Yiddish was always an exclusionary language to me. I first ran into it when my parents tried using it to pass secrets over our young heads. But I caught on quickly, and was dumb enough to brag to them about it, so that ended. And so did my Yiddish lessons.
Yiddish was the language my grandfather slipped into whenever he’d really start talking. My father, my mother, my yeshiva attending brothers would all listen rapt. Even my best friend in high school, whose parents participated in secular Yiddish culture, would be listening intently. I would fidget politely and stare at the clock.
Yiddish was the language my grandmother slipped into whenever she got to the punchline of a joke. The whole family would laugh uproariously, and I would have to beg for a translation.
“But it loses something when you translate it,” she’d protest. As if that was reason enough to leave me out of the revelry. Eventually, someone would take pity on me, and I’d overlay the translated meaning onto the sarcastic-sounding Yiddish, and laugh along. It was almost as good as understanding the original.
And it’s true. Everything sounds better in Yiddish. Especially sarcasm, cynicism, pejoratives, despair, mockery, and everything negative. Yiddish is a language of incredible charm, which explains why it’s so popular for casual use, even among non-Jewish English speakers. Sadly, my vocabulary barely surpasses that of the trendy hippies who toss an “oy” and a “schlub” into their sentences occasionally.
It wasn’t like nobody ever tried to teach me Yiddish. In elementary school, we had to translate Chumash into Yiddish first before English. It was the worst part of learning Chumash. Ultimately, it was rote memorization of meaningless syllables. I learned “un ehr hut gezukt” and that was about it.
There was another abortive attempt in high school when they scheduled us Yiddish class to fulfill our language requirement. We learned a song about potatoes and then the teacher had a baby and that was the end of Language for the year.
Yiddish, perhaps because it was so mysterious and unattainable, always had a mystique to me and my friends. True, the Yiddish we learned in school was dry and boring. But the Yiddish we heard on the street was fun and exciting, no matter how banal. We’d hear kids on the playground in Boro Park shouting “Ich bin ‘it’!” and be so amused we’d repeat it for a month.
Yiddish, our chassidish teachers told us, was a holy language, up there with Lashon Hakodesh. It was a uniquely Jewish tongue shared across the Jewish nation, they said. It had been purified in the mouths of the millions who died al Kiddush Hashem in the Holocaust.
We accepted this Ashkenazi-shtetl-centric view with a grain of salt. We knew Yiddish was bastardized German and that Sephardim spoke Ladino. Moreover, we weren’t entirely sure why having its speakers killed sanctified a language. It hadn’t worked for Aramaic. (Supposedly, the angels won’t touch a prayer in Aramaic.)
Still, some of the comparison to Lashon Hakodesh stuck. Lashon Hakodesh, we were told, had no vulgarisms in it. (This is also not true.) Somehow, my mind made the jump that any holy Jewish tongue must be similarly pure. So I never had any compunction about repeating Yiddish that I picked up on street corners.
This led to some awkward moments at the dinner table.
Like the time when my father referred to someone as a shmuck. (To be fair, he only did this once that I can remember. Maybe this is why.)
I immediately recycled the fun-sounding word in a sentence of my own.
“You shouldn’t use such language,” my father reprimanded.
“But you just did!”
“Well, I shouldn’t have either.”
“What does it mean?”
“It, ah, well it’s an anatomical reference.”
(Nervous giggle from my mother.)
“Well, a part of the male anatomy.”
(Just an aside, it’s amazing to me how religious American Jews are so reluctant to say certain words, that they only say them in “holy” languages. Like saying “chazer” instead of pig. Or “shmuck” instead of “dick.”)
It took a few more incidents like this one (“putz” was another word that didn’t go over so well at home, and did you know that bobkes actually means goat droppings? Also don’t say: shvantz, shtupper, shmekel, schlong, or petzl. Don’t describe anything as “farkakteh”. The list of words you can’t say in Yiddish just goes on and on) before I learned that one should always get a translation before using a Yiddish pejorative. Typically, I had to get my translations from the Moroccan neighbor down the block (I guess Yiddish is more colorful than Ladino) as my parents were too polite to be precise.
Still, there were some phrases I thought were safe, because I (thought I) could translate them. Like the time my high school bestie heard two men chatting on a Kensington street corner.
“He mamash shtupped him in the zach!” the man said, waving his arms theatrically. “Mamash shtupped him in the zach!”
She thought this sounded hilarious. So did I. And it was easy to translate: someone had pushed someone else into something that he was reluctant to enter. For months, whenever it remotely applied, we’d whip out (sorry) this catchy phrase: “You mamash shtupped me in that zach!”
Well, people can tell you that putz is a vulgur anatomical reference. But nobody seems to know what to do with a couple of eleven year olds running around shouting about anal sex.
“You shouldn’t say that.”
“Well you don’t know what it means.”
“Sure I do!”
The aura eventually wore off the phrase, and I forgot about it until about a year ago when I heard it correctly used in context.
“Wait, that means… Does that really mean—? Oh em gee. Really?!”
“What did you think it means?”
Oy, Yiddish. When will I ever learn that nothing you say is innocent?