Rosetta Shmosetta

Back in the ’70s, when I was working at Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim, the yeshivah posted a notice offering two ulpan (intensive language-learning) programs. One was in Hebrew. The other in Yiddish. About triple the number of students signed up to learn Yiddish.

Maybe because Yiddish seemed to be a secret code — the inside language of Talmudic discourse. Maybe association with Chassidim made it seem mystical. Or maybe it was just exotic. … Where most of the students came from, Yiddish was about as commonly spoken as classic Latin.

I just came across a page on endangered languages announcing a Navajo-language version of Rosetta Stone software for use by Navajo in language revitalization. Replying to a comment on the page, a Rosetta representative disclosed, “We don’t have any immediate plans to develop Rosetta Stone Yiddish.”

Not to worry. Yiddish isn’t endangered. Especially in the frum world, Yiddish remains the lingua franca of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants around the globe. From Yerushalayim to Boro Park … at tischen, in ­shiurim, and on the street, Yiddish is alive and well, thank you.

Yiddish is a linguistic anomaly. Despite some experts dismissing it as a mongrel dialect, it blossomed into a full-fledged language, with a rich culture of its own. Sol Steinmetz — whom William Safire called a “lexical supermaven,” — wrote (in Yiddish and English: A Century of Yiddish in America) that the forces that made Yiddish “endure despite the widespread migrations of its speakers are not well understood.” He theorized, “A point may be reached where its users recognize it as something more than a casual medium of communication, as something that has become imbued with emotion, tradition, and perhaps even with a degree of sanctity …”

This gave Yiddish a unique role. “The language assumes the character and often the name of ‘mother tongue’ (mame loshn in Yiddish).”

Even a dominant local language isn’t strong enough to displace the power of a Yiddishe Mama. Yiddish tenaciously holds its own despite the fact that Yiddish has been hospitable to guests from the language of every new home it has occupied. So what else would you expect from a Yiddishe Mama?

In New York, even native Yiddish speakers don’t say bilder or brillen; they say pictures (heavily accented) and glazer — which actually means drinking glasses, not eyeglasses.

“Yiddish … shows not the slightest hesitation in taking in house-guests — to whom it gives free room and board regardless of genealogy, faith, or exoticism,” wrote Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yiddish. “A memorable remark by a journalist, Charles Rappaport, runs: “I speak ten languages — all of them in Yiddish.”

Not only does Yiddish take in guests, but it sends its guests home to their own languages with word packages — including shmoozing and kvetching over bagels and lox. Is noshing sacred?

I don’t know if Ohr Somayach still gives a Yiddish class, although they do teach a lot of other wonderful things. And it’s always good to be in Yerushalayim. But if that’s not on your itinerary, what you can do to learn Yiddish?

Talking to Rosetta is like talking to a stone. Rosetta shmosetta. Who needs Rosetta? We’ve got Wizard of Oys Chaim Werdyger — creator of the Conversational Yiddish program. Werdyger has produced a course, complete with a workbook and CDs, called Yiddish in 10 Lessons.

The book is nisht gefumfet (no-nonsense — literally, not mumbled). It’s a detailed step-by-step course starting with alef-beis (literally!), on to such grammar esoterica as “Positive Predicates” and “Negative Predicates.” (Not surprisingly, the section on negative predicates was longer than the one on positive predicates. Draw your own conclusions.)

The lessons are straightforward and rigorous. But a natural charm comes through. Playing it completely straight, Werdyger has a full lesson with a line-by-line translation into Yiddish of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”

I also discovered that when the word hartz (heart) is used metaphorically, it gets modified by adding a suffix (long nun for an n sound). For example, zich nemen tzum hartzn means to take something to heart. Whereas chest pain (you shouldn’t know from it) is a literal veytik in hartz.

Would that make hartz klapenish not heartache, but a medic banging on someone’s chest? I can’t help but wonder how that affects literary use. You don’t want to telegraph, “Hey, I’m only using a metaphor; don’t take me literally.”

Of course, the first thing some people are going to look for in a book on Yiddish is proverbs. And ­Werdyger doesn’t disappoint. There are familiar gems and some I never heard. And if you’re still hungry for more, he published another book of expressions and idioms: Express it in Yiddish.

I’m not going to give away too much. “A kliger vays vos er ret; a nar ret vos er vays — A smart man knows what he’s saying; a fool says what he knows.” n


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