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A Bissel of Yiddish

Thursday, October 17, 2013
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Yiddish maven Belle Rosen in Greece in 1971.

How amazing is Yiddish? How sandpapery, how satisfying to spit out, how absolutely beautifully descriptive. Because sometimes a face is more than just snotty. Or an outfit is more than just unkempt. Or a room is more than just messy. There is no English word that compares to farbisseneh. Or shlumperdik. Or chazzerei. Yiddish puts exclamation points all over English words that just aren't strong enough for the situation at hand.

I use a considerable amount of Yiddish in my parenting vocabulary. Because my kids aren't just crazy, they are vildechayas. My older son Maxon isn't just fidgety. He constantly has shpilkes. And I don't just want them to give me a break. I need a little rachmones.

I need a lot of rachmones.

I learned my Yiddish vernacular from my father, who was forever asking for rachmones. But it was his mother, Belle, who had the real fluency. Her Yiddish had fiery tang, an Eastern European authenticity.

When my dad and stepmom were at my house for Rosh Hashanah dinner, we got to talking about Grandma Belle and how she used to rapid-fire heavy Yiddish syllables like they were spitballs. Belle was a formidable woman who used to tell her doctors to date me when I visited her in the hospital. One of her pet sayings was, "Goldberg, Steinberg, any Berg is a good Berg." Sadly, she only saw me dating goyim, and died before I met my Jewish husband.

I'm sorry that my kids never got to meet her, this 5-foot reference volume who traveled the world with my grandfather, could tell us the names (English and Hebrew) of every family member going back to the late 1700s and give us an appropriate Yiddish phrase for any occasion. One of her favorites was gai kaken oifen yam.

"She said it every time I told her I was bored," my father recalled.

"What's that mean Pop-Pop?" asked my youngest, Ezra.

"Go take a *#%& in the ocean."

Oh, they LOVED that one. Maxon, my older son, made up a handshake to accompany the phrase that he taught to his friends at school. At least he's keeping an important part of our Jewish history alive. Just don't say it at Hebrew school, honey.

But we all just season our sentences with Yiddish, where Belle really spoke it. My father knows less Yiddish than his mother. And I have a smaller vocabulary than my father. And my boys? Well. I can tell you they know vildechaya. And farbisseneh. And rachmones. And now, gai kaken oifen yam. They have picked up more than I thought, as evidenced by the conversation in the back seat of the car a few weeks ago when I asked Ezra to share his snack with his brother.  

"Ezra! Give me more than one pretzel," Maxon shouted. "Don't be such a chazzer."

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