The joy of Yiddish

Madonna wishes she was 'zaftig', Mike Tyson calls himself a 'schmuck' and Ricky Gervais comes out with 'putz'. How did the language of the shtetl become so mainstream?

Zaftig? So what are you telling me, this Madonna, zaftig she'll never be? And this is news, in the goyish kop maybe putting in eyes, this is something G*d forgot, they shouldn't see for themselves, nu?, a pack schmendricks she takes us for? Feh. For taste, who can account?, maybe venn der putz shteht ligt der sichel in drerd, but this, excuse me for living, I doubt. Listen, a yenta like this, she shouldn't be thinking from zaftig, zaftig she should be, a kobtzen, zaftig she can afford, better than all this tsimmes, a bissel Kabbalah and suddenly with this trombenik it's redt mit mir yiddish, I should plotz...

And you understood it. Be honest. Not to suggest for a moment that you are some type schlemiel but a drop of Jewish blood (so if I'm wrong, geh in gesondheit) running in your veins? I think not. And yet... you understood it.

This is, of course, the Joy of Yiddish, as the great Leo Rosten called his seminal book. If you don't want to seem a schmo, you should read it. Technically a thousand-year-old Jewish dialect of German intermingled with Slavonic and Romance words (some say the origin of the word is yidisch-taytsch, or "Jewish-German"), but written in Hebrew (hence the endless kvetching about spellings), Yiddish is also utterly, beguilingly, monstrously alive, the world's most precisely denunciatory language with the finest gradation of insult and contempt you could imagine.

Be denounced in English (or French or Italian or German or Russian or Arabic or Cantonese) and you might be hurt, broken, affronted, appalled or enraged. Be insulted in Yiddish and you will be entranced and somehow flattered. Between the simple, myopic, well-intentioned stumbling of the schlemiel and the virulently diabolical paskudneh lie whole civilisations of haplessness, stupidity and downright malevolence of a detail that even SJ Perelman, a master of florid invective, could never quite pin down. And if he had pinned it down, innumerable Yiddish experts would have risen to denounce him as, possibly, a nebbish, maybe a schnorrer, perhaps even a meshuggener.

Hence the appeal. Whatever you wish to say in Yiddish, you can say it not only with precision, but also with the certainty that you are wrong; that there is always, somewhere, a better word. Except you don't know it. You open your mouth and you kvel, but somewhere else, someone will kvetch.

Coming back? Yiddish, coming back? Madonna may have cottoned on, but Yiddish never went away. And she's not the only one to have discovered its powers. But it's not as easy as just learning the pronunciation. Mike Tyson may have felt himself a mavin when he said he felt like a schmuck (though yutz might have been more apposite), and Jim Carrey may have used the term to describe his feelings after turning down Meet the Fockers (though putz would have been better), and when Ricky Gervais described Maggie in Extras as a "female Woody Allen, a bit of a putz" he was probably just a bit farblondzhet; Woody Allen, a putz? Such a farkakteh notion; he was no more than a schmendrick.

They tried. But they failed. Because the thing about Yiddish is you can't just drop it in, and you should seldom, if ever, use (putz, schmuck) willy words. It is not a pepper-pot to spice up English; Yiddish - even outside the hands of great authors like Sholem Aleichem, Yitzak Peretz or Isaac Bashevis Singer - is an entire grammatology, a different and glorious system of signification, a way of speaking that creates a way of thinking and, indeed, a way of life.

Think of it as a charmingly grumpy reflection of the dear clever Jews laughing (such wit! such intellect! such violin skills!) at the hardships of the shtetl and you promote a sort of patronising, dehumanising other-ness as false as Dame Edna's announcing that the little tinted folk just love colour and movement.

The Yiddish language - even in its survival as a leaven for curses and railing - grows from a far more ancient discourse with fate, chance and necessity, from a perennial experience of being liminal, on the edge, insecure, and yet, at the same time, specifically elevated. For the Ashkenazi Jews who spoke it, much was demanded and little given. Being God's Chosen was no joke; far from bestowing the right to lord it over everyone else, it was a burden that could not be shrugged off (as other hardships could) with a piece of precise invective. And so this wonderful language emerged from a rocky soil caught between pride and hardship, community and exclusion; like Irish, Yiddish became the marker of a culture in tension.

But, no, you can't just drop it in. In the glory days of Hollywood, a little Yiddish was the passport - "Hey! Bubbeleh!" - to insiderdom. But the passport was phoney. The Hollywood Jews used little Yiddish, being more anxious to assimilate. The goyim - the shiksehs and shaygets with their cleft chins, their neat noses, their blond hair, their terrible, icy emotional control - who larded their speech with schlemazls and babkes were waving the flag of acceptance, just as, now, there are fools who use black street-slang and claim not to, my dear, notice the colour of whoever they are talking to.

