Sunday, November 27, 2011

How I Learned Yiddish

"Yiddish is written and spoken in a number of Orthodox Jewish communities around the world, although there are also many Orthodox Jews who do not know Yiddish. It is a home language in most Hasidic communities, where it is the first language learned in childhood, used in schools and in many social settings. Yiddish is also the academic language of the study of the Talmud according to the tradition of the great Lithuanian Yeshivohs."

Thus opines the Great Wikipedia.

Well, I was one of those Orthodox Jews who didn't know Yiddish.  And boy, did it bother me.  Firstly, when the adults used it as their "secret language."  Secondly, when they laughed uproariously at a joke that was "funnier in Yiddish" (this was perhaps my first introduction to FOMO - Fear Of Missing Out, that still afflicts me today). Thirdly, when my Hungarian grandmother expressed her disappointment at my Yiddish ignorance.

Back to the GW:

"Yiddish (ייִדיש yidish or אידיש idish, literally "Jewish") is a High German language of Ashkenazi Jewish origin, spoken throughout the world. It developed as a fusion of German dialects with Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic languages and traces of Romance languages.[2][3] It is written in the Hebrew alphabet."

Nice, GW, but you don't address the burning question: why perpetuate Yiddish at all?

Well, many feel that one shouldn't.  That it's the language of the ghetto, of the past, the opposite of progress.  Others perpetuate it for those very reasons - it clings to our past, our Ashkenazi history, the faith of the past.  Yet others reject it as a culture but consider it to be valuable history.  This, my friends, highlights quite the fault line among Jews today - to cling to the past, or to shake it off and move forward?  And then there are those that have one foot on each tectonic plate: move forward, but hang onto the past.  (An interesting exercise: see if you can determine where you stand, then ask someone with different ideologies from yours where you stand.)

In any event, my brothers, being members of the "great Lithuanian Yishevohs (sic)," did understand that elusive, funny, secret language.  Fortunately, so did my husband.  So we made a pact: each night at dinner, we'd spend 5 minutes conversing exclusively in Yiddish.

Lesson #1:
Q. How do you say "how do you say" in Yiddish?
A. Vi zugt men...
[This was the critical lesson that enabled all future lessons.]

Lesson #2:
Q. Vi zugt men potatoes?
A. Kartuffluch.


Fortunately, two things were working in my favor.  Firstly, I had heard enough Yiddish swirling around my head as a child to have some rudimentary familiarity with the basics.  Also, my husband spoke Yiddish with a decided, um, American accent and dialect (ich vill essen broit mit peanut butter - I think I'll have some bread with peanut butter) that assisted my linguistic skills considerably, and wasn't I pleasantly surprised to discover that peanut butter was a Yiddish term.

And wasn't my lovely grandmother delighted to learn that her second-generation American granddaughter had kept the chain of Yiddish proficiency alive.

And now we can laugh at the same jokes.  Success.



  1. I grew up speaking Yiddish with my parents (because they barely knew English when I was born). In our house Swedish was the secret language. And no jokes are funny in Swedish.

    Du kenst reden mit mir iber du vilst...

  2. i love the yiddish language. too bad my children dont know it. we learned 'chumash' with yiddish translation. today there are too many english speaking families to teach in yiddish. what a loss to this generation...

  3. I blame my parents for not teaching me Yiddish. My father, who became physically ill at the sound of the German that reminded him of his youth in Vienna and the loss of his parents in the Shoah (Holocaust), spoke Yiddish freely and well. But he and my mother used it as their secret language, and I was a good girl who didn't try to understand. It breaks my heart now, but I make up for it by studying Hebrew - a lot.

  4. Swedish isn't funny: good factoid there :)
    There are so many emotional associations with language. Some German Jews retain in with pride and others want nothing to do with it.
    Our secret language is Hebrew. Our kids have learned it well. Bummer. Pig latin is next.

  5. I was on a plane to Argentina, setting off for a year of studying abroad. The moment naturally led to some introspection and some hopes for the coming year. Two women sat down next to me, right across the aisle. They looked to be 70, give or take. Once settled, one said to the other, "I don't know why I let you do this to me." in a Spanish that I could understand, even if it sounded... kinda OFF. After five more minutes of listening to them worry about how they were going to get by in Argentina, while speaking in perfect Spanish, I somewhat rudely excused myself for interrupting and asked in my "perfect" Mexican Spanish what they were so worried about. You would think there was a ghost on the plane given how big their eyes turned. Turned out they were from Turkey originally, grew up in Ladino-speaking homes, and had moved to Israel years ago as best friends. Now they still are. And off they went, assured that their Ladino would get them through the week.

    It's one of my favorite memories from Argentina, the look on their faces when they understood my "modern" Spanish and I understood their 500 year old Ladino.

  6. Yiddish has tremendous value. Yes, it was the language spoken in the ghetto but it was spoken for centuries before that too. It's the language of countless novels, plays and even some movies. Jokes do sound better in Yiddish and it's easier to complain in Yiddish. Plus find me a word as versatile as "Nu?" in any other language.
    But what's most important is that it's our language. Hebrew? Lots of Arabs in Israel speak it. So does the Pope. But Yiddish? That's still something special for us.

  7. I thought of this post today because I saw a college friend who is planning to pursue a Ph.D. in Jewish theater and she mentioned that after touring her campus of choice, she has realized she really must start learning Yiddish. :)

  8. mikvahbound, LOVE that!

    Mighty: very interesting way to look at. Always thought of Yiddish as the cholent, and Hebrew as the thoroughbred. Too: you can curse in YIddish, not in Biblical Hebrew.

    Maya: welcome to OOTOB! Wonder if university Yiddish captures the "schmaltziness" of the language. Gosh, I couldn't translate that if I tried :)

  9. "Q. Vi zugt men potatoes?
    A. Kartuffluch."

    Actually, there are various names for potatoes in Yiddish, depending where, what dialect of Yiddish.

    Some of the words used were bulbes (like bulbs, potato is a tuber, a kind of bulb) in some Litvish speaking areas, the older erd epple (earth apple) from German, and kartoffel in Southern Yiddish areas.

    You could tell where a Yiddish speaker's roots were by the word they used for potato (among other things).

    See the following and elsewhere, for more on this.

    1) Page seventeen at


    3) Section 4.1 at


  10. Litvak: fascinating. I had no idea! Welcome to OOTOB!

  11. Hi Ruchi,
    I don't speak Yiddish but I speak German. When I hear Yiddish I can understand at least 70-80% of it. So, the Pope doesn't speak Yiddish but being from Germany, most likely he can understand Yiddish as well :)

    Ladino is very similar to Spanish. A few months ago, I found a magazine about Jewish people in Turkey with some Ladino texts on it. I could understand almost all of it. (yes, I speak Spanish too, as a consequence of my nomadic life style). Once I was watching a documentary about Israel on Spanish TV. The presenter of the documentary was talking to two Israelians he had met on the street just by chance. Although they never had taken any Spanish course whatsoever, they could communicate with him thanks to their Ladino skills.


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