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Lost Yiddish Words

The language contemporary Hasidim use in everyday life borrows from English and simplifies a richer linguistic ancestor—and yet is more alive

Rose Waldman
December 11, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Yiddish was the language of my childhood, my first language, the one in which I learned to speak and later, to read and write. In Hasidic Williamsburg, where I was born and raised, Yiddish rumbled all around me. It was a natural part of the environment, sounding native to the very air. Certainly, I’d never thought to question or analyze my feelings about it. Was Yiddish a pretty language? Was it expansive? Did its grammar rules make sense? Did it have colorful metaphors? Beautiful imagery? Had you asked me such questions when I was growing up, I would not have known how to answer. Yiddish was Yiddish. Just that.

Now English, that was another story. I began learning English in the first grade, and the older I grew, the more I became enamored of the language. English was sophisticated. It was the language of grown-ups, with gorgeous synonyms for nearly every adjective and lovely words like kaleidoscope and susurrus and serendipity whose S’s floated from my mouth into the air like the softest of clouds.

That I became a writer was inevitable. And that the English language was my toolkit seemed equally ordained.

But then I fell into my literary translation career—“fell into” being the precise description of what happened, though that is a story for another time—and suddenly, I was surrounded by a network of “Yiddishists,” secular people who revered Yiddish, who spoke about the language in romantic, sentimental tones, who quoted Yiddish writers with the same awe my English professors used to quote Chekhov and Austen and Hemingway. The Yiddishists argued over word usage and grammar with an earnestness that can only ever be exhibited by pedantic language-loving nerds, one of whom, I discovered, was I.

My transformation into a bona fide Yiddishist, albeit a Hasidic one, occurred in barely noticeable increments, but all at once I found myself nodding along to phrases like “ancestral language” and “cultural responsibility” and “endangered heritage” with the same earnestness as my Yiddish-loving colleagues. Suddenly, the beauty of a certain Yiddish phrase could make my breath catch. And one day I realized, to my utter surprise, that not only was Yiddish no longer a child’s language to me, but instead rang so richly and resonantly in my ears, its words moved me as no other language could. Yiddish had always been where I felt most at home, but now it had captured my heart.

Perhaps this was inevitable. When we immerse ourselves in any artistic genre or skill, we develop a richer appreciation for it, and the deeper we are absorbed by it, the greater grows our appreciation. As a literary translator, I was in as deep as one can get. Fretting over the precision of each word. Listening for the cadence in the sentences. Struggling over each passage or paragraph I translated, so that its music would make itself heard. How could I not fall in love with the language?

But there was something else, though it took me a book’s worth of translating before I realized it. I had grown up on Hasidic Yiddish. The Yiddish I spoke (and speak) is homey and friendly and gives me a sense of confidence and belonging. It is alive! We Hasidim use it in our daily interactions: to converse, to argue, to ask, to explain. We use it to express our emotions: our anger, our sadness, our frustrations, our joy, our pride, our glee. We use it to write notes to our children’s teachers and to write books and articles for each other to read. We use it. Nearly nobody else does. But for all its life and vibrancy, Hasidic Yiddish is missing a whole bunch of words. No wonder I hadn’t noticed the language’s beauty. So many of its beautiful words had been lost.

As I translated stories and books written by writers who had grown up on pre-Holocaust Yiddish, I came to see that Hasidim, the “owners” of post-Holocaust Yiddish, had dropped a wealth of words from the language’s vocabulary. Take trees, for example. There are specific Yiddish words for individual genera of trees. Beautiful words. Sosneh is a pine; osineh, an aspen; berezeh, a birch; klion, a maple; topolieh, a poplar, and lindeh, a linden tree. Every one of these words had been used in two books I translated, despite having been written by writers with very different styles and of different origins—one born and bred in Lithuania, the other from Ukraine. But the only word I, a native Yiddish speaker from Brooklyn, New York, had ever known for all these wonderfully specific classes of trees was boym: a tree.

Lumping several individual words that have specific meanings into a single generic word that has a general meaning was a rather common approach of Hasidic Yiddish, I noticed. Worse, for Hasidim living in New York, that general word was, likely as not, an English one. Here’s an example: Bakaleyneh, galanterieh, and shnitkrum—three words I found in the Ukrainian writer’s novel, which mean “grocer,” “haberdashery,” and “dry goods (or fabric) store” respectively—are nonexistent in Hasidic Yiddish. The generic word for all these shops is gesheft, which means store, but most New York Hasidim will actually use the English word, store. To be sure, the Hasidim will Yiddishize the English store, rolling the R so that it is pronounced in the Hebrew reysh sound instead of the English R, but the word used is nevertheless store. Even if the name of the store is specified, say, the dry goods store or the grocery, it is also said in Yiddishized English.

