Her Yiddishe Zaidy

“You’re not a Zeidy!”

My granddaughter Rachel Leah wasn’t disowning me, Heaven forbid. But when she was about 9, she heard me say that I always wanted my grandchildren to call me Zeidy (rhymes with tidy). But the pronunciation didn’t take. Instead, they call me Zaidy (rhymes with shady).

Linguistically, the difference is just regional dialects. Zeidy (tidy) is how most Chassidim pronounce the Yiddish word for Grandpa. The dialect is technically known as Polish Yiddish, although Galician ­(Galitziyaner) and Hungarian dialects are similar — distinguishable only to the finely attuned ear. That ear comes more from tribalism than from linguistics.

Zaidy (shady) is the Lithuanian pronunciation that became entrenched in America before the postwar immigration of Chassidim.

Max Weinreich analyzed the differences in his weighty tome,
History of the Yiddish Language.

“Anyone more or less acquainted with the regional varieties of Yiddish will realize that although the large-scale delineations of ‘Lithuanian,’ ‘Polish,’ and so on are justified, they do not exhaust the description.”

Only the readers get exhausted!

“When a Lithuanian Jew listens … to a non-Lithuanian speaker, he must, in addition to concentrating on the content, also go through a complicated linguistic procedure to translate from the other’s dialectical subsystem into his own.” He said this is “no leisurely conscious thinking.” Is it any wonder so many Yiddish speakers look ill-at-ease?

And try reading this linguistic clarification:

“The difference between /nain/ (no) and /na:n/ (nine) in Polish Yiddish or between /nein/ (no) and /nain/ (nine) in Lithuanian Yiddish must be considered a phonemic difference in the bounds of each of the two dialectical systems. … The versions differ phonetically and acoustically, but not in meaning.”

Nu, and you thought it’s all fun and no work being a word nerd? I read this stuff so you don’t have to. You should thank me for this.

“Phonemic” has nothing to do with being a phony. It refers to ­phonemes — the little bits of sound that form words.

“Phonemic difference” is a straightforward, noncontroversial way to look at the distinction between Zeidy and Zaidy. But there’s nothing straightforward or noncontroversial in Yiddish. You take your chances just greeting someone with ‘Hello, how are you?’ It’s that highly charged.

When Rachel Leah challenged me, “You’re not a Zeidy,” I knew she meant more than just my accent, which lacks the rich ethnic flavor of her other grandfather’s Yiddish. My mechutan is a natural Satmar ­Chassid. I’m a naturalized Chassid.

(I think “naturalized” is an oxymoron. But it can be a serviceable ­villain. Or, as they say, “Az men darf dem ganef, nemt men em arop fun der t’liye. — If you need the thief, you take him down from the gallows.”)

If you don’t know what a mechutan is, may you be blessed soon.

William Safire once asked his readers to suggest a “neologism to mean ‘the in-laws of your children.’ In Yiddish,” he said, “the relationship is denoted by the word machetunim, derived from the Hebrew noun plural of mechutanim, ‘related by marriage.’”

I love Safire’s phonemic slide from mechutanim to machetunim. His father was a Yiddish writer from Romania. It shows.

“Most Lexicographic Irregulars,” Safire’s name for his guerrilla band of readers, “let me down on ‘the relations of your married children.’”

One reader suggested the Spanish word consuegros. Those are in-laws “once removed — via your children.” Safire’s response? “If we’re going to use a foreign word, we might as well stick to machetunim.”

No, I didn’t forget about my unforgettable granddaughter. I just had a digression. For that, thank G-d, you don’t need pills. You just go back to what you were writing before. So let me remind you…

When Rachel Leah posed her “Zeidy” challenge, I replied,

“Why aren’t I a Zeidy?”

“You speak English!”

Stunned silence …

But she wasn’t finished. She took a breath and added, “And you’re not chassidish.”

My wife jumped to my defense: “Zaidy is a Chassid.”

Rachel Leah parried and thrust: “He’s a Chassid, but he’s not ­chassidish!”

I half expected Rachel Leah to add, “We’re discussing ­sociolinguistics, not theology.”

Touché. She was right. I speak Yiddish, but not heimish. It’s still Yiddish as a second language. I’m a sociolinguistic immigrant. Only my English is unbroken.

But, baruch Hashem, my ­mesorah is unbroken. No matter how you pronounce it.


Please send smiles, sticks and stones to language@hamodia.com.

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