to use it.

My teacher did not agree and corrected me every time. I understand her viewpoint: She was teaching conversational modern Hebrew, and the Ashkenazi accent is not preferred in modern conversational Hebrew.

I had my own viewpoint, which I didn't then know how to articulate: I was not interested in modern conversational Hebrew. I had no plans to visit Israel, I had almost no interaction with Israeli culture, and I knew almost no Israelis. I was studying Hebrew to study religious texts, and the accent I did this in didn't really matter. Actually, it did matter to me. It mattered that I studied them in the same accent as my family had.

By the way, my teacher was wrong. All teachers who insist the Sephardi accent is the proper modern Hebrew accent are wrong. There is a small but significant number of Israelis who use the Ashkenazi accent, albeit generally these are Haredi Jews or older European Jews. It's a minority accent in Israel, but is used, and the accents are mutually comprehensible, so there is no absolute reason why a modern Jew could not learn an Ashkenazi accent while learning modern conversational Hebrew. We just choose not to, and discourage those who choose to do so.

The negation

This didn't happen by accident, by the way. It is the product of a philosophy that has threaded its way, invisibly and in subterranean ways, throughout much of modern Judaism. It is a philosophy that, appropriately, has a Hebrew name, and that name is shlilat ha'galut. In English, it translates approximately as the Negation of the Diaspora.

I am going to turn to Wikipedia to sum up the philosophy, as I think they do it about as well as I could:

The negation of the Diaspora (Hebrew: שלילת הגלות‎‎, shlilat ha'galut, or Hebrew: שלילת הגולה‎‎, shlilat ha'golah) is a central assumption in many currents of Zionism. The concept encourages the dedication to Zionism and it is used to justify the denial of the feasibility of Jewish emancipation in the Diaspora. Life in the Diaspora would either lead to discrimination and persecution or to national decadence and assimilation. A more moderate formulation says that the Jews as a people have no future without a "spiritual center" in the Land of Israel. 
For those of you not familiar with the term, diaspora essentially means "dispersal," and there are a lot of Diasporas in the world -- as an Irish-American, I am also part of the Irish Disapora. Here's what it refers to in this case: The Jews used to have a homeland, the Land of Israel, but were forcibly dispersed in a series of exiles, culminating at the end of the First Jewish–Roman War, when Jerusalem and the Second Temple were destroyed and a significant portion of the population was exiled.

The destruction of the Temple was an extraordinarily traumatizing and transformative event for Jews. It took away the spiritual center of  Judaism and forced the development of smaller, community based approaches to Judaism, including the rise of synagogues and rabbis and the codification of Jewish law. Modern Judaism, as we know it, was created in the Diaspora, which, in Yiddish, is called the Galus. It was a religion of exile, a religion that constantly look both back to the Israel that once was, at least in myth, and an Israel that we hoped would one day be, with the arrival of a messiah and a return to the Holy Land.

As you can see, embedded into Judaism was the idea that this exile was temporary -- that Jews are actually displaced Israelis, waiting for the opportunity to return, and if it didn't happen in life, it would happen after death, with something called the quickening of the dead, when all deceased Jews would return to life with the arrival of the Messiah and join him in Jerusalem. Nowadays, this is a largely undiscussed aspect of Jewish philosophy, in part because many modern Jewish movements have replaced the idea of a literal messiah with the hopes for a messianic ideal, a future of justice and peace. And it may go undiscussed because it gets very weird, as ideas about the messiah got wrapped up in Jewish mysticism, and ends up seeming like a collection of oddball folk stories and virtually incomprehensible metaphysical discussions. I mean, in some tellings, the messiah will sacrifice a giant sea-monster, called Leviathan, and a giant land-monster, called Behemoth, and maybe even a giant bird, called Bar Juchne, and then ... well, we just roast them and eat them, like some sort of eschatological barbecue.

If it goes seldom discussed now, I cannot overstate how important the idea of the coming of the messiah and the return of the exiles was to the Jews of the Galus. It was a constant obsession, and that obsession leaked into Zionism. The idea of a literal messiah was replaced with messianic hopes for the reborn land of Israel, but you find many of the same ideas, especially those of the return of exiles and the end of Galus. The Disapora was not merely temporary for many Jews; it was temporary and terrible, a time of poverty and wandering, where everywhere we went we were treated as aliens, and the population inevitably turned hostile and murderous.

