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Stop kvetching. Do something
The uniqueness of Yiddish
When you live for thirty-five years in New York, as I did, you learn some Yiddish.
The Yiddish speakers are gone. But not the language. What remains are some Yiddish words that express what they mean better than any words in any language I know.
Jews living in New York—and elsewhere—pepper their talk with Yiddish phrases. But non-Jews living in New York, as I was, pepper their talk with it, too. It’s a legacy of the many Jewish immigrants who came to New York from Eastern Europe over a hundred years ago where they spoke Yiddish exclusively. Yiddish has a lot of German in it, but without the militancy. I love saying Yiddish words.
Take kvetch. It means “to complain.” Look at it. It looks like “to complain.” The English word complain looks feeble next to it. Go ahead, give it a try: “All they did at dinner was kvetch about their dry cleaner.” When you say a Yiddish word, it feels a bit like you’re clearing your throat. In a good way.
Mishigas is another beauty. Means craziness.
“What’s with this mishigas in the kitchen? Dinner is in ten minutes!”
Yiddish feels to me like a poor man’s poetry, filled with a sense of weary resignation. When you say a Yiddish word, you’re suddenly twenty years older.
You probably know chutzpah. “Some chutzpah! She demanded a raise and a new office. Been there just a month!”
What’s it sound like? Here’s Ed Begley, Jr. in “A Mighty Wind,” one of Christopher Guest’s mocumentaries. Begley plays Lars Olfen, a distinctly un-Jewish producer.
Even stranger? Jimmy Cagney as a Yiddish-speaking cab driver in a 1931 movie. Cagney was born on the Lower East Side of New York where Yiddish was spoken as often as English.
Enough already. Time to go. I’ve got to schlep to the hardware store to get a new key made.