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New York's Yiddish theater district in the 1940s

So Old and Yet So New

By Michael Dolan
February 2017 • American History Magazine

Yiddish-English dictionary brings an ancient language into online age

LAST FALL, Indiana University Press brought out the Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary, comprising 50,000 entries and 33,000 subentries. The oversize 826-page volume, co-edited by Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath and Paul Glasser, reflects years of work by those two and by Mordkhe Schaechter, a prominent Yiddish linguist and Columbia University professor of Yiddish—and Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath’s late father. Professor Schaechter traced his avidity for language in general and for Yiddish in particular to being raised in a Yiddish-speaking and Yiddishist home in Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine, but then in Romania). Coincidentally, in 1908 Czernowitz hosted the first international conference on Yiddish. A version of this interview edited for length appears in the February 2018 print edition of American History.

Why an English-Yiddish dictionary?

Schaechter-Viswanath: People still speak Yiddish. People are learning the language and writing in the language. Existing dictionaries did not suffice to supply all the words and expressions and terms that we need in the 21st century. Take the kitchen device we call the “salad spinner.” We came up with the phrase salatn-dreyer. The word “email” was rendered blitspost, or lightning mail; its coiner is unknown. An individual email is a blitsbriv, a lightning letter.

Glasser: The task usually involves creating new combinations of older words.

Schaechter-Viswanath: Or finding existing Yiddish expressions that fit new English idioms, like “Join the club.” We found our phrase in the work of Szymon Dzigan and Yisroel Schumacher,

A famous act in the Yiddish theater, the Howard Brothers, are pictured on the sheet music for a song from the early 1900s.

who were comedians in Poland before World War II and after the war came to Israel. Paul, who knows their routines by heart, remembered a skit in which Dzigan and Schumacher use the expression, “Mayn mayse,” which means, “[That’s] my story,” and connotes, “Yes, I’ve had the same experience.” So that expression appears in the dictionary for “Join the club.”

What’s your market?

Glasser: Yiddish students and teachers, mostly in the secular culture. There are enough to support such a publication. It’s not a million-seller, but it’s a small and steady market. People have already bought 4,000 copies. Our book is almost up to its fourth printing.

Gitl’s father was instrumental in perpetuating the Yiddish language.

Schaechter-Viswanath: In 1979, my father founded the League for Yiddish. The League had its origins in the Freeland League, an organization founded between the world wars on the premise that Jews should have a country where Yiddish was the national language. With the creation of the state of Israel, that entity lost its main mission, so my father re-organized it into the League for Yiddish, whose main goal is to encourage the use of Yiddish in all spheres of daily life. Today, Sheva Zucker is the League’s executive director, and I chair the board. Our website is leagueforyiddish.org.

How did the dictionary project start?

Schaechter-Viswanath: With a collection of tens of thousands of index cards, each with a Yiddish word or phrase, that my father amassed over the course of decades of Yiddish language research. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, he was chief interviewer for the Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry. In this capacity, he tape-recorded European-born native Yiddish speakers speaking in their respective dialects. Anytime he heard an interesting word or expression, he would note it down on an index card. He read Yiddish books, magazines and newspapers—in those days there were dozens of Yiddish publications—and would make notations. Our dining room table was piled high with newspaper clippings that would eventually make their way into the card files.

How did he file?

Schaechter-Viswanath: In shoe boxes. He had 87 of them crammed into his study.

How did he organize what he collected?

Schaechter-Viswanath: Originally, he was interested in specific themes, like the sciences, sports, the arts, technology, and so on. He was considering issuing small thematic dictionaries, and did publish both an academic terminology and one of pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing. The latter book featured words such as hartszekl, which refers to the baby carrier that parents wear on their chests. Hartszekl means “a little package near the heart.”

Glasser: Actually, most of the terms were of long standing. He just had to hunt them down.

How did your father come by his interest in Yiddish?

Schaechter-Viswanath: His father, Khayem Benyumen Schaechter, was a fervent Yiddishist who attended the famous 1908 conference in Czernowitz. The dictionary’s cover design is a highly stylized topographical map of Czernowitz and environs. My father was always interested in languages. After the war, he studied at the University of Vienna, and he dedicated his life to keeping Yiddish vibrant, modern and active. He and my mother had four children, and we all speak Yiddish. I speak Yiddish to my children. My daughter is speaking Yiddish to her son. That’s four generations.

Other Yiddish dictionaries preceded this one.