Add to that the fact that one particular part of the Galus, the mystical, religious, squabbling, Yiddish-speaking Pale of Settlement, was sometimes treated with contempt and embarrassment by the Jews of Central and Western Europe. Yiddish was seen as not so much a language as a degraded German jargon, and the unassimilated Eastern European Jews were often presented as being uneducated, unwashed, and superstitious. This had particular impact on American Jews, as the major institutions of American Jewry were largely created by assimilationist German Jews who barely had any interest in maintaining their own culture, and positively recoiled at the culture of the Jews of Eastern Europe. It wasn't much better in Israel, where there was an unfortunate tendency to see European Jews as somehow being weak for having suffered antisemitism and a Holocaust, which left a strong desire to leave that world behind.

The results are that, with the exception of Haredi communities that basically playact at still be in 18th Century Poland, modern Jews have largely rejected the Galus, even though most of us are still in it. There are almost 6.5 million Jews in Israel. There are seven and a half million Jews in the rest of the world, including almost 5.5 million in the United States alone. The Diaspora experience has proven not to be temporary, but ongoing, and Israel is undeniably a center of the Jewish experience, but is one of many. In fact, there was a Jewish philosophy that developed parallel to Zionism, one that we now call ethnic nationalism or diaspora nationalism, which focused on Jews maintaining a unique identity while still in the diaspora, but while pursuing the same rights and responsibilities of whatever nation they are a part of. It's strange that this approach is currently so neglected, because this is actually the experience of most Jews in the world, as well as prefiguring a lot of modern discussions about race, ethnicity, and religion in a pluralistic world.

The dreidel

If you're a student of Yiddish, you start wondering why American Jewish institutions rejected Yiddish. After all, the Jewish community has been uniquely skilled at maintaining historic languages, teaching Hebrew and Aramaic over periods of thousands of years beyond when those were spoken languages. It was even possible for me to study Syriac in college, and I did so as part of my Jewish Studies program, which did not offer Yiddish.

Jewish things don't fade naturally; we tend to preserve them, even when they weren't originally Jewish. You'll still find Jews playing mahjong, a game they learned in the 1920s, while refusing to speak Yiddish, which survived and actually flourished in the United States until the 1950s. Yiddish did not simply fade. It was deliberately allowed to fade, and, not infrequently, helped along the way. Examples of this erasure abound, but I'll give just one.

On Hanukkah, Jews spin a little top called a dreidel. It is a gambling game: The dreidel has four sides, and each side has a letter on it, and each letter causes a different outcome: You might add to a pot, or take out of a pot. The letters are Hebrew, and they are nun, gimel, hey, and shin. I was taught this was short for a Hebrew phrase, and everybody I know was taught the same: Nes gadol haya sham, "a great miracle happened there," referring to a holiday miracle involving olive oil and a gold candelabra.

But it doesn't mean that, not originally. The letters are short for Yiddish words. Nun means nisht, or none. Gimel means gants, or all. Hey means halb, or half. Shin means shtel ayn, put one in. And that's the way the game is played. It's a European game called teetotum, which is played the same way, and was simply borrowed by the Jews. The whole "great miracle happened there" explanation didn't happen until the dreidel became primarily associated with Hanukkah. I haven't been able to track down precisely when this happened, but I have not been able to find any mention of the toy associated with the holiday from the 19th century, and the first American reference to both dreidels and Hanukkah I find is from December 17, 1916, from the Jewish Daily News of New York. The earliest reference I find to the letters meaning "A Great Miracle Happened There" is much later, in 1951, in an article in Canton, Ohio Repository. The Hebrew translation does not appear in print in a book until later still, in 1978, in "The Jewish Party Book" by MaeShafter Rockland.

(Note: Since writing this, I located a reference to dreidels being used on Hanukkahthat dates back to 1864, from a letter to Leopold Low, saying that the toy, here called a "trendel," was then associated with the holiday, and following this up I discovered an entry in the Jewish Encyclopedia that clarifies the relation between the dreidel and Hanukkah: In the Middle Ages, rabbis passed decrees against gambling games, but these were lifted on intermediate holidays and Hanukkah so long as these games were not played for money.)

