“On this show we talk about coffee, New York, daughters, dogs, you know, no big whoop, it’s just coffee talk.” If you were alive and owned a TV in the early 1990s you probably have some recollection of Linda Richman, the iconic Mike Myers Saturday Night Live character. She was a New York Jewess with an exquisite collection of “low back chain shift” vowels and an immovable pouf of black curls.
Now, I grew up on Long Island. I had a mother named Linda with a big pouf of permed hair, on-point nails, appliqué sweaters, and bling out to there. She didn’t talk like the other Linda, though; my mom was born in a very non-New York part of Pennsylvania. Nonetheless, the Linda Richman character always felt a little too close for comfort. I filed her along with the word JAP, another problematic cliché I’d rather leave behind. When I became a Yiddishist in college, not long after Myers premiered “Coffee Talk,” the Linda Richman character became, in my mind, just another unfortunate example of the way American Jews loved to laugh at Yiddish and, by extension, at themselves. JAP was a perfect intersection of misogyny and anti-Semitic stereotypes. Linda Richman, a man in drag mocking the broad accent and dazzling costume of a woman who looked a lot like someone I loved, struck me as more of the same. Genug shoyn.
And yet. The 1993 clip of the original skit on the NBC website had my jaw on the floor: Gedempt, eyver botl in the keppie (senile), leybedik (lively), mitn drinen (all of a sudden) … This was possibly more Yiddish than had ever been spoken on American TV… ever. Myers had clearly done his research. One of Richman’s callers is Cissy Gedinsky, “my best friend since I’m 6.” It’s an ultrasubtle transposition of Yiddish syntax into English, showing Myers’ sensitivity to language use far beyond a comic “you shouldn’t know from it” calque.
The Richman character effortlessly travels between high culture and low without apology. She is a glamorous, sparkly, fun-loving avatar of a certain kind of New York Jewess. Her touchstones are brash, ultrasuccessful icons like Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand, women of Richman’s age, women who succeeded in a world all too ready to insist that women like them just didn’t become superstars.
Even so, there are false notes. He adds non-Yiddish German words for effect, like Mittelschmerz, an ovulation pain. And “zorch”—is that even a word? In the middle of a particularly virtuosic riff on the breakup of Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson, Myers flubs his pronunciation of nishtu gedakht (another phrase I genuinely cannot imagine ever before uttered on American TV.)
A quick look at the still-definitive source on Yiddish in English, Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, has nothing on verklempt or even the more accurate farklemt. That’s because verklempt has more to do with late-night comedy than the language of our bubbes and zeydes. And that goes to how deeply pop culture can penetrate the vernacular, erasing its own artificiality, reframing usefulness as a kind of urgent authenticity.
Countless SNL characters have contributed catchphrases to American pop culture. We’re going to pump YOU up! … Two wild and crazy guys … Wookin pa nub … Isn’t that special? … But with her trademark “I’m getting verklempt,” the Linda Richman character became (as far as I know) the only SNL creation to introduce a Yiddish word into the vernacular, a word which was immediately taken up with surprising gusto. Given that immigration by Yiddish speakers essentially ended in 1924 (with a small bump after WWII), the introduction of new Yiddish words into American pop culture wasn’t exactly something that happened every day, and certainly not in the early ’90s.
It’s been more than 25 years since Richman (and Myers) dropped verklempt into American English and it shows no sign of going away. In a recent Hey Almapiece, Jessica Klein makes a case for verklempt having a very 2018 moment:
Its relatively recent popularity makes verklempt’s wide use in modern media much less surprising. Verklempt’s roots in the ideas of “gripping” and “grief” means it speaks to a sense of existential dread—one that permeates the psyches of many millennials today, who seem to foresee the end of days due to both the political and environmental climate. So verklempt sounds like millennial hyperbole because it is millennial hyperbole. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an accurate word to use when overcome with feeling … or when talking about the star of Yentl.
It’s an interesting observation and, honestly, one that feels right for the horror of this, the dumbest of timelines. I had a problem, though, with Klein’s piece. Not with her observation on our national sense of hyperbolic dread, no, but with her lack of curiosity about the word itself, an ostensibly Yiddish word whose etymology merits only a couple of online (English language) dictionary links. As a result of this incuriosity, Klein makes some all-too-common errors about Yiddish and misses an opportunity to reflect on the ways that Yiddish language and culture become pop culture. And in doing so she replicates the American Jewish attitude of lazy disrespect for Yiddish, even when, paradoxically, it has become an object of fascination.
