Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

18 Sivan 5762 - May 29, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Mame Loshon: The Battle For Yiddish

by Refoel Berlzon

The great battle for Yiddish has been abandoned. Yiddish is an untranslatable language: you cannot translate the language of the heart. It is a very important asset, but not an end in itself.

How did the Aramaic word "Shunra" enter the German language? The inhabitants of the Bavarian village of Schupfloch have a common secret: "Lakudish," a mysterious local dialect. This phenomenon of local dialects supplementing or supplanting the official German language is also to be found in other German villages. What is so special about Lakudish?

A teacher from the neighboring village of Feuchtwangen once visited Schupfloch looking for a job. He noticed that the locals called him with a strange word: "melamed." During his stay in the village he heard the inhabitants using other strange words, such as "matze" for bread without salt and "treife" for something flawed. A very long day was called "yom kippur" and a pejorative term for a wicked villager was "letz." The words, although taken from Hebrew, were pronounced with a clear Yiddish expression. Bad quality whisky was called "mayim sorof," i.e. sorof (whisky) made out of water. A chicken is a "tanengol" and a cat a "shunra"!

Even more remarkable is how Hebrew words corrupted by Yiddish have been incorporated into the dialect of the Schupfloch farmers. Thus to eat is "ocheln," to steal "ganven," to lie "shekers" [shakers?] and a married person is a "geshidicht" (meshudach in Hebrew). The teacher had been living only six miles away from Schupfloch but had never known that his neighbors had their own dialect until this visit.


The teacher published his findings in a booklet called "Lakudish." To explain this strange phenomenon he wrote as follows: "Just a hundred years ago a third of the inhabitants of Schupfloch were Jews. Lakudish took root because of them." This suggested solution to the riddle is too general for such an exceptional phenomenon, many communities had even more Jews but did not develop a Jewish-influenced dialect.

When Oxford University heard about this phenomenon they sent a researcher there to tape samples of the local dialect. He returned from his visit with a photo of a special, plaited bread called "challe," which they bake on the weekends and eat on Sunday, the official day of rest.

The researcher taped examples of a whole new vocabulary: "Sharem" are oxen (shvorim), a cow is a "pare." They count as follows: alef, beis, gimmel . . . yus (10), kof, lamed, mem, nun, samech. Then the letters suddenly turn into numbers: 70 is shifem, 80 shmoinem, 90 is tishem. Hebrew words with a Yiddish pronunciation.

The researcher was told by a local resident that he had found a "metzia pesol" (a cheap bargain). Mazal ubrocho is "Masele brauche." To be insulted is "brogez" and a beggar is "dalfen." "Yuspis" is a guest (from ushpizin). One thing is clear: "Lakudish" is a corruption of loshen hakodesh!

Yiddish in Abu Gosh

Rav Moshe Mordechai Pliskin had the following experience:

I was once taking a hike through the Judean hills around Telz- Stone with a friend. From a distance I noticed an elderly Arab shepherd walking with his flock. When I passed we started talking to each other casually. At one stage he suddenly uttered a phrase in perfect Yiddish: "Shver zu sein a Yid" (It's difficult to be a Jew).

He sighed and told me his tragic story: "I was born to Jewish parents in a Jerusalem neighborhood. Over the years I deteriorated and my connection to my family and eventually my nation was lost. For some time now I have been living next to Abu Gosh." You could tell that he was not completely happy about his situation. I tried to encourage him, but in vain. It was shocking to imagine a Yerushalmi Yid speaking Arabic in the alleys of Abu Gosh instead of Yiddish in the alleys of Batei Ungarin. A lost soul. He told me that he worked in the Sha'arei Zedek hospital in Yerushalayim.

We parted from him with a heavy heart, and then it occurred to us that his employers might not know that he is Jewish, and he might chas vesholom be working as a "Shabbos goy." We talked to Rav Yaakov Strauss, the hospital rov, about this strange incident.

He smiled and told us that he still remembers this man's father, a through-and-through Arab without any Jewish connection. He had worked as a cattle man at the old Sha'arei Zedek hospital. His son had grown up amongst the Yiddish- speaking religious Jewish population of Yerushalayim and had adopted the language as his own. But he is an Arab.

