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Yiddish is the jargon language of Ashkenazy Jews. It was the every day language spoken by most European Jews before the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel. The core of Yiddish is Middle High medieval German, written with the Hebrew alphabet. The term "Yiddish" did not become the most frequently used designation until the 18th century and it was often called "mameh Loshen" (mother tongue") as opposed to Hebrew, which was "Loshon koydesh" - holy tongue.

Yiddish was the vernacular language of most Jews in Eastern and Central Europe before World War II. Today, it is spoken by descendants of those Jews living in the United States, Israel, and other parts of the world.

The basic grammar and vocabulary of Yiddish, which is written in the Hebrew alphabet, is Germanic. Yiddish, however, is not a dialect of German. It evolved into an independent   language through long isolation. Yiddish words often have meanings that are different from similar words in German and different words have often evolved in Gerrman. In Yiddish we ask "Reds-te yiddish?"(Do you speak Yiddish?)  In German: "Sprechen-sie Deutsch?" Yiddish probably always incorporated significant borrowings from Hebrew  and later took on borrow words from other languages.

The word "Yiddish" comes from the German word for "Jewish."  Yiddish may have evolved from a jargon called "Laaz" (from the Hevrew contraction meaning "gentile language"). Yiddish probably began to take shape by the 10th century as Jews from France and Italy migrated to the German Rhine Valley. In the later Middle Ages, Yiddish acquired a written version and later when Jews settled in Eastern Europe, Slavic words were incorporated into evolving dialects of Yiddish. Because of the long isolation of Eastern European Jews, local dialects developed as well. Yiddish once spanned a dialect continuum from Western Yiddish to three major groups within Eastern Yiddish, witch we will call Litvish (Lithuanian Yiddish), Poylish (Polish Yiddish) and Ookrainish, spoken in the Ukraine and other pats of the Tsarist Pale of Settlement. Yiddish as spoken in mandatory Palestine and Israle is probably a fusion of the above dialects, with the addition os modern Hebew borrow words and some Arabic. The Yiddish of Orthodox Jews may have specialty words connected with various customs and rituals:

"fahrbrengen" - The Friday sermon of a Hassidic Rabbi.

"oofroof" - getting called to the Torah;

The growth of Yiddish was encouraged by the enforced or voluntary gathering of Jews in ghettos. It provided a lingua franca that allowed Jews from different parts of Europe to communicate, facilitating relations and trade between Jewish communities, and allowing Jews to be more or less painlessly integrated when migrating to other lands. This gave Jewish merchants a distinct advantage, in trade, especially in the polyglot Austro-Hungarian empire and in reformation Europe, where a different dialect might be spoken in every duchy.

The Golden Age of Yiddish Culture

The development of Yiddish discouraged integration into the surrounding gentile communities, because Jews did not learn the language of their gentile neighbors. The development of Yiddish also caused the atrophy of Hebrew and Aramaic. Hebrew was used only by Jews from Arab counties. Ostensibly, European Jews refrained from using Hebrew because it was a "holy tongue" This attitude is still maintained and cultivated by extremist Orthodox Anti-Zionist Jews such as the Satmar and Neturei Karta sects.

The birth of Yiddish Literature

Since Orthodox Jewish practise frowned upon profane pursuits for men, Yiddish literature had to be either concerned with liturgy and law, or aimed at women,

The oldest surviving literary document in Yiddish is a blessing in the Worms Machzor, a Hebrew prayer book from 1272:

Yiddish: גוּט טַק אִים בְּטַגְֿא שְ וַיר דִּיש מַחֲזֹור אִין בֵּיתֿ הַכְּנֶסֶתֿ טְרַגְֿא
Transliterated: gut tak im betage se vaer dis makhazor in beis hakneses trage
Translated: May a good day come to him who carries this prayer book into the synagogue.

Over the course of the 14th and 15th centuries profane Yiddish literature began to appear. These were collected in the late 15th century by Menahem ben Naphtali Oldendorf. During the same period, a tradition seems to have emerged of the Jewish community's adapting its own versions of German secular literature. The earliest Yiddish epic poem of this sort is the Dukus Horant, which survives in the famous Cambridge Codex T.-S.10.K.22. This 14th-century manuscript was discovered in the geniza of a Cairo synagogue in 1896, and also contains a collection of narrative poems on themes from the Hebrew Bible and the Hagadah.