The same generalizing, grouping, or borrowing of the English is true for many different types of words. Food, for example. Tcheremukhe—I discovered during a translation—was a cherry. Really? There was a Yiddish word for cherry? Not even a fruit store owner in Hasidic Brooklyn was likely to know it. But even sour cherries had a Yiddish word: vaynshl. And jam: ayngemakhts. Who knew?

Why, I wondered, had some Yiddish sayings and expressions endured and continue to be used by Hasidim today, while others had been lost to time and history?

In my interactions with hardcore Yiddishists, I had often been met with criticism and disparagement of my Yiddish for precisely this reason. Hasidic Yiddish, they claimed, borrowed so heavily from English, it could barely be called Yiddish at all; Hasidic Yiddish was a corruption of the language.

“Corruption or not,” I was always tempted to reply, “at least its heart beats among us. At least it lives.”

But in truth, I myself was annoyed. The language lover in me couldn’t help it. Why had we abandoned so many gorgeous, effervescent Yiddish words? I took into account that a writer’s language is different from daily speech and perhaps the words I’d found in my books hadn’t been used as pervasively in general conversations as they were on the written page. Still, there was no denying that those words had been alive during those times. Like the Yiddish spoken language of contemporary Hasidim, at least those words used to have a heartbeat.

I began making a list of the “orphans,” as I called them. Words that had been abandoned by Hasidic Yiddish speakers. And as is wont to happen with such projects, the initial list begot other lists. Soon, I had a list for words that were once used in daily speech, another list for “writerly” words, likely used only in print, and still another list of words that had become Yiddish sometime in the last century or two, but had initially been borrowed from the languages of the host countries in which the Jews of that day had resided. Finally, I made a list of phrases, adages, and expressions that used to be common among Yiddish speakers. Why, I wondered, had some Yiddish sayings and expressions endured and continue to be used by Hasidim today, while others had been lost to time and history?

I am still in the process of this list-making for a project I hope will eventually contribute to Yiddish scholarship, but at some point, an interesting thing happened: Yiddish the language and Yiddish speakers became so closely intertwined in my brain, it was as if the words had become the people themselves. The sosneh and topolieh and lindeh trees became the hardworking, Yiddish-speaking shtetl Jew, who walking home to his hovel at the end of a long, tiring workday, breathes in the fragrances of the lush trees around him. The tcheremukhe became the skinny shtetl girl, beaming as she runs home holding up her dress filled with juicy cherries she’d just picked in an orchard. And the galantereishtshik? Why, I saw him clearly: a stooped, middle-aged Jew adjusting the brim of a felt hat in slow, careful movements, and with hope in his dark eyes, he holds it out to his potential customer.

Sure, I was sentimentalizing. Not all Jews had lived in shtetls. And not all Jews had been poor. But the Yiddish words had embedded themselves just this way in my mind, as though their identity and the shtetl Jew’s identity were the only natural twinning.

What my anthropomorphizing of Yiddish words accomplished was that it gave me some insight into why Hasidic Yiddish might have dropped so many words. Certainly, all languages evolve over time, but the leaps made from pre-WWII Yiddish to New York Hasidic Yiddish seem greater than is common. I do not believe there is a single big reason for this, but rather an amalgamation of several smaller ones.

I must preface any listing of reasons with one crucial detail: Prior to World War II, cultural Yiddish, meaning Yiddish as a language used for literature and art, was the domain of Polish Jews, but many Yiddish speakers of today are of Hungarian descent. The prewar Jews of Hungary spoke Yiddish, but their Yiddish was rather utilitarian. Culturally, they were disconnected from the Yiddish world of letters. Instead, the literary world flourished in Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, the Pale of Settlement. Leading Yiddish literary stars, such as Mendele Mokher Seforim, Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, and later, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chaim Grade, among others, all hailed from countries other than Hungary. It is no surprise, therefore, that a portion of the vocabulary was dropped from the lexicon: The Hungarian Yiddish speakers may have never been in possession of said vocabulary in the first place.

But this factor is merely a starter theory. Though it is true that Hungarian Jews as a collective weren’t into creating Yiddish literary works, it is certain that even some Hungarian Jews read literature produced by the Yiddish greats of other countries and were familiar with countless more Yiddish words than are in use today.

What, then, happened? Here are some other possible causes.

