Oy Vey! Why Aren’t You Fluent in ‘Jewish’?
In 1912 in Prague, the writer Franz Kafka introduced a Yiddish theater troupe’s performance by providing the audience a little comfort. “I would like to assure you, ladies and gentlemen, that you understand far more Yiddish than you think,” he said. Do those words still ring true in 2018?
Yiddish is responsible for some of the best words that have become part of the New York vernacular: bupkes (nothing); schmutz (dirt); schmooze (chat up); chutzpah (nerve or brashness). We can see its influence everywhere from Deborah Kass’ Oy/Yo sculpture on the Brooklyn waterfront to the bagel stores that dot the streets – but most of us know very little about the language itself. Isn’t that cockamamie?
Despite literally meaning “Jewish,” Yiddish is actually pretty multicultural; it’s derived from German, mixes in Hebrew and Aramaic, and incorporates traces of old French,Italian, and Slavic languages. It was the mother tongue of Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews and dates back to about the 10th Century. (The very first printed Yiddish sentence is thought to be a blessing in the Worms Mahzor, a prayerbook printed in 1272.) Whereas Hebrew was typically the language of learning and prayer, Yiddish was the language of everyday life. So when millions of Jews left Eastern Europe to come to New York between 1881 and 1924, they brought Yiddish with them. As I always mention when I give a tour here at the Museum, if you were walking down Eldridge Street during that period, the people you passed would more likely have been speaking Yiddish than English!
Today, some New Yorkers still speak Yiddish – especially in Hasidic communities – but it’s a bit of a lost art. Assimilating Eastern European immigrants adopted the language of their new home and often encouraged their children to speak English. I remember my grandmother – the daughter of immigrants from Lithuania and Latvia – telling me that her mother wouldn’t let her speak Yiddish. She wanted her American-born daughter to sound American. Still, my grandma understood Yiddish (afterall, that’s what her mother spoke) and she peppered her own speech with Yiddish words that were evocative and irreplaceable– pupik instead of bellybutton; tuchis for butt.
Whatever Yiddish my grandmother had absorbed all but disappeared from my mother’s speech. As for me, all I know is the Yiddish most New Yorkers know: maven, macher, klutz – basically, bupkes! I suppose it’s one of the many contradictions of America’s promise for new immigrants that the melting pot incorporates some traditions and melts away others. And even though Yiddish may have disappeared from most Lower East Side streets, you can still here it in the Museum at Eldridge Street. Within our walls, we tell the stories of immigrants carving out new lives, using old traditions.