Born to Kvetch: Yiddish as she is spoke


19 Responses to “Born to Kvetch: Yiddish as she is spoke”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Excellent book. Read it when it came out a few years ago.

    Its follow-up ‘Just Say Nu’, not quite as good, but worth reading. My main problem with the second is Wex’s use of Poylish pronunciation, I prefer the Litvish, like my great-granparents probably used. I does give a nice explanation one of my favorite Yiddish tell-off “Gey kakn afn yam!” go shit on the ocean!. According to Wex, it’s ‘On’ the ocean, because Nu, you think you’re like Jebus and can walk on water?(my paraphrase). Ron Jeremy was interviewed a few NPR a few years ago and mentioned a second part to this which went “and wipe your tuches in the waves”, unfortunately I don’t remember th Yiddish for that.


  2. Corvinus says:

    The National Yiddish Book Center has >10,000 titles digitized at the Internet Archive:

  3. Anonymous says:

    As you parenthetically mentioned, Yiddish is far from a dying language among Orthodox Jews. As someone who lives in Jerusalem, I can vouch for the fact that the Yiddish-speaking population — and more importantly, their *belief* in the value of the language — is so strong here, that it even claims a superiority to the use of Hebrew as the language of observant Judaism!

    JamesPadraicR: I must ask whether you happen to be a fan of the Dark Tower novels by Stephen King, in which that expression plays a significant role.

  4. Teresa Nielsen Hayden / Community Manager says:

    Cory, I adore klots-kashe, and will pass it on to several convention programming mavens of my acquaintance. I’ve never forgotten the half-muffled squeaks of dismay that went up from a panel on some recondite academic subject when the moderator, an academic attending her first sf con, said “Let’s start by defining the difference between fantasy and science fiction.”

    QuietTrickster, I’ll second that. Yiddish and Scots are unmatched for their vocabulary of colorful abuse. A friend of mine once proposed that we have a go at translating a chunk of The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie. I refused, on the grounds that modern English has nothing to match the fine distinctions and gradations of the insults in the original, and without those, what’s the point?

  5. mzvib says:

    Perhaps coincidentally, there’s a poignant article about the Workmen’s Circle where Cory learned Yiddish, in today’s Toronto Star:

    And speaking of “Gey kakn afn yam” (comment #7), when I was a kid there was a listing in the Toronto phone book for a Mr. Geykakn Offenyom — someone’s very clever end-run (with middle finger extended) around Bell Canada’s monthly charge for an unlisted phone number.

  6. quiettrickster says:

    huh – in Scots, the word ‘clipe’ means tell-tale…

    Scots is one of the few languages that can lay claim (reckons the Scot) to being as – expressive – as Yiddish. (If you disagree, awa’ an’ bile yer heid)

    And in it’s Glaswegian form, at least, it’s still evolving. The equivalent book would the Michael Munro’s ‘The Patter’

  7. Ignatz says:

    One of my favorite jokes has a Yiddish punchline. (I myself am about as Jewish as a blood pudding, but hey, a joke is a joke.)

    During World War I, a certain Private Rosenzweig distinguished himself on the front lines by going out on daring night raids. He’d go out alone, night after night, and bring back nine or ten prisoners. Eventually, he was awarded a medal. At the awards ceremony, he was asked how he was capable of such daring. “Easy,” he said. “Every night, I go over to the German lines and call out ‘Yidn! Ich darf a minyan auf kaddish!’ (I need ten men to pray for the dead) Sure enough, nine or ten guys come right over.”

  8. dexdoomsday says:

    This article is funny as gehenom!

  9. adam says:

    I too attended a Workmen’s Circle (in Detroit), and I wish I had enough Yiddish to communicate with anyone. My parents didn’t learn it from their parents (who used Yiddish as a way to talk with each other without the kids knowing what they were saying – as a parent of children who can spell, I can see the attraction).

    I once considered taking a class entitled “Conversational Yiddish” at Berkeley, but unfortunately I was living in Sunnyvale at the time, and the 1.5h each way commute to learn Yiddish seemed insurmountable.

    This is one of my favorite books.

  10. buddy66 says:

    My favorite was a curse from a fellow soldier directed at an overbearing sergeant: “All your teeth should fall out out of your head but one tooth, and that tooth should kill you!”

    He was from Brooklyn, so it was “teet” and “toot.”

  11. mojobaer says:

    That’s great! My grandfather ran a Yiddish newspaper – one of many in Philly in the day – and wrote a number of books of fiction and poetry in Yiddish, which sit on my shelf unread by me since I lack all but a few words of Yiddish in my head.

    There also the National Yiddish Book Center for folks wanting to know more about this dying language ( ). They carry over 10,000 Yiddish titles on line and in person is a very cute museum and theater for all things Yiddish which happens to be located in my small town of Amherst, Mass. My next step is to get my grandfather’s books translated.

  12. Trent Hawkins says:

    As with all children growing up in Russia with Jewish parent, the only real exposure I got to Yiddish was from hearing my grand parents swear. It’s a great swearing language since it’s obscure enough to not be completely understood by non Yiddish speakers yet have enough of a smattering of German and other languages to get the gist of it. Plus it’s such a harsh language that practically anything you say sounds threatening.

  13. JMG says:

    My favourite Yiddish curse was “may you grow like a potato, with your head in the dirt.”

    Though I never met her, I love the stories about my great-grandmother, who spoke no English, cursing a blue streak in Yiddish to baffled door-to-door salesmen.

  14. rodbod says:

    Quiettrickster @ 9: clipe also spelt ‘clype’, Scots never having gotten standardised, since its use was deprecated.

    TNH @ 10: nitpicking; it’s Dunbar, not Dumbar.

    My favourite Scots expression, to be used when one’s interlocutor is talking nonsense (a klots-kashe, for example) is, “Yer arse in parsley”.

  15. bobsch says:

    I attended the Arbiter Ring (Workmen’s Circle) in Chicago. My parent’s were from Russia, but only my father spoke Russian. Their conversational language was Yiddish and I picked up a little.

    In high school and college I took the easy language to transition to, German. The only time I used it was during two business trips to Munich and to Hanover. After 20 years of non use, my German turned in to Yiddish.

    My father was a Lino-typist for the Chicago edition of the Jewish Daily Forward. I used to visit him and watch his fingers fly over the keyboard, creating lead slugs that would be assembled in to stories to be printed in the paper.

    I can’t tell if there is still a Chicago edition, but I see there is a Yiddish edition online, although in Yiddish it is spelled Forwards, just as I remember pronouncing it. Of course, we would say if was spelled backwards.

  16. nothing says:

    Anyone else heard about the BBC world series about Yiddish in the USA?

    I caught some the ad, it starts on the 13th.

  17. buddy66 says:

    @#2 MOJOBAER,

    If you are not already familiar with Cynthia Ozik’s wonderful story about a Yiddish language writer desperately searching for an American translator, may I recommend it?

  18. Anonymous says:

    “May you be like a chandelier, hung by day and burned by night.”

  19. Anonymous says:

    @ 16 No, I actually have never gotten around to reading King. However in the movie ‘Marathon Man’ there’s an early scene where an alter kaker yells it at someone who ran into his car.

    Another note; as a Jew, who’s Scottish on the father’s side, I was happy to come across the reference to Scots-Yiddish on Wikipedia.

    (yes, I should create an account here, maybe soon)

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