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July 2, 2012
I recently chatted with a friend who knows a bit of popular Yiddish. He commented that most Yiddish has a negative connotation. As we began to discuss this, I became a little upset when he mentioned terms like yenta (a meddling woman) and schlep (carrying many heavy items or a lazy person). We discussed the many Yiddish words that are part of the English language. I began to feel defensive. My friend noticed this and quickly noted that there is one positive Yiddish word he knows: mensch (a person who is selfless and kind). After further thought, I realized that there are many wonderful, positive Yiddish words, so I wanted to set the record straight.
Yiddish is a combination of Hebrew, German and Slavic languages that people spoke in the Jewish villages of Eastern Europe. With the large influx of Jews to the U.S. from these villages during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of these words have crept into the English language. Since there are very few communities that speak Yiddish, the fact that Americans know so much Yiddish is quite impressive. Besides Latin, I can't think of another language without a country that has had so much influence. After our conversation I pondered two things: why do Americans who aren't Jewish know so many Yiddish words that have a negative meaning, and what are some positive Yiddish words?
My upbringing as a Southern Jew means that I have slightly different pronunciations than my Northern (pronounced NAW-thin) husband. We laugh all the time about Yiddish and the different pronunciations. The exchange about Yiddish words always puts a smile on my face because it reminds me of my grandmother who would speak in Yiddish to her sons at the dinner table, to communicate things that she didn't want us, the grandchildren, to understand. I later realized that this elegant Southern lady (resembling Betty White) was really just swearing like a sailor — but in Yiddish!
I discussed with my husband one of my grandmother's favorite Yiddish words, "umbashree-en". He had never heard of the word. In Southern Yiddish as we call it, it means "oh my goodness, look at that excess of..." If someone was excessively fortunate or excessively curvy, umbashree-en was the exclamation of choice. As a lover of English and music, I marvel at the way that many Yiddish words sound musical and convey their meaning in such a melodious way. Think about it: umbashree-en compared to OMG. I'll take Yiddish over texting any day! My husband often says "umbrashree-en" the way Mary Poppins utters "supercalifragilisticexpealidotious." When you can't think of anything else to say, "umbashre-en" conveys just what you mean? even if no one around you has ever heard the word. (Editor's note: It's related to the word "umberufen," which is something said to ward off the evil eye. Think of the English expression "heaven forbid!")
Yiddish has many examples of the types of words that sound just like the actual sound they represent — onomatopoeia. It's easy to remember negative words in a language with plenty of cacophonous and guttural sounds. The Yiddish that many people know conveys the negative so perfectly because they are highly effective in getting the meaning across. And as a result, they are now pervasive throughout American English. See if you agree. Here are some classic Yiddish words that sound exactly like the words they mean:
The positive vocabulary:
The negative vocabulary:
I find it to be a stress reliever to say: "Umbashre-en that party was farkakt! Nobody wanted to schmooze with me. Oh... maybe it's because I have shmutz on my face. So much for a shayn punim!"
My hope for all of us is that as we move into the age of information technology and the abundance of sharing information along with our backgrounds, let's not dilute the richness of our cultures. Many Yiddish words are part of the rich tapestry of American life. Above all, no matter what your religious or ancestral background, try to be a mensch — your grandparents would be proud of you!