Borscht Belt reds

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun May 13 19:12:08 MDT 2001


> Jews living there. Is is possible to protect the Yiddish culture? 
>
>bye, Mine

One of the things I regret is not having learned to speak Yiddish. My
grandmothers spoke the language as nearly did everybody who settled in my
home town from Europe. Instead I had to learn Hebrew which was necessary
for my Bar Mitzvah. When I said I learned Hebrew, I should add that I only
knew how to sound the words phonetically. I never had a clue what I was
saying. Yiddish, on the other hand, was a much more interesting language,
especially since there was a thriving literary culture, from Sholem
Alecheim to Isaac Bashevis Singer. Probably the best description of the
roots of Yiddish can be found in the altogether charming "The Joys of
Yiddish" by Leo Rosten:

Around the tenth century, Jews from what Is now northern France, who spoke
Old French and, of course, Hebrew, migrated to towns along the Rhine, where
they began to use the local German dialect. Hebrew remained untouched as
the "sacred," the liturgical, language—for reading Torah and Talmud, for
use in prayer and in scholarly or theological discourse.

In the Rbineland, Jews wrote German phonetically, using the letters of the
Hebrew alphabet just as Jewish sages in Spain wrote Spanish (and Arabic)
with Hebrew letters.

Yiddish really took root and flowered, as a vernacular, in the
ghettoes—which began in wailed Juderías., in Spain in the thirteenth
century. (The Lateran Council of 1179 and 1215 forbade Jews to live close
to Christians, and in 1555 Paul IV ordered segregated quarters for Jews in
the Papal States.) The new parlance was a mélange of Middle High German,
Old German, remnants of Old French and Old Italian, Hebrew names and
phrases, and local dialect.

But Yiddish did not really settle down and raise its own until after the
fifteenth century, when the Jews went to Eastern Europe—Poland, Galicia,
Hungary, Rumania, Russia. There the buoyant tongue picked up new locutions,
adapt  to the street and the marketplace. Yiddish became the Jews' tongue
via the Jewish mother, who, not being male, was denied a Hebrew education.

A word about Yiddish itself. It is older than the English we speak,
although it did not fully come into its own, building a literature of its
own, until the mid-nineteenth century—since which recent time it has
produced an impressive body of stories, poems, novels. essays. and social
criticism.  

Yiddish is the Robin Hood of languages. It steals from the linguistically
rich to gave to the fledgling poor. It shows not the slightest hesitation
in taking in house guests—to whom it gives free room and board regardless
of genealogy, faith, or exoticism. A memorable remark by a journalist,
Charles Rappaport, runs: I speak ten languages—all of them in Yiddish."

Think Yiddish a language of exceptional charm. Like any  gamin who has
survived unnamable adversities, it is audacious, mischievous. It has
displayed immense resourcefulness, immenser resilience, and immensest
determination-not-to-die-—properties whose absence has proved fatal to more
genteel and languid languages. I think It a tongue that never takes its
tongue out of its cheek.   

It lends itself to an extraordinary range of observational nuances and
psychological subtleties. Steeped in sentiment, it is sluiced with sarcasm.
It loves the ruminative, it rests on a rueful past; favors paradox, because
it knows that only paradox can do justice to the injustices of life; adores
irony, because the only way the Jews could retain sanity was to view a
dreadful world with sardonic, astringent eyes. In its innermost heart,
Yiddish swings be schmaltz and derision.

Some Yiddish expressions from www.ariga.com:

A lung un leber oyf der noz - Stop talking yourself into illness! (Lit.,
Don't imagine a lung and a liver upon the nose)

Drai mir nit kain kop! - Don't bother me! (Lit., Don't twist my head)

Es hot zich oysgelohzen a boydem! - Nothing came of it! (Lit., There's
nothing up there but a small attic.)

Gai strasheh di vantzen - You don't frighten me! (Lit., Go threaten the bed
bugs)

Haken a tsheinik - Boring, long-winded and annoying conversation; talking
for the sake of talking (Lit., To bang on the tea-kettle)


Louis Proyect
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