Schaechter-Viswanath: Uriel Weinreich’s Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary was published in 1968. It has about 20,000 words and was the first such volume since the 1890s; it’s been republished, but never expanded. My father, who assisted Weinreich on his dictionary, eventually concluded that a supplement was needed. Meanwhile, work was well under way on a major Yiddish-Yiddish dictionary, of which only four volumes were published in the end—and even those only cover the first letter of the alphabet, aleph; the publisher never made it to the second letter, beyz. It’s been a recurring theme for Yiddish to have an unabridged dictionary. The fact that that work was never completed highlighted for my father the necessity for a comprehensive dictionary.

Professor Schaechter decided to go for it.

Schaechter-Viswanath: In the 1990s he began—on the advice of his colleague and neighbor Joshua A. Fishman, a prominent sociolinguist in his own right—to consolidate his word collection into one big dictionary that would supplement Weinreich. I worked with him, entering all the data into the computer. In 2002, my father, who was in his 70s, had a stroke and his health began to deteriorate, but we continued discussing the project. While he had been planning a companion volume, I and others believed that an entirely new dictionary was preferable. After my father died in 2007, we forged ahead and strove for a comprehensive dictionary. Nahum Stutchkoff’s Yiddish thesaurus, which was published in 1950, was an essential resource for us. So was Shapiro, Spivak and Shulman’s Russian-Yiddish Dictionary (1984), as well as the Oxford pocket English-Hebrew dictionary, which was quite useful since many words in Yiddish are of Hebraic or Aramaic origin. Modern Hebrew was created by Ashkenazi Yiddish speakers who for the most part translated Yiddish expressions into Hebrew.

What’s an example?

Glasser: In Hebrew, “Ma nishma?” means “How are things?” Ma nishma comes from the Yiddish “Vos hert zikh?”—“What do you hear?” And that Yiddish phrase is based on Polish. It’s a borrowing from a borrowing.

How did you two come to be coeditors?

Schaechter-Viswanath: We met in our 20s through the Yiddishist movement. Paul had studied with my father and got a Ph.D. in Yiddish linguistics. He worked on the dictionary part-time before going full-time.

Glasser: I met Mordkhe Schaechter in 1980 or 1981 when I was in my 20s. I had heard of him thanks to a phrase in the book In Praise of Yiddish that described him as an “ardent modernizing Yiddishist,” and meeting him was a turning point for me. I reviewed the draft manuscript twice. I still carry my notes and my page proofs in my phone. We don’t have an online edition yet.

What were your individual backgrounds in Yiddish?

Schaechter-Viswanath: As I mentioned, I grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household. I’m a registered nurse working as a nursing home consultant. People say, “Oh, isn’t that great, working with seniors. you get to use your Yiddish…” No, actually I don’t. I sit in a room and read medical records. But that job paid the bills while I worked evenings on the dictionary for years and years before Paul and our wonderful associate editor, Chava Lapin, came on board, bringing a critical mass of skill and energy. Four years ago, the last of my three children left for college and I had every day from 4 p.m. until my eyes closed to work on the dictionary. My husband is a professor who comes home late, so it worked out perfectly.

Glasser: I didn’t grow up with Yiddish. I had to acquire it, first in a Workmen‘s Circle school, then in college and graduate school. I‘m good at learning languages and have a working knowledge of enough to get around in most of Europe.

How did you select words?

Glasser: We went through Yiddish-English dictionaries like Harkavy, from the 1890s. There’s no English in the Yiddish thesaurus; you have to know what you’re looking for. One good source was the Russian-Yiddish dictionary Gitl mentioned. Neither of us knows Russian very well, so I would go from English to Russian to Yiddish and be all set. If not, I’d try weird tricks like starting in English, moving to French, from French to Yiddish, or English to German, German to Czech, Czech to Russian, until I found an appropriate equivalent in Yiddish.

Yiddish seems remarkably elastic.

Glasser: It’s not a matter of elasticity but of circumstance. Yiddish speakers have been a minority wherever they have lived, and minorities always borrow from the majority culture. It is interesting to hear Yiddish words on mainstream American TV that no one explains, so we assume everybody knows them, but that’s not true. Borrowing does work both ways, but most of the borrowing is into Yiddish, which contains elements of German and Hebrew and Slavic. When the Romans expelled the Jews from Palestine, the Jews kept Hebrew. In Germany, they added German, and when they came to Slavic countries, Slavic. Sometimes the vocabulary is German but the phraseology is closer to Polish. Think of Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews; it’s based on a form of Spanish.

Yiddish has never been an “official” language.