The Yiddishists

Today it seems strange that there were once secular Jews who were advocates of the use of Yiddish in Israel. They were called "Yiddishists," and were opposed by the "Hebraists" who fought for the exclusive use of Hebrew. One of the Hebraists explained his position as follows: "I don't hate Yiddish, but I am afraid of it." He was not scared of the language, but of what it represented: Yiddishkeit, the shtetl, the "old-type" Jew.

At the third conference about this matter (before the founding of the State) one of the rabbonim outlined the religious position against using Hebrew: The religious preserved loshon hakodesh throughout the generations, even if it was not their vernacular. Now they want to exclude the religious in the use of Hebrew, whereas in the houses of "progressive" Jews in Tel Aviv they speak any language except for Hebrew. He concluded his speech with the following sharp statement: If Hebrew becomes an everyday language, then loshon hakodesh will be forgotten, "the same way that the Tanach will be forgotten because of `biblical fables' " (Taken from the minutes of the conference).

Similarly, it might be said that if Yiddish had become the official language of the country, this would have caused Yiddish to become forgotten, or at least taken the Yiddishkeit out of Yiddish! Like the son of the cattle man from Sha'arei Zedek we would have heard dairy-farmers in kibbutzim communicating in Yiddish.

Yiddish in Tel Aviv

Once there used to be Yiddishists. This is how an Israeli journalist describes his encounter with Yiddish in the Israel of today: "In a cheder on Achad Ha'am Street (Tel Aviv), young Belzer chassidim are taught in Yiddish. You stand on the other side of the fence separating the cheder from its surroundings and hear a lot of Yiddish from the children with long payos. The teacher with a long beard tells off a young child playing next to him, in Yiddish."

At the sixth Histadrut convention (in February 1945) a Holocaust survivor was asked to speak to the audience about her experiences during the war. She had come to Eretz Yisroel only six weeks previously and spoke in her mother tongue, Yiddish. Those spine-chilling testimonies of survivors shocked the Jewish population of Palestine at the time.

The next speaker was a [future] prime minister of Israel, a sworn "Hebraist." His opening sentence was, "The previous speaker spoke in a strange, strident language." Pandemonium broke out in the hall, and the audience would not let him continue his speech. People could not believe his insensitivity to the suffering of the Jewish nation during the Holocaust and his ignorance of the glorious Jewish past!

However, the Yiddishists should not be suspected of having too much Yiddishkeit either. An article published once in Hamodiah explained the chareidi position:

"A language . . . is not only a technical and physical tool for man to express his thoughts . . . a language is much more than that. It is a vital entity and is associated with life itself. All of a person's arteries, his whole life-force, is intermingled with it.

"Its power for both good and evil is immense. It can serve to elevate a Divine melody, or as the sword of the Soton. Its potential is unlimited, because it is the father of life and mother of death. A nation's mentality is reflected in the rhythm of its language, in its quiet tone or vulgar flamboyance. A language, especially in its musical tones, may arouse a yearning for something more elevated, for a hidden world full of kindness and glory.

"Some languages are capable of arousing the lowest instincts because of their vulgarity. The Shem Mishmuel wrote in the name of the Chidushei HaRim that French, a very sentimental language, awakens a spirit of tumoh with its musical tone.

"Yiddish can inspire us only if we want it to serve the elevated purpose of promoting Judaism. Yiddish on its own, detached from the central aim of Yiddishkeit, is not an end in itself. Of what value is Yiddish if its speakers are not committed to anything and if a Yiddish speaker can be a complete goy in his outlook and way of life? Of what value is Yiddish if its contents are goyish?

"With all due respect to the `official Yiddishists' there can be no doubt that were it not for the religious population of Williamsburg, and for the thousands of chassidim and yeshiva students who make up the vanguard of Yiddish supporters, Yiddish would have ceased to remain a living language by now. Neither the Yiddishists nor their children still speak the language."

The last Yiddishist has already died, but in Holland there is still a non-Jewish band singing Jewish songs, called: "Die Goyim." They dress up as Jews with vests and caskettes, and they imitate the style of a klezmer band.

We asked them if they have any Jewish connection, but they answered in the negative. The soloist told me in an archaic, broken Yiddish that he had discovered old "plattes" (records) at his grandmother's house in Yiddish, and was enchanted by them. And so you have four gentiles singing "A Yiddishe Mamme" together. This is another proof that Yiddish without Yiddishkeit is just goyish.


