Yiddish and Other Jewish Languages

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Before the creation of Israel, Jews generally spoke the language of their native country or region.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, when most Jews lived in western Russia, dominating economic and cultural life there, there were three predominate languages: 1) Hebrew; 2) Aramaic, a difficult language used in the Talmud and spoken by Jesus Christ; and 3) Yiddish, a European-based language used in personal and public communication. Among the Diaspora neither Hebrew or Aramaic were used as a spoken language. Even when texts were written in these languages or when they were used in yeshivas or other schools Yiddish was the language of discussion and education.

Common expression that originated in the Old Testament include “eye for eye, tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:24); “apple of his eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10). The latter is based on the ancient belief that the center of the eye is solid like an apple. The word scapegoat also comes from the ancient Jews. During the ancient Israeli Day of Atonement the High Priest took the sins of his the people and cast them on a goat, which was then allowed to escape.

Ladino (also known Judezmo and Hakatia) is the Judeo-Spanish spoken in the Balkans, Turkey and northen Morocco and by their descendants in Palestine-Israel and Egypt. It was thought to be especially melodic and lent itself to poetry and sacred and secular songs. In the Balkans there are also communities of Romaniot Jews who still use of Jewish dialect of Greek.

Aramaic is spoken by a few Jews who have lived near communities of Christian Nestorians, and Jacobites. Jews call the language Targum or Jebali. Farsi (Persian) or variations of the language is spoken by Jews from Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Daghestan.

See Arabic-Speaking Jews.

Book: “Dictionary of Jewish Usage” by Sol Steinmetz (Roman and Littleton) is a guide to the use of Jewish terms that shows how Hebrew, Yiddish and Aramaic words have been absorbed into the English language.

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library jewishvirtuallibrary.org/index ; Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; torah.org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; BBC - Religion: Judaism bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica, britannica.com/topic/Judaism; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research yivoinstitute.org ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Aish.com aish.com ; Jewish Museum London jewishmuseum.org.uk


Yiddish theater poster
Yiddish is the vernacular language of eastern European Jews. A Germanic language that has been the language of three forth of the world’s Jews for more than 1,000 years, it remained the dominant language of Jews until the mid 20th century when many of its speakers in Eastern Europe were murdered in the Holocaust and Hebrew was revived as the language of the Jews in Israel.

According to AFP: Yiddish is a fusion of German, Hebrew, Slavic and other languages. It came into being about 1,000 years ago, when Jews settled in Germany. Before the state of Israel was created after World War II, Yiddish was the main language for the masses of Jews living in Europe, while Hebrew was confined to sacred use. It is estimated that before the Holocaust, Stalinist persecution and mass assimilation, it was the daily language of 11 million people. Yiddish began vanishing once Hebrew was resurrected in Israel and immigrants in America started to switch over to English. The last big influx of Yiddish speakers to the United States were Holocaust survivors. Now they too are increasingly rare, and Yiddish is now "dying language." Outside ultra-orthodox Jewish communities Yiddish is largely considered a dead language. [Source: AFP]

Yiddish is associated with world’s shetl (Jewish ghettos) and is mongrel language based primarily on German but full of words from other languages, including Russian, Polish and Hebrew. One Yiddish language teacher told the Baltimore Sun, “We love this language. It’s so rich in talking of people and human character, so musical, so open to nuances in other languages, so humorous.”

Yiddish is a dying language. A hundred years ago around 11 million spoke it. Today less than one million do. Most of them are elderly or ultra-Orthodox Jews. Few young people are learning it. As of the mid 1990s, 50 universities offered classes in Yiddish. They included Harvard, Columbia, the University of Texas, the University of Michigan and Oxford.

Yiddish words commonly used by American English speakers include smuck, nosh, glitch, kosher, bagel, maven, shlock, tush, chutzpah (spunk), yenta (gossip), mensch (a kind, decent and honorable person), mazal (luck), klutz (a clumsy person), kvetch (complain), shlep (drag), schnook (fool), and shmooze (chat).

Book: “Yiddish: A Nation of Words” by Miriam Weinstein (Steerforth, 2001);

Yiddish Swear Words

Ayin Kafin Yan: Go shit in the ocean
Dee bist an alte kocker: you're an old shitter
Drek: Human garbage
Fagala: Homosexual Gay
Fakakta: fucking adjective
Gai in drerde: Go to Hell
Gai kukken afen yam: Go shit in the ocean
[Source: youswear.com]

Kacken zee ahf deh levanah: Go take a shit on the moon
Kish Mein Touchess: Kiss My Ass
Ku Fartzer: cunt eater
Kuhni Lemmel: Faggot; weak pushover
Lechen mein loche: Lick my pussy
Lekes loche: Lick my hole
Putz: dickhead
Schmuck: Penis
Shmundie: vagina