The result is like what the English used to call a bolognese, a goulash or a curry: a dull boiled stew with the addition of tomatoes, paprika or a pinch of "curry powder". And all too often the feeble attempt at "flavouring" merely draws attention to the inadequacy of the dish as a whole.

So it is with Madonna. If she just stuck to her self-regarding pronouncements, we would pay no attention. But "zaftig"? No. "Zaftig" draws attention to everything else. Nobody with Yiddish in their veins could ever contrive to be like Madonna. The language would not allow it; the interior monologue, the inward discourse, would denounce the pretensions with terrible cries of contempt, mockery and dismay. A Yiddish Madonna simply could not exist.

Not to say that there are no Yiddish monsters. There are plenty; but they tend towards self-absorption rather than self-regard. The monster of Yiddish will unquestionably be at the centre of his or her own universe; the English-speaking monster (look at reality TV, if you like) wants to be at the centre of yours.

Above all, Yiddish - the Yiddish of the shtetl, the Yiddish of the Garment District - is a social language of community and commensality. Listen to its rhythms: questions answered with more questions; the elaborate, pardon-me-for-breathing apologies; the self-neutralising curses. The terrible mock - lig in drerd! - apotropaics. The awful, majestic fluency of the thing. It scolds and remonstrates; praises; tells stories; keeps you in your place; addresses our common humanity; abjures, in its very bones, privacy. Polite English maintains, wherever possible, an even surface upon which nothing - success, failure, disease, injustice - ever impinges. Confronted with the even keel so treasured by the English tongue, Yiddish has nothing whatever to say. It is only at home with the truth: the world is a very odd place populated by fools and incompetents (but few morons or thugs), where the quotidian virtues - a nosh, a klatsch, glik, kholems - take centre stage, where we might as well be honest because in the end we got bubkes and we shouldn't let it utz us.

Popular Yiddish - goyishes Yidish - is a register whose time has come, not least because of what has been happening to demotic English; the drift towards the sludgy inarticulacy of the sloven, the monosyllabic moo of the pissed, the fatuous mock-rhetoric of the spun politico, the terrible infantilisms, bereft of meaning, of the PowerPoint classes. In the face of these assaults on language's ability to speak for us, Yiddish offers a safety valve against a discourse that seems mostly to oscillate uneasily between a strangulated avoidance of reality and an ugly violence. No user of Yiddish will ever have to work for a wanker. There will always be a better word.

And when words fail - as they do even in Yiddish - there is the nuclear option. Or three nuclear options: oy, ai and gevalt. It is not easy. The road to becoming an accomplished oyster is hard. But once you understand the difference between oy and oy-oy-oy; between oy, gevalt and GEVALT and ai-ai-ai-geVALT, you will never again find your position inexpressible.

A test? Certainly.

Two old men on a park bench. They sit all day in silence. Presently, as the sun is setting, one of them raises his eyes to the heavens, spreads his hands and says: "Oyyyyy." There is a pause. Then the other old man turns to look at him, and says: "You're telling me?"

How to tell a schlemiel from a schlemazl, without being a schmendrick

Babkes Lit. beans. Fig. nothing. "What did he give me? Babkes, he gives me."

Bissel A bit, usually large. "What harm can a bissel fruit cakeleh?"

Lig in drerd Lit. lie in the earth. Fig. die, G*d forbid.

Meshuggener A crazy person.

Nu The most useful of words. Lit. "now". Fig. so; so what; and?; yes?; what am I supposed to do about it?; therefore?; etc etc.

Paskudneh An unrepentant evildoer. "That paskudneh stole my fountain pen! At my bar mitzvah!"

Putz A body part. You know. OK, a vinkle. OK? Happy?

Schmendrick Low down in the pantheon of klutzes, one up from the schlemiel. Look: a schlemiel, a schlemazl and a schmendrick go for a drive. The schmendrick crashes the schlemazl's car and the schlemiel apologises.

Schmuck Oh, come on. You know perfectly well what it means. It means jewels or decoration. You thought it meant putz (qv), didn't you? Well, it does. Nu?

Schnorrer A plausible bum, esp. witty; overheardinnewyork.com has many examples of schnorrerei.

Zaftig Plump, comfortable, you'd want this in bed on a cold night, maybe a warm night, perhaps a bissel shlof after lunch...

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