Noshing in the shul’s social hall, I almost plotzed from the nachas I felt watching the kinderlach shpatziring about, as
the alter kockers kibitzed in the Mamaloshen. And if you understood even half of that, you would have liked the Yiddish Cultural Festival, held last month at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.
Programmed by KlezCalifornia, the Yiddish festival had it all: singing, dancing, studying and, of course, eating (the bill of fare included kugel, latkes and M&Ms).
My favorite workshop was Harvey Varga’s “Yiddish Expressions to Keep in Your Back Pocket,” a sped-up version of a Berlitz phrasebook, only funnier .
Varga is that most rare of Yiddishists: a native speaker. He grew up bilingual in Brooklyn, so he grasps all the linguistic nuances you can’t get from Berlitz.
After passing out a list of 50 common Yiddish words, Varga explained the meaning of each term, adding a few jokes of his own. Though I knew all 50, the origins of many surprised me.
I always thought “shpilkes” meant “worried.” It means “pins” and connotes a kind of frantic edginess, as in “on pins and needles.” As for “zaftig,” it is not necessarily a pejorative meaning “fat.” It actually means “juicy.”
The term “mayven” comes from the Hebrew “meyvin,” meaning “understand.” And the word “verklempt,” made famous by Mike Meyer’s SNL character Linda Richman — and which I always thought was made up — is indeed a Yiddish term meaning “clamped.”
And just as Eskimos have 30 different words for snow, Yiddish-speaking Jews came up with at least that many terms for people they didn’t like. I guess shtetl-dwellers encountered a lot of shnooks, shmucks and shmendriks.
Events like the Yiddish festival do the heavy lifting in preserving Yiddish language, literature and culture. To survive, Yiddish cannot be a mere museum piece. It must be a living language.
As a kid I had opportunities to learn it. My grandparents were native speakers. My mother spoke it. But sadly, for my generation Yiddish was an object of derision, a patois of the insufferably old.
Millions of second- and third-generation American Jews, too, either cared as little as I once did or had parents who purposely phased out the language. Perhaps that was the perceived price of admission to the Goldene Medina.
In college I took classes in linguistics and grammar. I liked learning about phonology (the physiology of speech), morphology (the elementary particles of language) and even diagramming sentences, something I hated in junior high.
I also studied the concepts of prescriptive and descriptive grammar. The former is the grammar we learned from gray-haired schoolmarms — what constitutes correct usage and what was unpardonably wrong. Descriptive grammar is a more detached view of language, observing changes over time.
For example, “ain’t” was once considered proper English, but it ain’t no more. Descriptive grammar does not judge speech as good or bad. The whole Ebonics debate amused descriptive grammarians, who accept black vernacular as a dialect every bit as rule-governed as the Queen’s English.
Yiddish, too, had once been derided, first by non-Jewish oppressors and later by assimilating Jews, who saw it as gutter language, much as black vernacular suffers today. But while black America still contends with speech hate, Jews have fallen back in love with Yiddish.
The problem is, most of us don’t know it as Varga does. Beyond a treasured smattering, there aren’t many native speakers left.
That saddens me, in part because I chose to throw my own late-inning language efforts into learning modern Hebrew. Yiddish will ever remain tantalizingly distant, a decaying echo.
But lest anyone deride Yiddish as a linguistic also-ran, you can retort with another fact from that linguistics class.
Almost 6,000 years old and derived from Proto-Indo-European (the mother of all mother tongues) is the ancient word for fish: lox.
Dan Pine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.