Klein cites yourdictionary.com which says “the definition of verklempt is a Yiddish word that describes a person who is too emotional to speak.” That’s an accurate definition of the English word verklempt. Then she gives a link to Merriam-Webster to show that “The origins of verklempt trace back to the Yiddish farklempt, which refers not to any old overwhelming emotion but to a particular one: depression and grief. Farklempt is the past tense of farklemen, which means ‘to grip, press’ and has roots in the German word verklemmen.” At least Merriam-Webster gets us to the origins of verklempt. But first things first.
There are no ver- prefix words in Yiddish. That’s German. Yiddish uses a far- prefix and in Yiddish the adjective is farklemt (with the Hebrew letter fey). In Yiddish, farklemt has a very serious connotation of being oppressed or having something negative bearing down on you. When verklempt entered pop culture via Linda Richman’s idiosyncratic pronunciation, the word took on a new meaning, that of being choked up and emotional, whether for good or bad. For Linda Richman, to be verklempt was associated with the speech facility, the throat. In Yiddish, if farklemt is associated with any body part it is the heart, as in the phrase farklemt baym hartsn.
I asked my friend Michael Wex, author of the bestselling Born to Kvetch, about the use of farklemt in Yiddish. It’s safe to say Wex is an authority on conversational Yiddish, having spent much of his life talking to native Yiddish speakers in all registers of the language. I asked Wex if it was possible that in Yiddish there was this meaning of farklemt as choked up, especially in a positive sense. Not only had he never heard it used that way, he told me he was hard-pressed to ever recall it being used, in any sense. Which isn’t to say Richman’s use of it is inauthentic—she obviously got it from somewhere—but to note that her use, and Myers’ replication of this new American connotation, marks a shift in signification.
Once verklempt appeared on national TV and entered the American vernacular in the early 1990s (with a new and distinct pronunciation), it was no longer a Yiddish loan word but had acquired a new life, and a new English-language meaning. You could call this Yinglish or simply a new English word. However, it was no longer Yiddish, either in spelling, meaning, or pronunciation.
It’s fascinating to see how much of the Yiddish we think we know actually comes to us via pop culture. See Mad magazine for the best example of this phenomenon. Or how many people think “yutz” is a real Yiddish word, rather than a TV compromise when putz was deemed too vulgar for primetime viewers. Even more interesting is when that pop-culture transmission is coming from non-Yiddish speakers and non-Jews who may be reinterpreting and refashioning the language for their own needs, whether in search of a vocabulary of dread, or in the service of comedy, as Mike Myers (contrary to popular perception, a non-Jew) did.
Consider this: The character of Linda Richman was based on a real woman named Linda Richman. She was Mike Myers’ mother-in-law and, by all accounts, the Linda Richman character was in fact underplayed. In 1990, the real Linda Richman lost her 29-year-old son, Jordan, in a tragic accident. This was not the first time Richman experienced loss. Her father died when she was young. She suffered a 10-year bout of agoraphobia while her children were young, confining herself to her apartment and hoping that the outside world would understand. Her then-husband brought their family to bankruptcy with a gambling habit. As Alex Witchel wrote in a 2001 profile of Richman, “The woman who inspired such broad comedy has carved a career from a lifetime of overcoming tragedy.”
Witchel writes that she met Richman at the Sage Diner in Elmhurst, New York, far from her home base of Forest Hills. Long ago Richman had chosen the Sage Diner as a place she could avoid being recognized—not because she was marked by fame, but by loss. The Sage Diner had become a safe place where she could escape those who knew her as the woman who had just lost a son.
When the Linda Richman character gets verklempt, it always comes with an instruction to keep her audience occupied: Transitional Romanesque architecture is neither transitional nor Romanesque. Discuss. The Richman character has strong opinions on the celebrity gossip of the day (she thinks Burt Reynolds [z’’l] is acting like a grober ying, an uncouth jerk) but she’s also an endless fount of obscure facts. The laugh comes from the juxtaposition of a bedazzled, outer-borough accented housewife having access to such rarefied knowledge. The joke, already on the edge of misogynistic parody, darkens when we learn that the real Linda Richman was married right out of high school and never went to college. During her agoraphobic phase she read voraciously and widely, perhaps sneaking in a book or two on transitional Romanesque architecture at some point.