Note that these two references come after the creation of the State of Israel. Hanukkah had been a relatively minor holiday, but, because it happens about the same time as Christmas, it grew in popularity as a sort of Jewish alternative to the Christian holiday, especially in America during the 20th century. Parallel with this was the development of Zionism, and while Hanukkah is not an explicitly Zionist holiday, it is one that celebrates the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire's influence on Israel in 167–160 BC. With the rise of Zionism and especially with the formation of the modern state of Israel, Hanukkah took on new significance, and while I can't say with any certainty that the Hebrew version of the letters of the dreidel date from this time, I do find it unsurprising that this is when we find evidence that Hebrew was being favored over Yiddish -- indeed, the Yiddish interpretation of the letters is now entirely absent.


So it is. So we find Yiddish being erased, decade by decade, an ongoing negation of the diaspora that, in this instance, replaces Yiddish with Hebrew and turns a European Jewish toy into one celebrating Israel. This has happened subtly, invisibly, for a century or more, and continues to this day, where the experience of Jews in the Galus are invisible or secondary. Here's a quick example:

There are a series of camps in North America called Habonim Dror that have taken steps to develop a gender-neutral form of Hebrew, which is a language that has little flexibility for the nuanced understanding of gender that has developed in the past half century. This is in response to a real need: The camp had campers who did not fit Hebrew's strict binary. This is also a need in the larger American Jewish community, as there are branches of Judaism, particularly Reform, that have taken enormous steps to be as inclusive as possible in their services.

According to the Washington Post, this has received criticism from alumni, who claim the camps are "teaching the children fake Hebrew that they won’t be able to use in the outside world." But of course they can use this Hebrew in the outside world. It's very possible to take the experiments of this camp and apply it to the synagogue. It's a response to a real need experienced by Jews in the Diaspora (and not just in the Diaspora; this discussion has also happened among Israeli Jews.)

I got in an argument about this on a discussion forum with an Israeli. "Your influence on the Hebrew language is directly proportional to the frequency at which you use it to criticize a driver's competence on Ibn Gavirol Street," he told me, which could not be more clear an expression of the Negation of the Diaspora. This wasn't even a real discussion, he argued, because it was happening at some American camps, but he had not yet heard any Israelis call for such a thing.

Let me be clear: I don't care what Israelis think about what American Jews do. If we want to invent our own fake Hebrew so that we don't exclude members of our community, we are free to do so. Not only did we not disappear once Israel became a state, we did not stop mattering once Israel became a state, and Hebrew is does not belong exclusively to Israelis, but is something used by American Jews that sometimes is adapted to American needs. We get to do this.

Our history did not stop mattering. It must be abundantly obvious at this moment that the Negation of the Diaspora was as much a myth as grilling up Leviathan at the end of time was a myth. Not only did the Diaspora not end, but it is entirely possible to maintain a Jewish identity and pursue being an equal member of society outside Israel. It is possible to be a Diaspora Jew and have a Diaspora Jewish identity -- in fact, I would argue it is vital to be able to develop such a thing, because the Diaspora is not going anywhere.

Part of the reason Yiddish appeals to me is that it is one of the languages of Diaspora Jewry. My name is not Tzvi, it is Max Sparber, after a Yiddish bookdealer, from a family of East European Jews, and we did not speak modern Hebrew, and, when we used the language, it was with the wrong accent. And I'm never going to let someone tell me otherwise again.


Dress British Drink Yiddish: The Automobile Cocktail

Here we have another cocktail creation by Paris Ritz bartender Frank Meier, this one titled The Automobile. There is something charmingly 1936 about the name -- 1936 was the year Meier published the recipe in his book "The Artistry of Mixing Drinks," and it was a year in which automobiles were still so exciting that their name alone could inspire a drink. It's hard to think of contemporary advances in transportation that might do the same. The Segway Cocktail? The Hoverboard?

Meier's drink is essentially a martini, except made with sweet vermouth and with a large helping of scotch added in. Here is the recipe:

1 oz Scotch Whisky
1 oz Dry Gin
1 oz Sweet Vermouth
1 dash Orange Bitters

Stir well with ice and strain into cocktail stem or rocks glass.

