It was a life-saver for one generation, an embarrassment for another and a treasure for yet another.
My heritage is Scandinavian Lutheran, but ever since I heard the expression "oy vey," I've found it so much more satisfying to say than "oofda." Who wouldn't rather be verklempt than merely upset, or have chutzpah rather than boring old nerve? And why complain or be overjoyed when kvetching and kvelling are so much closer to expressing the feeling?
Neal Karlen's "The Story of Yiddish: How a Mish-Mosh of Languages Saved the Jews" (William Morrow, $25.95) is as lively, colorful and multifaceted as the language itself. In researching its history from the First Crusades to the Holocaust to Hollywood, he has made a language that didn't need any help in the fun department even more entertaining, without giving short shrift to the heartbreak of its past.
Q What was your own introduction to Yiddish?
A My father spoke it as a child even before he learned English. Whenever my parents didn't want us kids to understand what they were saying, they'd lapse into Yiddish. So on long car trips, squished in between my siblings in the back seat, I had nothing to do but decipher. It's amazing how much meaning you can pick up just by the sound of the words.
Q Yes. Like the word shmooze, for example. What's the sound bite you wish everybody knew about Yiddish?
A That, like jazz, it's an indigenous art form. And, like jive, it's a language created so the people who knew it could speak among themselves without fear. Jews were always being given about five minutes to get out of someplace, so they'd grab the candelabra and a few words. That's how it developed and spread.
Q So explain it already for us goys: What's the difference between Hebrew and Yiddish?
A Hebrew is what the Old Testament was written in, as dictated by God to Moses. Yiddish is man-made, once considered a gutter language. Jews themselves almost killed it at times because they thought it showed ignorance. Yet by 1939, 75 percent of the world's 13 million Jews spoke it. In the U.S. it was more about assimilation -- no one wanted to sound like their grandparents.
Q For a language that almost got squashed into oblivion umpteen times, Yiddish has real staying power. Just how pervasive is it these days?
A Many people don't even realize they're using Yiddish words. I've met people from Brainerd who say they've never even met a Jew before, yet they talk about shlepping something across town. "Copacetic" comes from a Yiddish phrase meaning "all is in order." There's a chair in it at Harvard, and it's even offered at the University of Minnesota every other year.
Q My first exposure to Yiddish was the "Laverne and Shirley" theme song, but I never did get the difference between a shlemiel and a shlimazl.
A The shlemiel spills the milk, the shlimazl gets spilled on. We all know these people. We are these people.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046