‘Twas brillig and the slithy tweeps did kvetch and kibitz*

I eavesdropped on a Twitter conversation about Yiddish insults and then joined in. The exchange made me think afresh about this colourful language and its enduring influence.

It started out like any other weekend afternoon: thekinderlekh were at their bubbe and zayde and we were enjoying the freedom of not having toschlep them around. Rael was watching sport –Nu? Mah Nishtanah?  and I was paging through my magazines.

Of shmucks and shmendriks (or the day Gus Silber and I traded Yiddish insults)

I was checking my Twitter stream every few minutes to see if anyone was reporting or commenting on anything that interested me. (Hi, I’m Caryn and I am a twittaholic.) I scanned through sports commentary, surprising Rael with the odd insightful comment on the game he was watching, before stumbling upon this gem by Gus Silber (@gussilber) in conversation with Lynn Barbour (@lynnbarbour):

“on the scale of dolts, a Schmendrik ranks just below a Schlemiel, & just above a Nudnik”

A seasoned eavesdropper, I butted in. This is not a shande in the Twittersphere, where the very act of tweeting is an invitation to anyone who reads the tweet to comment on it.

And so began this conversation in which Gus Silber and I traded Yiddish insults.

Me:          Where do Schmoks fit in? To me they are more repulsive

GS:           “Schmuck” is as insulting as it gets. It should only be used when referring to lawyers or Presidential Spokespersons.

Me:          As an ex-lawyer married to a lawyer I am trying not to get offended. (-:

GS:           Oh my goodness. I feel like such a schlemiel.

Some of my best schmendriks are lawyers, I hasten to add, albeit a little too late.

Me:          Anyone mind if I shmuchel a column out of this stream?

GS:           Who are we to mind? Scmuchel ahead!

Me:          Ah, the subtle guilt of the Jewish elders. Not that you’re an alte kakker

(I have reproduced the conversation as I remember it. Any errors are mine. There were many other participants too, but I have distilled what I considered the essence of the conversation.)

As it seems the last strike was mine, I live in hope that Gus does not have a farible with me. Oy vey! I don’t need tsuris like that.

Cry, the beloved language**

Yiddish, once the international language of Ashkenazi Jews, is based on German and Hebrew with words and features from the languages of the many lands where Ashkenazi Jews have lived. Its alphabet is Hebraic and the spellings of words transliterated in English vary greatly.

Dennis Marks, a writer, broadcaster and film maker, has a particular interest in the culture and history of diverse lands, including Eastern Europe. In an article in The Telegraph, he attributes Yiddish’s demise to the fact that it is “not the language of a place but the language of a people…  (that) began as a transitory language”.

As recently as a century ago, two-thirds of the world’s 18 million Jews spoke this language. But Yiddish was one of the many victims of the Holocaust and today a small fraction of this number speak it a mother tongue. Today Yiddish is on the UN’s list of endangered languages.

Bei Mir Bistu Shein

How then to explain its disproportionate influence on modern culture, music and language?

Take the song Bei Mir Bistu Shein as an example. Literally translated as “to me you are beautiful”, it was composed in 1932 by two Jewish musicians for a Yiddish musical that closed shortly after it opened. The song, however, has been covered by many leading musical talents. It gave The Andrews Sisters their first major hit and is enjoyed universally. (You can listen to it here on YouTube.)

And in 1978 Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his Yiddish writing, a noteworthy achievement for a man writing in one of the least spoken languages in the world.

But it is the everyday words that have pervaded modern language, words that are used even by those who don’t know their origin, that have spread Yiddish’s reach across the English-speaking world. It is rare to meet someone who doesn’t understand the concept of ‘chutzpah’ or know that being called a‘shlemiel’ is not a compliment. And is there any word more evocative than schmaltz ?

If in doubt, and reluctant to sound like a nudnik, you can check out Judaism 101’s website for advice on pronunciation.

I found these gems which left me giggling. I mean, come on, does it get any more typical than this?

“Chutzpah (rhymes with “foot spa”, with the throat-clearing “kh” sound)

Nu? (rhymes with “Jew”)

Shmooze (rhymes with “booze”)”

It is through these words that the language will live on, regardless of the number of mama loshenspeakers.

As Isaac Bashevis Singer said  upon receiving his prize:

“Yiddish has not yet said its last word.”


* Apologies to Lewis Carroll for corrupting his ‘Jabberwocky’.

** I stole the heading from the title of a book by Alan Paton. Cry, the beloved country has nothing to do with Yiddish but should be compulsory reading, nevertheless.

GLOSSARY – (spellings and explanations are my own, cobbled from personal experience and many other conflicting sources)

  • alte kakker – old person, old fart
  • bubbe – grandmother
  • farible – grudge
  • kakker – old person, old fart
  • kibitz – offer unwanted advice
  • kinderlekh – darling children
  • kvetch – complain excessively
  • Mah nishtanah? – Why should this day be any different to any other day? ( A Hebrew expression from the Passover story, it is used colloquially to mean ‘nothing changes’).
  • mama loshen – mother tongue
  • nudnik – a dull bore
  • Nu? – So?
  • Oy vey! – expresses exasperation
  • schlep – drag around, fetch and carry
  • shande – disgrace, scandal
  • shlemiel – a clumsy, inept person
  • schmaltz – excessive sentimentality, or chicken fat
  • schmendrik – jerk, fool
  • schmooze –  chat up, make small talk
  • shmuchel-  work the system, cobble together
  • schmuk – like the English slang ‘dick’ with all its connotations
  • schvitzing – sweating
  • tsures – troubles
  • zayde – grandfather