I'll note that there is a school of thought, argued by David Emory in his 1948 book "The Fine Art of Mixing Drink," that believes a well-made cocktail highlights a specific liquor, with additional elements added in in smaller quantities to act as modifying, coloring, and flavoring agents. The Martini is perhaps the purest example of this, consisting almost entirely of gin, with a small amount of vermouth as flavoring agent, and then, classically, with orange bitter and a garnish to top it off.

Just dumping in equal measures of scotch and vermouth is pretty openly defiant of that formula. Perhaps this is why the Martini is still widely served while the Automobile has lapsed into obscurity.

That being said, Meier knew his business. The Automobile is a fine drink -- really fine, dominated by the flavor of the scotch, but smooth and comfortable, like something that should be drunk by a fireplace in an overstuffed leather chair while a dog sleeps at your feet. I always bring my dog along with me when I go drinking, but he's a comically tiny, one-eyed little beast who tends to approach the world with a wild smile and a tongue dangling to one side, looking absolutely mad, so I'll never be able to pass myself off as classy.

No matter. Drinks are often aspirational, rather than reflective: We drink to represent the life we wish we lived, rather than the ones we are living. And there are times I wish I was the sort of guy who could have made it in Paris before World War II, a frequent visitor to one of the finest hotels in the world, sharing drinks and stories in the Cafe Parisian, made by Frank Meier and drunk by Hemingway, who both would have looked at my dog and laughed.


The 100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Pisher

Pisher is a crude word, or, at least, in theory it is. It means "pisser," but, then, so does "squirt," and it seems like everybody in America in the 1950s called their little brothers squirt. At least, that was the case in the juvenile literature I used to read, where kids also said things like "dang" and "golly" and "gol durn it." "Squirt" seemed about as offensive as any of the other mild oaths of childhood, which is to say, not offensive at all, darn you.

But it is a mistake to assume that Yiddish is used the way English is. Even in Yinglish, while one might affectionately call someone a little pisher, there is often a note of contempt to it. Pisher is used for people who are inconsequential or incompetent. Dictionaries seem to enjoy suggesting the word evokes the act of pissing the bed. I haven't found any evidence of this, but there is certainly a deliberate hint of the juvenile to the word. Children are pishers (female children are pisherkes), and adults who have the same social standing as children are pishers. It's not quite so affectionate as "squirt."

Neither did pisher enter the English language through juvenile literature, but instead through an adult magazine: The furthest back I can trace the word in English is February, 1942, when it was used in Stag Magazine. For those unfamiliar, this was one of the men's magazines that featured shirtless and impressively burly men battling each other or nature on the cover -- snakes, octopuses, and headhunters all appeared here, alongside with erotically charged stories with titles like "City of Harems" and "House of 1000 Girls." In fact, the magazine eventually transitioned into actual pornography, and the presence of the word pisher in it suggests that the word was more substantial than a mild oath.

The word appeared in the magazine as part of a phrase, "Call me pisher," which Leo Rosten defined years later in "The Joys of Yiddish" as meaning "I don't care," a sort of Yinglish equivalent to "sticks and stones may break my bones." One assumes that you would tell a friend that you were planning on really letting your boss have it for making you work all those extra hours, and your friend would opine that maybe you shouldn't, because the boss might not take it so well, and you'd shrug and say "he can call me pisher," meaning "what's the worst that can happen? He refers to me a someone who urinates?" Later that night, you think better of the whole thing and never bring it up again, because the worst thing that can happen is he fires you.

It's hard to know whether a crude phrase originated with foul-mouthed Yiddish speakers in the old world or if it is a new invention by foul-mouthed Yinglish speakers in America, but I suspect "call me pisher" was originally a Yiddish phrase because of the lack of an indefinite article. When thing are rendered in a sort of Slavic Yoda-speak, they often originated with Yiddish speakers too-literally translating an idiom into English.

