Image: Unsplash, downloaded (https://unsplash.com/photos/ucUB9wxkPgY) 18.11.2022.
Why I Wish I knew More Yiddish
It wasn’t until I started talking on the phone to my old college roommate Barbara that I recognized that my pangs of nostalgia for her friendship were triggered by vocabulary. It wasn’t just that she’d known me for decades, before married life and children, it was the words we used to describe our lives.
“Good for her,” Barbara said when I updated her on news of my daughter’s volunteer activities, “She’s doing a mitzvah. If only I had energy for such things. But she’s young! Plenty of energy.”
Barbara and I are seasoned women. Embarking on the final decades of our lives, we share a common history when so much of the world has changed. We remember using typewriters and correction fluid, transistor radios and the 1969 moon landing. Yiddish words that include shlep, klutz and smuck have seeped into the American vernacular; but other expressions such as keinehora are known by a limited few.
Literally translated as “no evil eye,” my father would say Keinehora immediately after he paid me a compliment. She looks beautiful, keinehora. It’s a superstitious phrase, because just as the early Greeks worried about committing hubris, thinking they were better than their gods, Yiddish speakers were worried their good fortune might change. For centuries Jews lived as barely tolerated guests with no rights or privileges in someone else’s country, segregated from mainstream society. Many of the Ashkenazi and Sephardic peoples living in Europe were beaten, arrested, seized for military duty, or evicted from their lands with no prior warning. My ancestors were no exception. They migrated to America from Lithuania, the Ukraine, Germany and Poland in quest of a permanent home.
My father would often tell stories and jokes using Yiddish words. The words he chose, imparted a certain flavor, a sort of cultural shorthand. I want to tell the person who kindly helped me muscle the heavy bag of mulch into the back of my car, they are a mensch. But will they understand me? When my father used the word zaftig, immediately I knew he was speaking approvingly of a woman’s full figure and that if someone was a schlemiel, they were a pathetic waste of time. I hear kibitz and I see a knot of people idly chatting. The word schlep is used and I feel the speaker’s fatigue. Like every language, Yiddish adds unique texture.
Around the globe, whenever a country is colonized— whether it be in Africa, Asia or the Americas—the language of the government becomes the language of employment and survival. The easiest way to erase a culture is to erase the language. When Native American children were forcibly sent to boarding school, they were punished for speaking their native tongue.
Like many immigrants, my Jewish ancestors didn’t want to be teased for their strange accents or odd words. They worked hard to sound like an American. The compliment, being called mishpocheh, a member of the family, no longer had appeal. Assimilation has consequences. Fifty years later, many of the words have been forgotten.
One by one, I seek out Yiddish words. Integrating them into my vocabulary, painstakingly I reclaim a lost piece of my heritage. If I walk into a cluttered room, shake my head and say, too much chazerai to my non-Jewish husband, he knows exactly what I’m talking about.
About the Author: Nadja Maril is a former magazine editor and journalist living in Annapolis, Maryland USA. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast Program at University of Southern Maine and her work has appeared in magazines that include: Lumiere Review, Lunch Ticket, and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. She is currently working on a novel and additional credits include weekly blogposts at Nadjamaril.com. Follow her on twitter @SNMaril.