Yiddish always used to be only a spoken language. The turning- point came when books started being printed for women, who did not have a command of Loshon Hakodesh like men. Since then Yiddish became associated with the Yiddishe Mamme.

Authors would apologize for writing in Yiddish, explaining that their book was meant for gemeine lait un noshim (for simple people and women).

A very popular book was called Gedulas Yosef on the events of Yosef Hatzaddik's life. On the title page it says that the book was written in Wiber Dietch, "German for women," in other words Yiddish. There were other popular books, but the most popular was, without any doubt, Zeneh Ure'eneh, which was published in three hundred editions! In our generation it has even been translated into Hebrew.

Di Sukkele

The description of Gittel the tzadeikes illustrates the temimus of a Jewish mother, a quality which is gradually being eroded in this high- tech generation. Our language is also becoming more "high-tech" and less warm. Words are formulated in accordance with the needs of their user, and the Jews in the shtetl used warm words, turning Yiddish into an emotional and sensitive language, such as in this song called "A Sukkele a Kleine" ("My Little Succah"):

A sukkele, a kleine / Mit bretlach gemeine / Hob ich mir a sukkele gemacht / Bedek dem dach / Mit a bisele schach / Sitz ich mir in sukkele bei nacht . . .

My little succah / Made out of planks / I built myself a little succah / Covered its roof / With a little sechach / I sit in my little Succah at night.

The song goes on to express a Jew's longing in golus and concludes with a prayer, "Oi, hoRachomon hu yokim lonu es sukkas Dovid hanofeles."

Children Fight over It

We can get some idea of the circulation of the Zeneh- Reneh from the introduction to the Hamburg edition (1724): "I have heard that the book, Zeneh Ure'eneh is used so much, and is so important especially for ladies and girls, and everybody wishes that he had two or three copies of it in his house. Until now this book has been very expensive and people could hardly afford even one copy.

"Many times this situation has also resulted in chilul Shabbos, since the children often fight over who should read first, until they tear the Chumash which they are fighting over leading, due to our many sins, to chilul Shabbos. I have therefore taken it upon myself to benefit the public by publishing the Chumoshim in Yiddish . . . I want them to be inexpensive, so that everybody can buy two or three copies for his home."

The Mothers' Prayer

There was a Mothers' Prayer in Yiddish. It is surprising to discover who composed it. The title page states: "Die tchina hot metaken gewesen (this prayer was composed by) Ho'isho horabbonis moras Soroh Rivka Rochel Leah the daughter of morenu the famous Gaon HaRav Yokel Horowitz of Galona [(1679-1755), the father of Rav Itzikel Hamburger], and the wife of the great illumination the sharp Rav Shabtai, the rov of Krasni."

This rebbetzin was known by her last name Leah and was famous for her Torah knowledge. She was named after the four imohos and this explains the name of her prayer, "The Mothers' Prayer."

A Hybrid Language

Someone once said, "I speak ten languages, all of them in Yiddish." It is true that Yiddish has incorporated a lot of foreign words, and it could be said that about 80 percent of the language's vocabulary is pure "Yiddish" and the speaker, using his local language as his source, improvises the rest. Over the years, words from Loshon Hakodesh have been incorporated into Yiddish, changed their form and becoming Yiddish words.

The author of Ohel Rochel cites several examples from Responsa: Prayer is called "davenen," in other words, "da wonen" ["here live?"], because the Ovos instituted the prayers about everyday life (Tosafos Chaim).

The Shut Levushei Michlol writes, "Nowadays more kovod is given to the kvater . . . I have heard that "kvater" comes from "kvod tir," meaning that his kovod is to stand at the door."

Yarmulke comes from yerei malka (fear the King) since a Yarmulke leads to yiras Shomayim. Maira in baking matzos comes from mehero, indicating the speed required to make sure that the matzo not become fermented. Shul is the abbreviation of shibchu vehodu lishmo.

However, some words have their origin in other languages. "Chalat" (a long coat) is taken from Turkish, "konofe" (armchair) is from French, "zeitunes" (olives) is Spanish, "balkon" (balcony) is from Russian, and the famous "Kadotchke" dance is borrowed from the Russian "Kazochke" dance.

Although Yiddish is most similar to German, it is almost impossible for someone speaking only Yiddish to converse with a German-speaker. This is, inter alia, because so many words in Yiddish are taken from other languages.

