Friday, October 18, 2013

The Genius of Yiddish

I was on a pretty good roll, with a series of provocative, hard-hitting articles in the Jewish Post starting in the summer of 2012. And then in December I got it in my head to write something fun and different. This one is about Yiddish, and it got such a positive response that Bernie asked me to keep 'em coming. Here then is the article that got it all started.

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The Genius of Yiddish

One of the small oddities of Yiddish is the situations where a German word and a Hebrew word have similar sounds and similar meanings.  I’ve always enjoyed noticing those, and recently I came across a new one. Here is a short list of some of my favorites:

Schlachten/Shekhten. The German word for slaughter is similar to the Hebrew. A schlacht-feld is a battle-field in both languages, but only the Germans call a slaughterhouse a shlacht-haus (SHLAKHT-HOWZ): by us it’s a shekht-haus (SHEKHT-HOYZ). A ritual slaughterer is of course a shoykhet. (If you read the Kurt Vonnegut novel, you might remember that the prisoners survived the Allied bombardment of Dresden in the safety of Schlachthaus Fünf. And you might also note that when I transcribe German words for a general audience, I like to break up the compound words with hyphens which the Germans find quaintly superfluous.)

Bühne/Bimah. The stage where the German actor performs (BEE-neh) is the podium in the synagogue where the cantor does his performance. The Hebrew National Theater in Mandatory Palestine was called Ha-Bimah.

Rausch/raash. A commotion is almost the same in both languages. (The German rausch (ROWSH) is pronounced ROYSH in Yiddish.)

Narr/na’ar. The homely German fool is confused with the Hebrew youth, familiar to us from the Birkat Hamazon, “na’ar hayiti ve-gam zakanti…. But the quality that most of us think of as naarischkeit should more correctly be written narrischkeit.

Sach (hard “s”) vs sakh (soft “s)”. The Hebrew quantity is used in context similar to the German thing, matter. It gets more confusing when you consider the European moss (measure, German Maß with an “ess-tset”), masse (mass, a completely different word) and the Hebrew mase (load or burden, spelled with a sin), all three of them present in Yiddish.

Kunde/koyne/kundes: The German kunde meaning “customer” is close to the Hebrew koyne with the same meaning, and even closer to the Hebrew for joker.
Schier/shiyur: This pair is so close you find them interchanged among even the most educated Yiddish writers in classical times. Schier nischt is used idiomatically as the equivalent of the English “all but”, as in “sie is schier nischt gestorben vun kharpeh un bushah” (she all but died from embarrassment).  Alternately, she might have been embarrassed “ohn a shiyur” – “without (or beyond) measure”, where this time it is the Hebrew word which is used idiomatically. Note that a shiyur can also be a Rabbi’s lecture on a passage from the Gemara; in this instance, the usage seems to suggest that vast knowledge is something that must bne portioned out in careful measures.

Kapoyer/kapuris: Sometimes it is a Slavic word which crosses paths with the Hebrew. If something makes your hair stand on end (azh die hâar is gestellt auf kapoyer) you are using the Russian word for topsy-turvy, not the Hebrew word for the chicken which you swing above your head on Yom Kippur. (And if you think I am being disrespectful in my characterization of this solemn ritual, you might note that the word kapuris is the punch line of countless jokes in Yiddish. So it’s not just me.)

Finally, from chickens to ducks: here’s the one I just learned this week. We have an odd expression which is used to “explain” something that doesn’t make any sense at all: “Derüber (derIBBer) gehen die katchkehs borvuss un die gändz (GENZ) ohn pludern” (Therefore the ducks go barefoot and the geese without trousers). Where does this come from? It seems that borvuss (German barfuss, barefoot) is a near-homonym with the Hebrew barvaz, meaning “duck”. It is the unique genius of the Yiddish language that random happenstance of this type can become the source of such a colorful and humorous expression.  

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