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Teaching my girlfriend Yiddish
I don’t speak Yiddish fluently. Or even semi-fluently. But having lived in New York City for thirty-five years, I acquired a basic store of Yiddish words that, like many New Yorkers, Jewish or not, I employ as part of my ongoing vocabulary. Plus a smattering of Jewish expressions in English. The language may be dying, but certain words live on, and, I hope, always will.
I moved to rural Louisiana last June to be with my girlfriend, Gaywynn. She’s a Cajun who has been to New York maybe twice, does not especially like it, and, having lived in Louisiana most of her life, has a limited knowledge of Jewish culture. It goes without saying—but I’ll say it anyway—she does not speak Yiddish. As part of our time together, we’ve had a lot of fun with my teaching her some words in Yiddish. Of course, some Yiddish words have even traveled as far as Cajun Louisiana, to this little place where we live about 2 1/2 hours west of New Orleans, deep in the country. Gaywynn knows schmooze, chutzpah, klutz and even shtick.
Other than that, bupkis. Nothing.
By the way, before I get too far into this, the best use of Yiddish by a non-Jew for comic effect is in the movie, A Mighty Wind, when Ed Begley, Jr., as Lars Olfen, speaks in a scene he overcrowds with Yiddish words. Wait—we can’t forget Jimmy Cagney speaking Yiddish in the 1932 movie Taxi! Also, by the way, some of these Yiddish words I put down here have different spellings. Consult your rabbi.
Moving on from those acknowledgements back to Gaywynn and me, we usually have these little lessons either at the dinner table or driving in the car. She’s fascinated by Yiddish. Ironically, she learns Yiddish much faster and more securely than French, a language her Cajun grandfather spoke fluently but which she does not. Who knew?
One of the first words I taught her was meshuggeneh, which means “crazy” in Yiddish. As in, “He must be meshuggeneh to try to lose thirty pounds in ten days!” She loves that word. She learned it immediately, loves saying it, and has retained it. I know, because I came up to her up once while she was making gumbo said, “Quick! What’s “crazy” in Yiddish??”
“Meshuggeneh,” she said, without missing a beat.
The next day I said to her, “If you know meshuggeneh, you need to know mishegas.”
“It means “craziness.” As in, “Who needs to deal with all that mishegas on Black Friday?”
I introduced her to one of the all-time great Yiddish words, or words in any language, schlep. Which means to go somewhere, or carry something, with difficulty. It’s most always used as a kind of complaint. The word has complaint in its DNA. As in, “I had to schlep my brother-in-law thirty miles to the dentist because his car’s in the shop.”
Next came what I consider certain core Yiddish words, like putz (a jerk), kvetch (to complain), nosh (to snack), mensch (good guy), shiksa (female, non-Jewish), mitzvah (good deed), l’chaim! (to life!). Of course, some of these words have made their way into everyday English and no longer need to be italicized. But they were new to Gaywynn. Naturally, I had to expose her to oy vey. No, she didn’t know it. I told her it means something like “Oh no!” and is a way of expressing dismay or frustration, and is a must for any interested gentile to who wants to learn some Yiddish.
One non-Yiddish (but Jewish) expression I taught her she was astounded by. And that is, “Did you make?” It’s used by Jewish mothers (and, in modern times, I would guess Jewish fathers, too) everywhere. It’s normally shouted through the bathroom door when their child is sitting on the toilet. This plaintive cry means, “Did you move your bowels?” Your mother wants to know! It’s important! Gaywynn had a hard time believing this expression exists.
A few days after a Yiddish lesson, I’ll ask Gaywynn for a certain English word in Yiddish she learned. Invariably, she’ll come up with the answer. Her intonation is good, too. She’s a natural!
“Who were you, Molly Goldberg in another life?”
“Never mind. Are you sure some of your ancestors didn’t come from a shtetl?”
“Means a little town, mostly Jewish, in Eastern Europe or Russia. Think Fiddler on the Roof.”
“I think most of my ancestors are French.”
I feel this is a way for Gaywynn to feel connected to my New York, a city I hold close to my heart and whose culture I absorbed over decades and that has become a crucial part of me. I also want to have the same knowledge of her background. We have Cajun lessons as well, because I want to know about her culture. I’m not doing as well with Cajun expressions and, especially, with the Cajun accent as she is with Yiddish. I’m trying!
This morning, as I do every morning, I got up early and made myself a cup of coffee before going to my study to try to write. I turned on my computer, and, as usual, stared at it, waiting for it to tell me what to do. It never does. I drank some coffee and pondered. Would anything come? I heard Gaywynn stirring in the kitchen. She has her rituals. She always makes a cup of coffee and then sits on the couch, waking up and checking her texts and e-mails on the phone.
After a while, frustrated, I got up to go the bathroom. I walked into the living room and saw Gaywynn there, sitting on the couch. She smiled at me. She has the brightest, sunniest, most beautiful smile, and it’s a lovely way to greet the day. I smiled back, said good morning and headed to the bathroom.
“Are you going to make?!?” she asked.