The advent of the printing press resulted in an increase in the amount of material produced and surviving from the 16th century and onwards. One  very popular work was Elia Levita's Bovo-Bukh, composed around 1507–08 and printed in at least forty editions, beginning in 1541. Levita, the earliest named Yiddish author, may also have written Pariz un Viene (Paris and Vienna). Another Yiddish retelling of a chivalric romance, Vidvilt (often referred to as "Widuwilt" by Germanizing scholars), presumably also dates from the 15th century, although the manuscripts are from the 16th. It is also known as King Artus Hof, an adaptation of the Middle High German romance Wigalois by Wirnt von Gravenberg. Another significant writer is Avroham ben Schemuel Pikartei, who published a paraphrase of the Book of Job in 1557.

Ashkenazi women were usually not literate in Hebrew, but did read and write Yiddish. A body of literature therefore developed for which women were a primary audience. This included secular works, such as the Bovo-Bukh, and religious writing specifically for women, such as the Tseno Ureno and the Tkhines. One of the best-known early woman authors was Glückel of Hameln, whose memoirs are still in print. A special "Taitch" semi-cursive print face was used for secular works and works intended for women. This was used for example in the popular "Taitch Chumesh" - a condensation and translation of the five books od Moses for women.

The liberation of Jews from ghettos and the Haskalah of the early 19th century brought about the virtual extinction of Western European Yiddish. But Jews, freed of the restrictions of Orthodox Judaism, were able to create a secular and profane culture aimed at men as well as women.  

A Yiddish theater, Yiddish literature, Yiddish poetry and Yiddish periodicals came to life in Eastern and Central Europe. With its flexible vocabulary and picturesque idioms, Yiddish showed itself to be an ideal  vehicle, particular for humorous prose.  The "father" of the Yiddish novel and short story was probably Mendele Mochehr Sfarim, whereas the most popular writer of Yiddish was Shalom Aleichem, who eventually settled in the United States.  Unfortunately the biting, dry and subtle irony of Shalom Aleichem's language as well as the nuances of language do not translate or travel well. The entire context of parochial ghetto life that he describes has been lost. The Shalom Aleichem stories of Kasrilevke and Tevye der Milchiger were masterpieces of breezy irony. Translated into a Broadway musical they became the pathetic, bathetic, kitschy, schmaltzy "Fiddler on the Roof."

The Soviet revolution extinguished a part of the Yiddish-speaking world. Initially, Jews were allowed to speak a Russified Yiddish, from which ever trace of Hebrew was removed, especially in the Birobidjan autonomous area (The Soviet Homeland - Sovietischeh Heimat)  created by Stalin to compete with Zionist aspirations. Later, Yiddish was banned entirely by Stalin  

Meanwhile, a large population of Russian and Central European Jews had immigrated to the USA. Cultural and political expression were unfettered by government or religious restrictions, but most of the new immigrants knew Yiddish better than Hebrew. Several journals came into being including Der Morgen Djournahl (Morning Journal) and Der Tog (The Day) as well as Der Voch (The Week).  The new immigrants also brought their politics with them. The masthead of Der Forverts (Forward) now published in English proclaimed, "Arbaiter fun alleh lahnde Fahreinig-tzach" - "Workers from every land unite." A Yiddish theater was created  on Second Avenue in New York. More than that. Yiddish culture became American culture. in 1932 Shalom Secunda wrote a song for a Yiddish musical. The musical closed after a season. The song, Ba mir bist du shayn ("You are beautiful to me") became rather famous and eventually topped the hit parade.

In the 1920s and 1930s Poland developed an even more vital Yiddish Culture The Bund and the Zionist Organization joined forces to support a single secular education network which taught Hebrew and Yiddish. As in the United States, Polish Jews developed literature, a theater, a press, music and even a cinema industry. Yiddish culture flourished briefly in other parts of Europe as well.

The Holocaust and Yiddish

The Holocaust extinguished the Yiddish language by murdering most of the Yiddish-speakers in Europe. Yiddish was spoken for one or two generations by immigrants to the United States and Israel, but this population is dwindling. Yiddish plays are still put on in Israel, and there is some revival of interest by young people. In non-Jewish universities, Yiddish may be offered as part of an ethnography curriculum. Ultra-Orthodox sects in the USA keep Yiddish alive, but their religious dogma forbids literature, theater, poetry and similar profane "culture." There are probably about half a million Yiddish speakers in the world, including about 200,00 each in the USA and Israel, and others wjo live in Europe for the most part.

Though Yiddish probably wasspoken for about a thousand years, it is misleading to speak of a Yiddish "culture" that spanned this time frame or to imagine that Yiddish as always spoken by most Jews. Sephardic Jews  spoke Spanish until the expulsion and Ladino thereafter. Jews in Arab countries spoke mostly Arabic and Hebrew.