Indeed, there is an almost identical phrase in Yiddish, ruf mir knaknisl, which translates as "call me a nutcracker," but literally as "call me nutcracker," so "Call me pisher" is consistent with how it would be said in Yiddish. Why a nutcracker? I don't know, but Jews have a thing about nutcrackers. According to Michael Wex, the nickname for one of our fingers is nutcracker, which I suppose makes sense, as other fingers are called "fiddle player" and "butter holder," and these are, in fact, things you do with your fingers. But our pinky and thumb are called "little Jew" and "big fat goy," so you tell me what's going on here.

I don't know. I'm not an expert on these things and never claimed to be. I like Yiddish and spend a lot of time looking into it, but, honestly, at best, I'm a bit of a pisher.

Some uses of the word in a sentence:

The Bright Silver Star: A Berger and Mitry Mystery, David Handler: "'And I've got plenty to spill, believe me. Hell, I've known her since she was typing letters for the children's book editor and I was the little pisher in the next cubicle.' 'You're still a little pisher.'" 

Poison Blonde: An Amos Walker Novel, Loren D. Estleman: "The pisher in the Geo wasn't worth more than five minutes of a life half-lived. That was as much time as I gave Rosecranz and Gilia before I turned out the lights and closed the blinds over the window. I spread two slats to watch him."

Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel, Marty Jezer: "Not skilled at (and lacking the patience for) richly detailed anecdotal stories, he honed his autobiographical reminiscences to punch home the point that he was a rebel from the 'get-go': a cocky little street-smart wise guy, a pisher with a keenness for schoolyard justice and a willingness to fight for it."

Ten Nobodies (and Their Somebodies), Martin Drapkin: "I was, when I met that lovely man, a gangly Jewish pisher living in Florida with my mother but originally from Brooklyn. My beloved Brooklyn." 


Week 31: Maximilian Berlitz

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 214 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 121 hours
I have reviewed 2,750 individual flashcards

I continue to tale a little break from adding new material to my flashcards, but for one exception, which I shall discuss in a moment. It has been quite a relief to simply review material I already know, and the various Yiddish phrases I learned have stopped all clumping together, as they were, which meant that I had to try to remember a dozen or more long sentences all at once, and it was just impossible. Once you start getting a handle on something you are learning, the Anki flashcard program just ends up spacing it out better, and it becomes much more manageable.

I did add a half-dozen new words this week, because I am working my way through an old Berlitz Yiddish course, and every two or three weeks I move on to a new section, and so plug in the new words and phrases into my flashcards. This past week I finished a section on words related to food, the kitchen, and mealtimes, so I moved on to a section about words having to do with houses and apartments, and these were the new words I added.

I had this same Berlitz course years ago, and what Yiddish I knew before I started this project came from that. It's about an hour's worth of recordings, coupled with a booklet. The Berlitz people decided the sorts of words and phrases it would be useful for people to know, and so an English voice will say "mealtime" while a Yiddish voice will say "moltzheit." Interestingly, one of the phrases I had to learn was "the parents are heartsick from the children," which seems very Jewish.

I didn't know much about the Berlitz program, so I thought I'd read up on the subject a little. It's older than I would have expected, having been started by an impressively mustachioed Victorian gentleman named Maximilian Berlitz in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1878. As it turns out, Berlitz was Jewish, and German, and fluent in several languages, so when he moved to America he found work as a French instructor. Amusingly, according to the legend of the founding of the school, Berlitz took ill and so hired someone he had corresponded with to teach for him. As it turned out, the teacher was fluent in French but spoke no English, and yet, when Berlitz returned to the class, he found the students to be doing pretty well, having learned from the teacher simply speaking French to them and pointing at things he wanted to describe.

Inspired by this, Berlitz opened a foreign-language immersion school of his own, which then spread to other states, and eventually turned into the contemporary international company.

At some point, Berlitz started a publishing wing, releasing tourist phrase books and pocket dictionaries, and the audio recording I have was a product of this, and, more specifically, a product of Maximilian Berlitz's grandson, Charles Berlitz, who ran the department and was largely responsible for developing the audio courses. In my research, I discovered that Charles Berlitz wrote a series of books during the 70s that I would have been obsessed with as a child, because they investigated the same sort of "anomalous phenomena" that the television show "In Search of" did: Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, flying saucers, etc .In fact, I'm fairly sure I read Berlitz's book on the Bermuda Triangle when I was a boy, as it was an enormous bestseller, selling 20 million copies, and was also turned into a movie.

