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A Lasting Language

Though 1,000 years old, Yiddish still has devoted followers and is embraced as a key way to keep American Jews connected to their culture.

May 22, 2000|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Satmar Press, a Hasidic publishing house, produces the sorts of Yiddish-language books that show where their heart lies. They send their translations of the Bible and commentaries to an archive in New York, the YIVO Institute for Jewish studies, whose Yiddish library is one of the most extensive in the country.

Aaron Taub, a 32-year-old librarian at YIVO, was raised ultra-Orthodox but left the community as an adult. He is more attuned than some to the large number of Yiddish terms and expressions that come from Hebrew Scripture. If something is not likely to happen soon, there is a Yiddish phrase for it: "When the Red Sea parts." That hasn't happened since Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt in Exodus, the Bible's second book.

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To understand Yiddish fiction and drama, Taub said, it helps to know about Jewish religious life. Novelists and playwrights tend to describe the religious customs that were part of everyday life in their childhood and to quote from sacred texts.

Unlikely hybrids are being formed by the new generation of Yiddish speakers fascinated by the spiritual references that infuse the language. Members of the klezmer music group the Klezmatics, for example, found some Hasidic Jewish songs in their research. Now they play the songs in concerts and record them.

"With Yiddish, various camps come together," Taub said. "The ultra-Orthodox who generally stay away from secular culture come out to attend Yiddish cultural events and hip musicians make Hasidic songs popular."

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Stop Your Kvetching Already: Read This

People who never studied Yiddish unknowingly use it all the time. Colloquial English, the stuff we speak every day, is speckled with words and expressions that came here courtesy of the mameloshen, the mother tongue, a pliable mix of German, Hebrew and Slavic that is an essential piece of Jewish cultural and religious history. Some of the words are lifted straight from the original language; others have a Yiddish spin on them. Did you know the following? . . .

* "Bagel" comes from the German beugel, meaning "a round loaf of bread."

* "Chutzpah" is Hebrew for "audacity."

* "Glitch" comes from the German glitschen, meaning "to slide or slip on a slippery surface."

* "Kibitz" comes from kiebitz, the German term for "joking around" or "socializing aimlessly."

* "Klutz" is German for "clod," a clumsy person.

* "Maven" means "understanding" in Hebrew. In Yiddish a maven is an expert, a knowledgeable person.

* "Mishmash" (or mishmosh) comes from the German mischmasch, meaning a mix-up or mess.

* "Nosh" stems from the German nachen, "a snack, a tidbit, a small portion."

* "Schlep," from the German schleppen, means to drag, to pull or lag behind.

* "Schmooze," from the Hebrew shmuos, is idle talk. Gossip.

* "Schnoz," from the German schnauze, means "snout."

And then there are the dozens of self-explanatory terms, like "oy!," "gesundheit" and "hoo-hah!"

Source: "The Joys of Yiddish" by Leo Rosten (McGraw-Hill, 1968).

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Mary Rourke can be reached at mary.rourke@latimes.com.

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