Five American women sat around the dinner table last night with their French friend living in the 20th arrondissement in a lovely apartment overlooking the well-arbored Père Lachaise cemetery discussing something very un-French: the language of Yiddish.
Actually, it wasn’t a discussion as much as a hilarious exchange that had all of us to virtual tears in hysterics. It all started with one woman who is not Jewish, but worked in the “schmatta” business in New York and acquired a lot of the language by ‘osmosis.’ She recalled one expression she always loved: “Vaksn zolstu vi a tsibele mitn kop in dr’erd!” — “May you grow like an onion with your head in the ground!”
Another I remember as being used regularly in my household, where my mother and grandmother spoke Yiddish so we wouldn’t understand what they were saying was: “Hak mir nit keyn tshaynik!” — “Don’t bang the teakettle at me!”
With a laptop close by, we did what any modern group of loony women do, we “Googled it” and came up with a site that entertained us for hours: YiddishWit.com. While reading through the dozens of expressions, we derived our own interpretations.
In the case of the ‘onion,’ not that we fully understood it, it turns out that Jews have a long history with the onion, or so they say. I’m not sure I’d know that, but according to yiddishwarmth.com/blog/, the Ashkenazi Jews held the onion in great esteem and this ‘curse’ is thought to be perfect for “shouting out of your car window at dangerously distracted drivers!”
Most of the expressions are in fact, curses. Our favorite of all was this one: “Loyfn zolstu in beys-hakise yede dray minut oder yede dray khadoshim.” — “May you run to the toilet every three minutes or every three months.” Is there any curse better or worse than this!? Tears were rolling down our faces.
Yiddish is a dying language with the exception of a few words and phrases that have stuck like glue, many of which can now be found in any English-language dictionary. Wikipedia.org has a whole list of them. One of the women born in New Jersey to an Italian family confessed that she grew up with these words never realizing they were really Yiddish. Her favorite word?: “Schmeckle.”
Schmeckle elicited the biggest roar of all and became the ‘theme’ for the entire evening. Just imagine six women discussion little penises. There were a few in our past we could recall!
Professor George Jochnowitz, whose specialty is Jewish languages, in particular the dialects of the Jews of Italy and southern France and who taught for many years at the College of Staten Island, CUNY, asks in one of his many essays on the subject, “Why Don’t We Speak Judeo-French?”
Good question. At one time they did…before the 18th-century. It disappeared however when speakers of Judeo-French moved into an area with speakers of a different Jewish language, such as Judeo-German, Judeo-Spanish or Judeo-Greek. Yiddish was spoken by two-thirds of the world’s Jews (11 million) up until World War II. With the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis, the language became an endangered tongue.
“Endangered” is the key word here. It’s definitely not extinct. Here in France, there are many organizations that support Yiddish as a language and a culture.
Check out the Maison de la Culture Yiddish to take a course or enjoy theater in Yiddish. Learn more about Jewish Theater. B’nai B’rith France is a good place to celebrate Yiddish, too. And if you want to practice your Yiddish, visit yidishtishpariz.wordpress.com/, an informal group for people who live in Paris (or nearby, or visitors), who speak Yiddish, or who are learning Yiddish, not associated with any organization, and welcoming of all people, regardless of politics or religion.
A la prochaine,
(photo by Erica Simone)
P.S. Mark your calendars for Parler Paris Après Midi April 14, 2015. Our guest will be high-profile business executive and author, Roy Camblin, speaking on “Individual Financial Survival in a Toxic Economy.” Don’t miss it!