The Joys of Yiddish: The Mama-Loshen Makes a Comeback

The writer first thought something was up when his dentist cemented a crown and assured him it would hold on a good long time, kineahora.''Huh?'' the writer asked, or rather, gargled, past the dentist's fingers, two cotton wads, and a suction wand.''Kineahora?'' asked the dentist. ''What are you, some WASP shmegegge? You don't know the Yiddish for knock wood?''Just that morning, a woman colleague had laughingly said, ''Hon, you're gonna think I'm such a cockamamy.'' The two of them had been talking about a new project of hers that began when a package she'd been waiting for arrived at her job. Picking it up, she'd said mazel tov to the Guyanese doorman. This being New York, he thought she was calling him ''motherfucker'' and took offense. She corrected him then and went on to explain how mazel tov means ''at last!'' and also ''good luck,'' and also ''congratulations,'' and ''thank God.'' Now she's teaching him a Yiddish word a week. ''Yesterday we did shtarker,'' she said.Somehow, all of this signaled to the writer a comeback of Yiddish used to pepper day-to-day English. He mentioned this to another friend, who dismissively asked, ''Nu?'' Yiddish, the friend went on, is ''forever having a renaissance. It's a chestnut. You journalists hear the Klezmatics on NPR and suddenly you're on to a trend.''In point of fact, it was the Klezmatics on NPR. But it was also Tony Kushner's adaptation of A Dybbuk, and the new translation of a book of Yiddish stories by women, and a flyer for the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater at New York's Central Synagogue, and the annual weeklong KlezCamp in the Catskills, and last week's KlezFest, a sold-out celebration of Yiddishkayt in Los Angeles, featured on the front page of the L.A. Times metro section. Not to mention ''Coffee Talk.'' An academic the writer knows mentioned not long ago that there are Yiddish-studies programs at Harvard, Columbia, and Oxford.''The article that keeps getting written,'' Aaron Paley, the KlezFest producer and chairman of Yiddishkayt L.A., said last week, ''is 'Is Yiddish Dying?' Which is ridiculous as long as the Hasidim are around. It's a living language for them. But Yiddish in secular use is also not only not dying, it's increasingly spoken by all kinds of people, and not just Jews.''Writing last May in The New Republic, Ruth Wisse, Harvard professor of Yiddish literature, noted the fact that, for decades, Yiddish was the symbolic repository of all Jewishness. Even ''secular Jews claimed that Yidishe verter (Yiddish words) embodied yidishe vertn (Jewish values),'' she wrote. In the turn-of-the-century period Wisse described, a great migration funneled 2.5 million European Jews into the tenement warrens of the Lower East Side. There they created a rich literature, and press (five Yiddish dailies at one time), and theater (a dozen companies operating in an eight-block radius) that are both legendary and in many ways forgotten. How many slackers know Molly Picon?The usual immigrant acculturation -- what one writer calls ''Ozzie and Harriet conformism'' -- took its toll on Yiddish culture. In the post-Holocaust decades, says Paley, the varied cultural experiences of Jews worldwide tended to be subsumed to the creation of a Jewish state. When Hebrew was ordained the official language of Israel, Yiddish was tacitly banned. But Yiddish, like English, is a democratic language, a fusion tongue in linguist's terms. It's appetitive, adaptive, muscular, and has swallowed whole bits of Hebrew, Aramaic, German, Slavic, Loez, and Romance tongues over the past 1000 years. It is a language of place without a specific place of its own. ''Italians and Irish can always go back to the old countries,'' Jeffrey Salant, director of the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research's Yiddish-language program. ''For us there's this sense of the loss of original culture.'' It is not, says Paley, ''as if Jews can go home to Yiddishland.''Yet, for the ''post-Israel generation,'' according to Dr. Michael Barenbaum, president of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, things are beginning to be different. ''We're exploring an alternative to an Israel-centered past. Forces are at work, both mythically and culturally, that allow us finally to search for a different rootedness that will legitimate diaspora existence'' in all its cultural dispersion and unclaimed wealth. One difference in this rootedness is that, not being ''Israel-centered,'' it recaptures a place in the cultural imagination for what Tony Kushner calls the ''diasporan Jew.'' It provides a new format for calling someone a shmegegge.A ''gem in the coronet of Yinglish,'' as the late Leo Rosten wrote, shmegegge is essentially Yiddish for nerd. But the degree of information contained in the word mutates according to context, setting, intonation -- the factors that render all languages, in some way, untranslatable. ''The more deeply you go into a language,'' as Herbert Passin writes in Language and Cultural Patterns, ''the more unique it becomes.''Look deeply into shmegegge, says Dr. Michael Barenbaum, and you find ''much of Jewish character. You find the multiple ways to describe the plight of the downtrodden.'' A shmegegge, which Rosten called ''the fruit of a nebech and a shlemiel,'' is often enough also a shmendrick, or a shlimazl, and, in extreme cases, even a shmuck. Each term suggests states of being too rich to convey with wispy neologisms like ''nerd.''''There are generations now who can look at Yiddish without the emotional resonances,'' Paley claims, adding, ''when I was a kid in the '60s, the major thing was that each culture maintain its soul.'' The salad and not the melting pot was the working metaphor. ''Now that multiculturalism is enshrined, people feel that this great world culture has a right to be there.'' As chairman of Yiddishkayt L.A., Paley has found that ''there are up to 100 groups meeting all over the city to speak the language, these little cells. And, believe me, they're not all Jews.''Here, too, there are university classes in Yiddish and maybe also language cells and certainly at least one doorman who's getting a weekly education on the fine distinctions between a shtarker and a shmo. The words he gets from his teacher, my friend, she first learns from her great-aunt and -uncle, Wolfie and Chiquita, who live in a Miami apartment jammed with 30-ounce bottles of soda, bags of grapefruit, and dry cereal stored in boxes behind the bed. ''I call my aunt and get her to talk Yiddish to me,'' my friend says. ''I always come away with some new word. Cockamamy, kineahora, whatever. I use them to death until it's time for a new word. Then I call again.'' And always, she finds, there's another rich expression tucked in the bosom of the mama-loshen (mother language). ''I'm hoping I can learn them all,'' my friend laughs. ''Hah! I should live so long!''

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