Yiddish and Zionism

The attitude of various Jewish groups to Yiddish has become an unseemly political issue. Some had insisted that Yiddish be the language of new Jewish state. Of course, this would create a racist and parochial movement that arbitrary excluded Sephardic Jews and "Arab Jews." The idea became even more absurd after the bulk of European Jewry was exterminated in the Holocaust

To get new immigrants to speak Hebrew rather than Yiddish or the language of their country of origin, Zionists found it necessary to exhort them "Yehudi Dabehr Ivrit" (Jew speak Hebrew). Ben Gurion probably went too far when he famously exhorted survivors of ghetto revolts to speak Hebrew. Without this constant social pressure, however. Israeli Jews would probably speak a babble of Arabic, English, German, French. Hebrew, Ladino, Polish, Roumanian and Russian.  Hebrew would never become a living language. 

Anti-Zionists took up the cause of Yiddish in order to oppose Zionism. The remnants of the Bund often insist that Zionism is responsible for stamping out Yiddish. "Yiddishists" try to eliminate Hebrew influences from Yiddish. A Yiddishist named Mordechai called himself "Mordkeh." The YIVO institute Web site invites its readers to learn the "Yiddish alphabet," which is the Hebrew alphabet of course.

Today, Yiddish is probably spoken by about 200,000 people. Yiddish speakers were exterminated in the Holocaust, assimilated into US or Soviet or European Society. Yiddish culture could not survive into the modern era. Yiddish was spoken by Orthodox Jews to wjom "profane" culture is forbidden, by Jews on the way to being assimilated and learning the language of their host country and by socialist Jews whose claims to ethnicity were denied in the USSR. Even without the Holocaust it is doubtful there would be many secular Yiddish speakers in Europe. Secular Yiddish culture could only exist in a brief moment in history - the transition from ghetto life to integration and emancipation/. 

Learning a bit of Yiddish

Most American Jews know some Yiddish words and idioms, and non-Jews know words like chutzpeh, spiel , schmaltz and schmuck that have become part of American English. Everyone knows the names of foods like bagels and knishes. Following is a list of some of these wordsand a few idioms:

a klug tzu kolumbitsen - Damn Columbus! -(used when in despair in the USA).

bagel: - a ring-shaped bread roll made by boiling and then baking the dough ;

Bahlebusteh - an efficient homemaker;

bahrshert - fated;

Beryeh - strong woman; good housewife.

blintz: - a sweet cheese-filled crepe ;

bris: - the circumcision ceremony of a male child ;

boychick: - boy, young man.

bupkis - emphatically nothing, probably goat droppings

chutzpah (chutzpeh) : - nerve, guts, daring, audacity, effrontery. From the Hebrew.

dreck, drek: - "crap" or "shit"

dybbuk: - the malevolent spirit of a dead person which enters and controls a living body until exorcised. From the Hebrew. 

fleishig: - made with meat

ganef or gonif: - thief, scoundrel, rascal

gevalt! - exclamation of despair;

gey klop der Kop in Vant -Literally, go hit your head against the wall, meaning "it is futile;"

gelt: - money; chocolate coins eaten on Hanukkah

glitch: - a minor malfunction

golem: - a man-made humanoid; a robot;

goy: - a Gentile, someone not of the Jewish faith or people

hahk a tchaynick; - to bother incessantly nag or simply talk nonsense;  Literally - to bang" a teakettle,  meaning to nag or a nagging person.

haimish (also heimish): - home-like, friendly, folksy;

Hahsseneh: - Wedding.

keyn ayn hohreh;  - without the evil eye; said to avert the evil eye when praising someone.

khazeray; also chazeray, or chozzerai: - junk;

kibbitz: - to offer unwanted advice, e.g. to someone playing cards; to converse idly, hence a kibbitzer, gossip

klutz: - clumsy person

kosher: - conforming to Jewish dietary laws;

kvell: - to feel delighted and proud to the point of tears

kvetch: - to complain habitually, gripe; as a noun, a person who always complains

latke: - potato pancake, especially during Hanukkah

Litvak: - a Lithuanian Jew ;

lox: - smoked salmon

mahcher: - big shot, important person, VIP, a go between ot agent;

mahmzer: - bastard

mahzel: - luck

Mahzel Tov: - congratulations!

mayven: - expert; "A Grouseh mayven" is an ironic expression meaning a big mayven,- a know-it-all, a pretend expert.

megillah: - a tediously detailed discourse, a long story; 

mensch: - an upright man; a decent human being

meshuga, also meshugge, meshugah, meshuggah: - crazy

meshugas: - madness, nonsense, irrational idiosyncrasy

meshuggeneh, meshuggene: - a crazy woman

meshuggener: - a crazy man

milchig or Milchik: - made with milk

minyan: - the quorum of ten male adults for prayers, from Hebrew.

mishpocheh: - extended family from Hebrew, 

naches: - feeling of pride in 1: - the achievements of one's children; 2. one's own doing good by helping someone or some organization; From Hebrew - Nachat Ruackh.  