Shtik drek: piece of shit
Shtoop: Screw, have sex
Tuchas leker: Arse licker
Vayrga hargit: Go to Hell
beheima: an animal
ess drek und shtarbn: Eat shit and die
kafin kup: Shit head
kinish: vagina
meshugana: crazy
toches: literally - buttocks

Yiddish Revival

A growing number of Jews around the world are reclaiming Yiddish as the language of their culture. According to Reuters: “A group of passionate Jewish parents, many of them in the United States, who are making Yiddish their children’s first language. “Tsi kenen mir koyfn ayzkrem itst,” said Itsik Leyb Eakin Moss, 5 1/2, asking for his mother for ice cream. “OK, mir kenen yo koyfn ayzkrem,” she replied. The Eakin Moss family were among 150 people from around the world, including 20 under age 10, gathered in Copake, New York, in late August for a week of lectures, bonfires, films and games — all in Yiddish. “Kenen mir koyfn,” or “can we buy,” is of German origin. “Tsi,” a word that introduces a yes-no question, is probably derived from the Polish “czy,” while “ayzkrem” is a more recent borrowing from English, said Paul Glasser, a dean at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City.” [Source: Reuters, November 3, 2008 =]

Jennifer Wollock, a professor at Texas A&M University, and “her husband speak Yiddish to their twin sons and daughter because their ancestors and family spoke it, she said. Wollock’s maternal grandfather, born Itzik-Tsvi Stutinsky, emigrated to Canada from East Prussia around 1914 and made his children study Yiddish with the rabbi in Medicine Hat, Alberta.=

“Family life in Yiddish requires a dictionary, said Stephen Cohen, 45, a technical writer and calligrapher from East Windsor, New Jersey, as he watched his daughter swim. “In class, they don’t teach you how to say, ‘I need to change your diaper,'” said Cohen, who relied on a Yiddish-English dictionary entitled “Trogn, Hobn, un Friike Kinder-Yorn,” or “Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Early Childhood.” Beyond diaper age, dictionaries become less useful. Yiddish usually yields to English during math homework help sessions with her father, said Leah Whiteman, 17. Also, most older offspring mutiny. “I think it was just really to (annoy) the parents,” said Leah’s sister, Shifra, who is 20. Yosl Kurland, 62, said Yiddish is on the defensive in his house because his 14-year-old son is boycotting it, and because their English is still richer than their Yiddish. =

“There are some things for which we don’t have the words in Yiddish. There are words, but we don’t have them,” said Kurland, a musician drawn to Yiddish by its songs. But Reyna Schaechter, 13, whose grandfather wrote the dictionary for parents, said she has all the words she needs, including juicy idioms to express adolescent anger. “Vaksn zolstu vi a tsibele, mitn kop in dr‘erd,” or “You should grow like an onion, with your head in the ground!” is among her favorites.=

“Yiddish advocates admit they cannot resurrect the Yiddish world at its heyday, said Joshua Fishman, an emeritus professor at Yeshiva University with a specialty in the languages of stateless peoples. All Wollock, Berger and Cohen can do is sustain it, Fishman said. Their fervor and willingness to sacrifice will keep the language vibrant, but small. “I wouldn’t say their days are numbered,” Fishman said. “Such predictions are usually more wrong than right. They don’t take into account that people are atypical. There will always be atypical people.” =

Hebrew crossword puzzle

Yiddish Revival Creates Rift with Hebrew Speakers

The Yiddish revival is creating a rift with some Hebrew speakers. Reuters reported: “Parents contend that Yiddish enriches their family life and Jewish experience to a degree that surpasses even Hebrew. But family, friends and acquaintances have reacted badly, even angrily, at these parents’ choice of Yiddish. Itsik Leyb’s grandparents fretted — unnecessarily, it turned out — that they would not be able to speak with him, said his mother, Khane Eakin Moss, 35, who like her husband is a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. [Source: Reuters, November 3, 2008 =]

“Why not Hebrew, is another common and often aggrieved query. “Yiddish was perceived by the Zionist as the language of victimhood,” said Amherst College professor Ilan Stavans, author of a book called Resurrecting Hebrew. Jennifer Wollock, a professor at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, remembers an encounter with a student from Israel, who asked why Wollock would have anything to do with Yiddish. “She was very blunt. She was young. I was very impressed with the power of this threat,” Wollock said. Wollock said Jewish literacy requires both Yiddish and Hebrew.” =

Stephen Cohen, the technical writer, “who was at the Yiddish retreat, reverses the question posed by Hebrew backers. Why Hebrew, he asks, when Yiddish is the ancestral tongue of most American Jews? “I wanted to give my children something that whenever they opened their mouth, something Jewish would come out,” said Cohen, who studied Yiddish at the University of Pennsylvania. Zackary Sholem Berger, 35, translator of “Di Kats der Payats,” the Yiddish version of Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat,” takes a similar view. “I‘m all for my kid learning Hebrew, but Yiddish is a diaspora language just like I‘m a diaspora Jew,” Berger said.” =

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, Library of Congress, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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