In the late 1980s, Richman’s daughter Robin started dating Mike Myers. Myers debuted the Linda Richman character in 1991, not long after the loss of her son Jordan. Watching the 1993 clip on the NBC website, one has the eerie experience of seeing Myers host his own show (within a show) as his own mother-in-law, while catching everyone up on her (and his) life. What did she do over the summer? Her beloved daughter Robin got married (to the real Mike Myers). Even though the ceremony was performed by an interfaith officiant she, you guessed it, gets verklempt at the memory of her daughter under the chuppah. A caller asks if she saw Bette Midler at Radio City. Midler was then in the midst of a hugely successful run at Radio City, triumphantly unsanitized, while still finding mainstream success. Richman replies that of course she saw Bette and, yup, she was like buttah, two sticks, unsalted and whipped, which must not be mixed with meat on this, the holiest of days.
It’s Yom Kippur during this clip and Linda wishes everyone a “gut yontev to you and yours.” The first time I watched the clip I rolled my eyes. C’mon. Why would Richman be broadcasting on Yom Kippur? Is that the only holiday Mike Myers knows? Can’t they find another more plausible holiday? My skepticism was immediately high.
Turns out this particular segment was aired Sept. 25, 1993, right after the completion of Yom Kippur services. For all intents and purposes, it was Yom Kippur. Linda tells us she fasted, well, except for the breath mint she found at the bottom of her purse, but that was “medical”—her breath smelled like “gedempt” (boiled meat). Reader, I LOL’d. And wow, gedempt, that’s a word you don’t hear every day on American TV.
That the Richman character became a comedy icon so soon after the real Richman lost a son feels wrong, jarring. Yet, we learn from Witchel’s profile that Richman’s healing began with a gift trip to Canyon Ranch given by her daughter and son-in-law. Not only did she find healing, she herself ended up becoming a beloved speaker on grief and agoraphobia, enabled in part by her now famous persona.
Much in the way the real Richman inspired the transmigration of the very Yiddish, very depressed farklemt into the overwhelmed-with-joy, American verklempt, Richman’s own life is a uniquely, particularly Jewish-American synthesis, a bedazzled foray into our very much alive process of post-vernacularity.
Much Ado About A-Dybbuk: The Dybbuk is one of those stories that can’t just find any rest, coming around every couple years in film, theater, urban legend and sometimes, all at once. I’m still not sure who Post Malone is, but he got “tragic face tattoo” and “dybbuk” trending together last month, so there’s that. Malone supposedly got in trouble by touching the infamous “Dybbuk box” at a museum of haunted objects. I’m a dybbuk box skeptic (uh-oh) and debunked the Dybbuk Box legend in 2012, here. … Debra Caplan has been doing some of the most important new research on the history of Yiddish theater. Her new book, Yiddish Empire: The Vilna Troupe, Jewish Theater, and the Art of Itinerancy, was just published a few months ago. There’s a lot to say about the book, but most pertinent for the moment is that the Vilna Troupe premiered The Dybbuk at the end of 1920 and toured it for years—the play and the troupe becoming practically synonymous. … The also-excellent Gesher Theatre has come all the way from Yafo to New York with its own Dybbuk. At the Cherry Orchard Festival, two days only, Oct. 3-4. Tickets here.
ALSO: Celebrate the release of In the Land of Happy Tears: Yiddish Tales for Modern Times, a collection of new translations of Yiddish stories about children and young adults. Talk will feature editor David Stromberg in conversation with Yiddish theater scholar Debra Caplan. Oct. 3 at 7 p.m., YIVO. … The second annual Yiddisher Idol contest is happening again in Mexico City. The competition will be on Nov. 25. Deadline to get your entry in is Oct. 7. More info here. … The new season of the Yiddish Singing Society opens on Oct. 9, with a follow up on Oct, 16, 7-9 p.m.. 50 Rugby Rd., Brooklyn (a few blocks west of Q train Church Ave stop). … This fall marks a historic moment in modern Yiddish literature. The work of Isaac Bashevis Singer will finally be available digitally via the Yiddish Book Center. Isaac Bashevis Singer: Before Everything Else a Writer celebrates this achievement with a wide-ranging conversation on Singer’s continued impact on American literature. Wednesday, Oct. 10 at 6:30 p.m. … My friend ragamuffin klezmer magician Yuriy Gurzhy has a new podcast and it’s exactly as fun as you would expect from him.
Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.