Nahchs: A stubborn, unsympathetic and contrary person; 

nahrischkeit: - foolishness, nonsense

nebbach - An exclamation of pitSy and also a person deserving of pity 

nebbish: - (anglicized) an insignificant, pitiful person; a nonentity; originally a nebach;

noodge, also nudzh: - to pester, nag, whine; as a noun, a pest or whiner;

Nor auf simches - "only at happy events" - That is, we should meet only at Smachot such as weddings, bar mitzvahs etc.  

nosh: - snack

nu: - multipurpose interjection often analogous to "well?" or "so?"

nudnik: - a pest, "pain in the neck"; a bore

oy or oy vey: - interjection of grief, pain, or horror;

parveh: - containing neither meat nor dairy products and therefore kosher for both, not exciting.

pisher: - a nobody, an inexperienced person

potch: - spank, slap, smack

plotz: - to burst, as from strong emotion

putz: - obnoxious person. Literally penis - German meaning decoration.

schav: - A chilled cucumber soup (Russian).

schlemiel: - an inept clumsy person; a bungler; a dolt The probably is not derived from the Biblical character shlomiel, but rather from a fictional German character, Peter Schlemihls, hero of Peter Schlemihls wundersame.

schlemazel: - a chronically unlucky person

schlep: - to drag or haul; a long trip.

schlock: - something cheap, shoddy, or inferior

schlong: - penis;

schlub (jlub): - a larfe clumsy, stupid, or unattractive person

schmaltz: - melted chicken or goose fat; excessive sentimentality

schmatteh: - a rag

schmeer also schmear: - noun or verb: - spread or bribe;

schmegeggy: - from Yiddish סטשמעגעגע schmegege meaning "an idiot"; "a dickhead.";

schmo: - a stupid person.

schmooze: - to converse informally, make small talk or chat from Hebrew shmuot - rumors.

schmuck: - An obnoxious person. Literally, a penis, from German meanind "decoration."

schmutz: - dirt;

schnook: - an easily imposed-upon or cheated person, a pitifully meek person, a particularly gullible person, a cute or mischievous person or child

schnorrer: - beggar;

schnoz or schnozz also schnozzle: - a nose, especially a large nose

schvartze: - term used to denote black people; can be used derogatorily.

schvitz: - schvitz or schvitzing: - To sweat, perspire, exude moisture as a cooling mechanism

Shabbos, Shabbes: - Shabbat

shalom: - 'peace', used to say hello or goodbye, from the Hebrew. ;

shammes or shamash: - the caretaker of a synagogue; also, the 9th candle of the Hanukkah menorah, used to light the others

shegetz: - Non-Jew;

shikker, shicker, shickered: - drunk

shiksa or shikse: - Gentile woman;

shmendrik: - a foolish or contemptible person

shtetl: - a small town with a large Jewish population in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe

shtick: - comic theme; a defining habit or distinguishing feature

shtickle: - a small amount of something.

shtup: - vulgar slang, to have intercourse;

shul: - synagogue, typically refers to an Orthodox Jewish place of worship which is also a place of study;

spiel or shpiel: - a sales pitch or speech intended to persuade;

tchotchke: - knickknack, trinket, curio

tref or trayf or traif: - not kosher;

tzimmes: - a sweet stew of vegetables and fruit; a fuss, a confused affair, a to-do;

tsuris: - troubles; From the Hebrew Tsarot;

tukhus: - buttocks, bottom, rear end

tummler: - an entertainer or master of ceremonies, especially one who encourages audience interaction; From the German; 

verklempt: - choked with emotion; German

yarmulke: - round cloth skullcap worn by observant Jews; probably from the Polish;

Yekke: - A German Jew; The origin of this term is obscure. It is thought to derive from the "jahket" formal attire of German Jewish immigrants to Palestine.

yenta: - a talkative woman; a gossip, 

Yiddish: - the Yiddish language;

Yontef: Holiday - from Hebrew Yom Tov Good day

yutz: - a stupid, clueless person;

zaftig: - pleasingly plump, buxom, full-figured woman ; 

An exhaustive list of transliterated Yiddish idioms is at http://www.pass.to/glossary/Default.htm

.Ami Isseroff

February 21, 2011


Synonyms and alternate spellings:

Further Information:


Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.


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