I can't help but regret that some of this didn't leak into his language programs. I can't be the only one who wishes that the following conversation was part of the curriculum:

Man: Vos hat ir gefinen in di Bermuda Drayek? (What did you find in the Bermuda Triangle?)
Woman: Fartsaytiker astronauts hob geboyt der piramids. (Ancient astronauts built the pyramids.)

My Yiddish may be terrible in the above sample; please forgive me. But blame Charles Berlitz. I shouldn't have to guess as to how to write such a sentence.


The 100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Kishke

I spend a lot of time fighting the idea that Yiddish is an inherently funny language. It's a fun language, sure, but just because a word is said in Yiddish doesn't make that word funny. Lazy comic writers will often just have a character say a Yiddish word or two, especially if the character is an overbearing Jewish mother, as though Yiddish were so natively hilarious that no other work need be done. Mike Myers couldn't even be bothered to speak real Yiddish for his "Saturday Night Live" character Linda Richman, often just making Yiddish-sounding noises, which seems especially lazy when he based the character on his own mother-in-law, who could have given him some actual Yiddish words to use.

That being said, sometimes Yiddish actually is a funny language, as demonstrated by the word "kishke." It didn't start out funny -- the word is Slavic in origin and simply means "intestine," and still means that in Yiddish. But it wound up funny.

Aside from being a loan word for guts, kishke is also the name of a food. Most cultures have a long and, if you think about it too hard, frankly disgusting history of stuffing things into animal intestines and then eating them. I mean, one Eastern European version, called kaszanka in Poland and a variety of similar names elsewhere, is a pig intestine filled with pig's blood, offal,  and buckwheat, which sounds less like a meal than an accident in a butcher shop. I hear it is actually delicious, but for religious Jews of Eastern Europe, there is almost nothing here that could be eaten except perhaps the buckwheat, and even that would get the side eye.

Jewish kishkes, which sometimes shows up on delicatessen menus with a Germanic name, as "stuffed derma," as though that were an improvement, uses kosher ingredients: The intestinal casing comes from a cow, and is filled either with flour or matzo combined with chicken or goose fat. It's long been a popular dish, especially paired with cholent on the sabbath, and remains popular.

Here's where it becomes funny, at least for me: Although kishke means intestines, it's not used that way by polite society; thanks to its Slavic origins, to Yiddish ears it sounded a little coarse. When somebody is talking about intestinal trouble in Yiddish, they typically call it a boykh-veytag, a pain in the abdomen. As a result, the word kishke is now more associated with the food than the body organ, in the same way that pretzel originates from the Latin word for arms, but if a dog bit your forearm, you wouldn't cry to your mother that your pretzel hurt.

But the thing of it is, people did still use kishke to mean intestines, even though it was considered a bit indelicate. And if you primarily associated the name with the food, as did most second-generation American Jews, hearing somebody say "He punched me right in the kishkes" sounds as delightfully odd as "he punched me right in the hot dogs." So kishke continued to be used, with users taking real pleasure in both the word's coarseness and the inadvertent hilariousness it had developed.

Samples of "kishke" being used in a sentence:

Harlot's Ghost: A Novel, Normal Mailer: "It could fry my kishkes if read by the wrong eyes. Do not bother about the meaning of kishkes. That is argot from Yiddish and will advance nothing you're interested in."

Art Tropo, Jay Raymond: "Benny laughed out loud and then said thoughtfully: 'Women have a different view of life because of their kishkes.' 'Kishkes?' Jack repeated. 'Kishkes. Their insides. Don't you understand English? They get messed up when they have babies.'"

The Making of Henry, Howard Jacobson: "Kishkes another one. A hard-working man shleps his kishkes or his gederem out. And Izzi Nagel worked hard. At his upholstery, at his fireeating, at being married — well, who can say? — and certainly at being Henry's father."

Soma Blues, Robert Sheckley: "He took a clumsy off balance swipe at the stranger, but the man was already out of range, dancing on his toes, coming at the smaller man, moving past him and catching him in the kishkes with a vicious elbow blow."