The Joys of Yiddish

While assembling the shelf of books for my banner image, I took some time to think about what books represent me best, with special consideration of the books that get the most use. I was surprised to find that my bookshelf is most heavily weighted by nonfiction. It made me realize that while I thoroughly enjoy reading a good story, the books I feel compelled to keep at hand are the ones I can later use to refresh my knowledge. I am content to borrow works of fiction from the public library; reference books, I need to own.

Joys of YiddishOf all the books on my shelf, the one most heavily worn is The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten. Inhabiting the intellectual space between a dictionary and a book of jokes, it is really just a series of definitions clarified by amusing stories, and serves to illustrate the author’s love for Jewish culture in America. While I haven’t yet found much use for Yiddish in my stories, Rosten’s colorful anecdotes have brought pleasure to many an afternoon, and add depth to my otherwise whitebread existence.

An example: the word gewalt[1].  Literally meaning “strength” or “power”, it is, when used as an interjection[2], a one-word prayer crying out for strength in the face of formidable circumstances. For its purpose, I find no equal in the English language to this elegant term, and it has infected my speech to the point that my daughters now mutter “gewalt” when confronted by an absurd situation around the house.

You may be inclined to suspect that I have a bad habit of absconding with vocabulary that is not legitimately my own. Your suspicion is correct, but I nonetheless hold that Yiddish phrases have become useful arrows in any English-speaker’s quiver. From aha to shtick, Yiddish has infected our way of speaking.

Consider, for example, my trip to the UK ten years ago. Having noticed a small sign reading nosh (food), I spent an hour driving around the back roads of Sussex in search of the bagel it promised. Alas, it was not possible to purchase bagels in that part of England[3]. I later learned that restaurants in England had been using the term in its general sense, and the sign in question actually referred to some kind of church dinner being held that afternoon.

I now find, to my great joy, that this marvelous text has been re-released by Rosten’s daughters and updated with the help of Lawrence Bush. I may have a new text on my wish list.

[1]pronounced “geh-valt”, with the emphasis on the second syllable. Rosten illustrates this word with the tale of its use by a French diplomat, so I think I’m justified in taking it for my own use as well.
[2]It is interesting to note that Italians use their word for power, forze, as an interjection as well. The fact that they use it in joy at a soccer match may indicate a difference in the Jewish and Italian experiences through history.
[3]Though I have many unpleasant things to say about New York, it does appear to be the one place in the world where you can buy a bagel (with lox) at two in the morning. If I am wrong, please tell me where else this can be done, and I may be forced to travel there.