Schaechter-Viswanath: State languages have academies that create words. Yiddish has no institute along the lines of the Academie Francaise to standardize.

Glasser: However, words from the academy do not necessarily catch on. When Eliezer Ben Yehuda invented words for modern Hebrew, some caught on, some did not. In fact, Yiddish was briefly an official language in the Soviet Union.

Did big problems arise?

Schaechter-Viswanath: I started this project on an old eMac. When the operating system outran that computer, I went to a Macbook Pro—but the files looked like hieroglyphics. It was horrible. My daughter, who’s an engineer, met—and eventually married—a very nice young man, Jamie Conway, who was a Ph.D. student in math. Jamie was learning Yiddish—when you come into my family, you learn some Yiddish—and he had fantastic computer skills. One Mother’s Day, Jamie hands me three pages of words starting with the letter Z. He had taken the old files, converted them into a computer language, and created Yiddish letters in the most interesting and beautiful fonts. If Jamie had not come along we still would have published, but we would not have gotten as far as we did.

Were any words taboo?

Glasser: We have the four-letter words. Weinreich did not have the f-word; he was a prude. And he left out pishn, an everyday word.

Schaechter-Viswanath: Weinreich has urinirn and mashtn zayn, learned euphemisms used by scholars, not the word everybody uses.

Glasser: Including us.

Explain how you worked.

Schaechter-Viswanath: One example would be terms related to text messaging. Consider the phrase “text message,” meaning a few lines of text. Yiddish creates diminutives by attaching suffixes to the root. A boy is yingl; a little boy is yingele. The Yiddish word for “text” is tekst. Somebody coined tekstl, meaning “a few lines of text.” The infinitive of the Yiddish verb “to text” is tekstlen.

Glasser: If I’m sending you a text message, I might say, “Ikh tekstl dir.” A short text message is a tekstele, which might be used humorously.

Schaechter-Viswanath: I was the one who coined a phrase for binge-watching. I mentioned that my father was a voracious reader, er hot geshlungen bikher, which is one of several such Yiddish expressions. Shlingen means “to devour” and bikher means “books”. What is binge-watching if not devouring episodes? So we came up with “shlingen epizodn.” The Yiddish for “designated driver” is der nikhterer shofer, meaning “the sober driver.” To me, that phrase’s meaning is a lot clearer in Yiddish than the English equivalent.

Glasser: As we say in Yiddish, mit der rekhter hant tsum linkn oyer –“The right hand to the left ear”–saying “designated driver” is doing something the hard way, it’s an awkward phrase.

Do phrases bubble up from use?

Schaechter-Viswanath: They come from the grassroots, from Yiddish speakers who absorb the languages of the countries they live in. Shimon Neuberg, a Yiddish scholar in Trier, Germany, once referred to a flash drive as shlisldisk, which translates to “key disk,” because these drives fit into computers like keys. “What a great word,” we said. “Where did it from?” Perhaps German. We included it.

Glasser: Other languages take terms from English, such as klicken in German, meaning “to click.” Germans don’t worry that their language is going to turn into English. But we avoid this kind of borrowing, because English words start to crowd out the Yiddish. I was lecturing in Israel and got to talking with an ex-Hasid. Hasidim in America speak and read Yiddish, but they borrow a lot of English. I observed that if this trend continues, it could make it hard to communicate with Yiddish-speaking brethren in Israel who borrow from Hebrew. He said, “It’s already a problem.” The same happens with people of older generations. A great-aunt of mine, who was from Russia but moved to Israel after living for many years in the U.S., was telling an Israeli about me, her grandnephew. “What’s a nephew?” the man says. I didn’t say anything; I wanted to see how she solved the situation. She had to resort to saying the Yiddish equivalent “my sister’s grandson.”

What was most challenging about the task?

Schaechter-Viswanath: Wondering whether this dictionary was ever going to happen. I would get so anxious, trying to maintain momentum, that once in a while I would not work on it for a few days, and then I would recover my optimism.

Where did Yiddish come from?

Glasser: When the Romans kicked the Jews out of Palestine, many Jews went to what was becoming Italy. At that time, Jews spoke Aramaic, but we do not know what they were speaking 200 or 400 years later. Some Yiddish words have Old Italian roots. Jews moved north into France, and Yiddish has words from Old French. Scholars debate the influence on Yiddish of the Romance languages, and wonder why there is not more Old Italian and Old French. Jews got to western Germany from eastern France around 1000 AD, and for whatever reason Early Middle High German became the predominant root of Yiddish. Why? I let other scholars fight it out.