An interesting example of this is the case of the chareidi textile merchant from Sao Paolo who went to an exhibition of a German company manufacturing industrial machines. The merchant spoke Yiddish and the agent German. They managed to communicate somewhat, until the merchant pointed to two machines and asked, Wos is di nafka mina? (What is the difference).

Play on Words

Popular etymology has some interesting theories about the origins of Yiddish words. Some of them are accurate, and others are pure imagination (since many actually stem from identical words in German). Here are some examples:

"Lakchenen" (to steal) is from "lokachas," to take. "Nebech" is from "nisht bei eich" (may you spared this misfortune). "Brillen" (glasses) from "bori lo'ayin" (healthy for the eyes). "Nar" (fool) from "na'ar." (lad), "meest" (garbage) from "mi'us" (repulsiveness), "oif zalachas" (to make angry) from "af zu lehach'is." "Oif sanezihen" is a phrase used after hearing about a disaster and comes from "oif sonei Zion," i.e. may this happen to our enemies. Some wanted to explain "schlemazel" as coming from "shelo mazal," but unfortunately it is actually originally a Polish word.

Grandmothers used to whisper the following in their grandchildren's ears: "Vil-nor Go'on -- will nor, westu sein a go'on ("If you only will it, you will become a Gaon"). A modern example of popular etymology is "high tech" coming from heintige tog ("today's") and "Internet" from "unter velt" ("underworld").

The origin of proverbs is a subject in its own right. To cite one example, Nisht geshtoigen un nisht gefloigen (lit. "neither ascended not flown away" meaning "utter nonsense") has its source in the Christian tale that oso ho'ish went up some stairs and then flew away, to which the above was the response.

Hebrew has also incorporated some words from Yiddish, although not that many: "A mechaye," "lefargen," (to waive) from fargenen, plonter, macher and a few others.

Yiddish and Loshon Hakodesh

In Shut Vayomer Yaakov he writes, "Although [Yiddish] has its source in different languages . . . it is still loved by us as the holy language used by our ancestors [as much as the Loshon Hakodesh (i.e. Hebrew)]." The Maharil Diskin is said to have made a similar statement.

Modern Hebrew can obviously not take the place of Loshon Hakodesh since various words taken from impure sources have (perhaps intentionally) been added on to it.

Several decades ago some kanoim wrote uncomplimentary slogans on the grave of the "father of Modern Hebrew." His family's reaction was that if those hooligans sprayed the grave in Hebrew, that was a victory for him.

It is worth pointing out that long before him there was someone who boasted that he wanted "to purify the Holy Tongue": that was Shabtai Zvi.

Nowadays there is no one in Israel who does not speak Modern Hebrew. The Chazon Ish already explained his view of this topic with a parable:

At the height of a war a retired general moved about some army personnel telling them that they were adopting the wrong strategy. "You're not taking up the correct positions!"

The officers asked him what he meant, and he told them where the enemy was going to penetrate. The officers nodded and explained to him that since the time that he fought in the army, decades earlier, strategies at the front had changed many times! . . .

This was the Chazon Ish's opinion about fighting a holy battle on behalf of Yiddish.

Of course, this does not contradict the Yiddish cheder, which was set up in his house, because the Yiddish there is not a means of communication, it is a pure language of the heart!

The story is told of an activist who came to one of the rabbonim hoping to "force" him to prohibit the use of Hebrew as a spoken language. The activist cited in his favor the Chazal that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt because, inter alia, they did not change their language. He told the rov that if he did not join the battle against Hebrew he would be delaying the redemption!

That rov replied: "Listen to what you are saying! Even if one observes the injunction not to change the original language, it is still possible to be immersed in the 49 sha'arei tumoh [like the Jews were in Egypt]!"

Rabbinic Play on Words

A talmid of the Netziv met his rov after a long period where they had not seen each other. The Netziv asked his student, Vos machsdu? (How are you? Literally, "what are you doing?"). The student told him how his business was going. The Netziv then repeated his question, Vos machsdu? The student again told him about his parnossoh situation and that his children were b'H all well.

When the Netziv repeated his question a third time, the talmid was amazed. The Netziv explained: "I asked you what you were doing and you answer me by telling me what HaKodosh Boruch Hu is doing: parnossoh, health and so on. What are you doing in respect of Torah, tefilloh, tzedokoh . . . ?"


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