Where the Yiddish of the past may have been the equivalent of the shtetl Jew, today’s Hasidic Yiddish is the post-Holocaust Jew. Fresh from a war that had murdered their parents, siblings, children, friends, and neighbors, the post-Holocaust Jew who arrived in New York and became part of the Yiddish-speaking community—i.e., the Hasidic Jew—was determined to both retain their Eastern European lifestyle and make a bold new start in this modern metropolis where they had now settled. Preserve the old but embrace the new. Remember, but rebuild. To do so, especially after what they had just witnessed and experienced required tremendous strength and resolve, but above all else, it required a certain unsentimental pragmatism. Not for the post-Holocaust Jew the luxury of poetry and art—even for those who had enjoyed these types of pleasures prewar.

And that was the Yiddish they retained. A Yiddish composed of necessary words: words needed for conversation, for daily tasks, for making a living, for raising a family, for making oneself understood to others. Words to take them from A to B.

Not all writerly, poetic words vanished. These were the “people of the book,” after all. And over time, some words were, in fact, added to the lexicon. Especially now, four generations post-Holocaust, when the Hasidic community has attained a certain confidence and again has the luxury of indulging in literary and artistic pursuits, the language, particularly in written form, has become richer and fuller. Some of the newly crafted Yiddish words are a twist on an English one, such as prolifish for prolific or typirt for typed, some have been created to accommodate new technology terms. Others—happily!—are old Yiddish words that have been given a heartbeat again.

Hasidic Yiddish was also a reflection of a different physical geography, the environment in which most of the Hasidim who’d immigrated to America had settled, namely, New York City. Within this urban location, trees and plants, foliage of any kind, played a scant role in their lives. Scuttling to make a living and set up homes, to build families and institutions, the early New York Hasid barely had the time or brain-space to take notice of the few elms and maples lining the streets of Brooklyn. What use did they have for the Yiddish words for poplar or pine or birch? A tree was a tree.

Another issue at play was the gendering of Yiddish among Hasidim. While Hasidic girls from Yiddish-speaking homes in prewar Eastern Europe generally received little or no formal education, in New York both girls’ and boys’ schools were established right from the start—for example, the Beth Rachel School for Girls, under the auspices of the Satmar sect, was founded as early as 1952—and the girls’ school day was equally divided between Jewish studies, conducted in Yiddish, and secular studies, conducted in English. As a result, most Hasidic girls of the 1950s and ’60s functioned in a trilingual world: They spoke in Yiddish to their fathers; in Yiddish, Hungarian, or English to their mothers; and in English among themselves. The boys, though, generally spoke exclusively in Yiddish. To this day, Hasidic girls and women are more likely to speak in English to each other, while boys and men mostly speak in Yiddish.

This could explain why almost all Yiddish words for items of clothing, especially women’s clothing, as well as a great number of words for food, have been lost to Hasidic Yiddish. Meals and clothing have traditionally been (and still are) the domain of the woman in Hasidic households. It makes sense, therefore, that these categories have incorporated a lot of English words. Ask a Hasidic woman what yak, stonik, or upzatsen means (blouse or woman’s jacket, bodice, and heeled shoes, respectively) and they would be hard-pressed to answer. Same for fabrics or trimmings. I was surprised—and delighted—to discover that there was a Yiddish word for mohair: ratsemaren. This word isn’t a typical Hasidic person’s lexicon.

Crucially, though, most Yiddish words for men’s clothing and fabrics have been retained: shtreimel, bekishe, kappel, hoizen, hemd—items worn by Hasidic men—are all still in use in their original Yiddish. Even fabrics used for certain specifically Hasidic men’s clothes, such as silk, which is used for some bekishes, is called by its original Yiddish: zeyden.

Finally, post-Holocaust Jews felt tremendous gratitude to the United States, the country that had not only been instrumental in ending the war, but more importantly, had allowed the Jewish refugees to settle on its land. Consequently, English wasn’t laden with the negative connotations that Polish or Hungarian had held for many Jews in Eastern Europe. English was the language of a benevolent country, and most Holocaust survivors who immigrated to New York tried to learn it as soon as they’d settled into their new homes. So, if English words had sneaked their way into the Yiddish language, so be it. Hasidim felt no need to resist it. Remember, the aim of the post-Holocaust Jew was to get from point A to point B. And this mingling, the mix of English and Yiddish that turned into “Hasidic Yiddish,” that became a sort of lingua franca bridging its speakers with the general world, made the path from point A to point B faster and easier.

Yiddish was the language of my childhood, but it was in adulthood that I learned it. Learned its words (literally) and learned its heart. It is a living thing, this language of Yiddish, and like all live objects, it continues to move into unexpected territories, touching people and agitating them, expanding and contracting, growing and evolving. It is Yiddish. Just that, but more than that.

Rose Waldman, a writer and Yiddish translator, is the translator of S. An-sky’s Pioneers: The First Breach.