Thursday, October 18, 2012 | return to: arts


Book shows Yiddish speakers how to advance to posers

by dan pine, j. staff

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For Harvey Gotliffe, it’s not enough just to speak Yiddish. You have to put your whole body into it.

That’s what his new book, “The Oy Way: Following the Path of Most Resistance,” is all about. A cheeky photo-illustrated mock manual, it pairs 36 Yiddish expressions with corresponding yogalike movements.

Call it Downward Plotzing Dog.

Aoy_way_cover_NORMALThe Santa Cruz resident and retired San Jose State University journalism professor is doing his part for the revival of interest in Yiddish. Growing up in Detroit, he heard his relatives speak Yiddish all around him. As an adult, he tried to teach himself more formally, practicing with members of the Silicon Valley Holocaust Survivors Association and South Bay Yiddish clubs.

A few years ago it dawned on him he could fuse Yiddish, Jewish spirituality and that whole “talking with your hands” shtick peculiar to Jews. That’s how “The Oy Way” came to be.

For the book to work, Gotliffe had to pick just the right expressions out of his extensive Yiddish vocabulary.

“I went through 300 expressions,” he recalls, “and I asked myself which are the words people can incorporate in their language and which would lend themselves to photography.”

The list includes phrases everybody knows (oy vay, meshugge and nu) to lesser-known expressions, such as “As got vil, shist a bezem” (If God wills, even a broom could shoot).

Each left-hand page of the book features a Yiddish term along with a definition and description of the proper accompanying movement needed to say the words properly.

For example, to say the phrase “shtark vi ayzn” (strong as iron), Gotliffe suggests, “Raise your right forearm and clench your fist.” For “oy vay,” smack the left side of your head, lean over and give it the full “Tevye” treatment.

Linking body movements with Yiddish came easily to Gotliffe, who looks a little like Tevye himself. He posed for the book’s photos along with his friends.

At 76, the guy is in shape. He studied the ancient Chinese martial art of tai chi for several years, and he travels the country participating in table tennis tournaments for seniors.

What took more concentration was writing the spiritual insights that accompany each Yiddish phrase on the right-hand pages of his book.

For example, here are his thoughts on the phrase “hu ha” (I am amazed):  “When you open your eyes, your heart and your soul to the unlimited possibilities of discovery, life’s beauty and richness will not pass you by.”

“The Oy Way” is not Gotliffe’s first book. A professional writer for 50 years, he founded the magazine journalism program at SJSU, wrote entries for the Encyclopedia Judaica, and is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.

His love of Yiddish inspired him to take lessons, subscribe to the Bay Area Yiddish newsletter Der Bay, and attend the annual Northern California Yiddish Culture Festival every year.

“Yiddish is alive and well,” he says, “but it’s never going to be like it was when you had 9 million speaking it, including 2 million in the United States up to [World War II].”

“The Oy Way” by Harvey Gotliffe ($14.95, Cogitator Publications, 115 pages). Info:


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