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A Yidisher Pop

Twilight, Tom Cruise, and a lesson in Yiddish

Adina Cimet & Alyssa Quint
July 09, 2010

How can a new generation learn Yiddish? Through pop culture, of course: What better way to introduce the language than to let it do one of the things it does best, kibitz about the beautiful and the famous? Handing down a great literary tradition is a serious enterprise, but there’s no reason not to have fun with it. And there’s no better language than Yiddish to get across ideas both profane and profound.

Join us, then, at this new educational feature on The Scroll, a recurring lesson we’re calling—in a pun on the Yiddish term meaning “a Jewish brain”—“A Yidisher Pop.” Each Friday for the next eight weeks, “A Yidisher Pop” will caption gossipy photos of politicians, athletes, and celebrities, giving readers a vibrant taste of Yiddish.

Though the lessons embedded in these captions are progressive in the way of any beginner course, this feature is intended, of course, as an introduction, not a comprehensive class. The Yivo Institue, Tel Aviv University’s Goldreich Family Institute, and the Vilnius Yiddish Institute all provide more resources.

And, in the meantime, if you need to brush up on your Yiddish alphabet, Yivo can help you with that, too.

יונגע… שיינע… און אַזאַ אוּמגעלוּמפּערטן פֿילם!

Transliteration:Yunge… Sheyne… un aza umgelumpertn film!

Meaning: Young… Beautiful… and such a clumsy film!


אוי וויי! זייַן טאָג איז געוואָרן נאַכט. קען עס זייַן אַז טאָם קרוּזעס לעצטער פֿילם איז טאַקע זייַן לעצטער?

Transliteration: Oy vey! Zayn tog iz gevorn nakht. Ken es zayn az Tom Cruise’s letster film iz take zayn letster?

Meaning: His day has turned into night. Could it be that Tom Cruise’s last film is really his last?

קלערן, קלערט זי… רעדן, רעדט זי… און וואָס וועגן אַרויסרעדַן וואָס זי קלערט?

Transliteration: Klern… klert zi… Redn, redt zi… un vos vegn aroysredn vos zi klert?

Meaning: She thinks. She speaks. But what about saying what she thinks?

אַ נייַע שטעלע… מאַק-קריסטאַלס עצה פאַר פּאַטרעוּס: רעדן איז זילבער… און שטילקייַט איז גאָלד.

Transliteration: A naye shtele… McChrystal’s eytse far Petraeus: redn iz zilber… un shtilkayt iz gold.

Meaning: A new position… McChrystal’s advice for Petraeus: Speech is silver… and silence is gold.

זיי שטערן אין פֿוּס-באָל שפּילן! אָבער … וווּנדערבאַר ווען מען לייענט די מגילה. המן, וועסט אוּנדז הערן!

Transliteration: Zey shtern in fusbol shpiln; ober kenen zayn vunderbar ven men leyent di megileh. Homon, vest undz hern!

Meaning: They annoy during football games! But perfect for megile-reading. Haman, you will hear us!

The Sounds of Yiddish יידישער קלאַנג

The letter aleph א signals two sounds in Yiddish: the komets aleph אָ sounds like o as in gold and the aleph with a pasakh אַ sounds like a. The name “Obama,” for instance, is spelled with both alephs: אָבאַמאַ. The tsvey (two) yudn with a pasakh ײַ makes the sound AY like zayn זײַן (meaning his) or nay נײַ (new), and without the pasakh makes the sound EY like sheyn שײן (beautiful) or like leyenen לײענען (to read). In Yiddish, the only sound the letter ayin ע makes is E as in עלעמענט (element) or as in klern קלערן (to think) or redn רעדן (to speak). The V sounds is represented by tsvey vovn װ, as in vey iz mir װײ איז מיר (woe is me) or vos װאָס (what). Finally, there is Yiddish’s OY as in froy פֿרוי (woman).