Wednesday, February 15, 2012

In praise of Yiddish (Listen up, schmucks!)

I've always loved Yiddish words ever since I became aware of them. Who can say why and I'm not alone. Who cannot love such a language? Yiddish was the language of the Ashkenazic Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, most of whom died in the Holocaust

Years ago I gave a graduation talk to MLS grads on Yiddish words, since one seemed to fit their class to a T: chutzpah. 
Chutzpah has a positive meaning in popular culture, meaning cheeky, gutsy. That's how I meant it for the MLS students who graduated that year and were an audacious bunch of rascals.

When thinking of chutzpah, I picture saying it with a guttural sound with spit flying everywhere but here's what Cambridge Dictionary says on its pronunciation.

Politicians mangling the word: For fun, see attempt by US politician Michele Bachmann.

How to pronounce chutzpah (for you and me)
I love Guy Kawasaki's 'How to be a mensch'

My choice for a guy most likely NEVER to be called a mensch:
  • Stephen Harper, Canada's Conservative Prime Minister (note he's hardly ever had a real job outside politics) 
You have to love a word that can mean hello, goodbye, and peace (and much more). I heard shalom often during 1965 travels in Israel.

Then there's greetings like Shalom aleikhem. Also the writer Shalem Aleichem whose Tevye's Daughters was the source of Fiddler on the Roof
I've spent much time traipsing around Europe, beginning in the 1960s.

Occasionally, that would best be described as schlepping, especially in Berlin after a 2001 plane trip that took over 24 hrs. for what should have been less than half the time. Blame using Aeroplan points and getting stuck with a ridiculous route with long hours in Vancouver and Frankfurt airports.

Like most Yiddish words, schlep is fun to say and use, even when it doesn't quite fit.
How many schlemiels do you know? I know a few, all of them lovable. 

Of course, Woody Allan epitomizes the quintessential schlemiel. But Peter Sellers is great too as Inspector Clouseau.

As a Seinfeld fan (still watch reruns), Jason Alexander as George Constanza perfects the schlemiel.

Everyone has a schtick, sometimes good, sometimes not. 

Do you know anyone whose schtick is to be negative? I call them "boo birds". Never a good word, always moaning and groaning. Know a senior like this and quite a few 20-somethings too. Or how about the opposite? No matter what disaster befalls them, their schtick is stoicism, just grin and bear it.

Most successful comedians have a schtick, e.g.,

  • Bob Newhart on tobacco (Hilarious example of his understated humour)
I could include many more Yiddish favorites like schmooze and the whole darn megillah, as in this Yiddish dictionary.
But, bubbee, that might cause you to exclaim, Oi, Vai! Enough already for one blog....

And for anyone who gratuitously uses the F-bomb - see In praise of angst and other German words (Banish the F-bomb) - the word that comes to mind is schmuck. Your language ain't worth bupkis.                                                                         
That goes for comedians Russell Peters and Jon Stewart and Robin Williams. They're immensely talented, so why rely on the lazy man's F-bomb to get a laugh from the immature schmucks in the audience?