How did living in ghettos affect Jews’ language?

Glasser: If Jews were living in ghettos, why would they learn German or Italian? If they were being assimilated, they would not have had their own language. Something in between was happening. During the day, Jewish men engaged in trade, so they must have absorbed the local language. And they may not have been forced into ghettos. Jews wanted to live separately, to preserve their way of life. But even if they did not want to assimilate, they had to make a living, which meant mixing with Christians at least part of the time. We presume this is how Yiddish came to have a preponderance of German and a handful of Romance words. As Jews moved east, absorption of eastern features wiped out the language’s western features.

How do Yiddish dialects differ?

Glasser: The Eastern European Yiddish vocabulary is predominantly German, but below the surface is a Slavic influence. Even in Western Europe, most Jews spoke Yiddish until the 18th century. Assimilation in Western Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries reduced the number of Yiddish speakers there, so Yiddish became more deeply rooted in Eastern Europe. Expressions of Slavic origin show up in the form of Germanisms, and in Slavic suffixes attached to German roots.

What happened?

Glasser: Moses Mendelssohn, who devoted his life to turning Jews into what he called “respectable human beings,” began to promote assimilation. He wanted Jews to be Jews at home; keep your Jewishness to yourself, he said. He recommended giving up traditional dress and language and changing religious practices. Mendelsohn translated the Bible into German, and helped begin a gradual shift away from Yiddish. A further iteration of this was the 19th-century Reform movement.

Q: When did Yiddish come to America?

Schaechter-Viswanath: Yiddish came with a handful of German Jews in the mid-19th century.

Glasser: We know this because of the way we Americans say “kosher,” which is a western Yiddish pronunciation. In France, it’s kah-SHER, the way Sephardim pronounce it; in Eastern Europe it’s koosher or kawsher.

Schaechter-Viswanath: In the 1880s, in response to pogroms following the 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II, a big wave of Eastern Europeans came to the United States. From then until 1924, when the gates closed, millions of Jews came, including my maternal grandparents and all of Paul’s grandparents. They established a Yiddish press, literature, theater, and groups called Landsmanshaftn that helped people come over.

Q: What role did the Daily Forward and other Yiddish papers play?

Glasser: The Forward, which started in New York in 1897, was the first important Yiddish-language paper. Until late in the 19th century, people in Europe read papers in Hebrew. But in the 1890s a Yiddish press established itself, and Jews brought that to America. At its peak, in the 1920s, the Forward had a circulation of 250,000, with pass-along readership of probably three times that. In its politics, the Forward was socialist, as opposed to communist; it represented the biggest band on the ideological spectrum and became the symbol of the Yiddish press here and around the world. The irony is that the name is German–Vorwärts–and was taken from a prominent German paper of the time. They never got around to Yiddishizing it.

What was the paper’s mission?

Glasser: The Forward was instrumental in getting immigrants accustomed to America. The paper did this by using many English words but written in Yiddish letters to teach the new language and make people more comfortable as Americans. It showed them that they could keep Yiddish but also assimilate.

How did the Forward’s “A Bintel Briefcolumn evolve?

Schaechter-Viswanath: Many people who came to American were poor and hungry, and had no jobs.

Glasser: Their children, who were born here, were strangers to them, speaking English and acting like Americans.

Schaechter-Viswanath: That generation gap made people sad. With all this tsores, as we say in Yiddish, readers with no place to turn would write the Forward letters that the paper published as “A Bintel Brief”—A Bundle of Letters—. “A Bintel Brief” became a forum, and a source of consolation and comfort. It said to people, “You’re not alone.”

But the Forward was not about preserving Yiddish.

Glasser: Abraham Cahan, the editor for most of the time from the paper’s founding until he died in 1950, was an assimilator. He wanted people to switch to English. He always said he hoped to put himself out of business. In 1935, the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer came to the Forward looking for a job. Cahan said, “Why would you come to work here, we’re going to go out of business soon.” I’ll take my chances,” Bashevis Singer said. He wrote for the Forward for 50 years.

Schaechter-Viswanath: Today the Forward is a monthly paper magazine, but it’s mostly online—which is great, because when you’re on the site and you see a word you don’t know, you can click on it and get the English translation. That’s a very good pedagogical tool. There’s been a real swing of the pendulum—now people are learning Yiddish, not English, from the Forward.

Discuss Yiddishisms in American culture.

Glasser: I’m not sure how this has happened. I suppose if you hear a word enough, it catches on. A lot has been through Jewish comedians. Mel Brooks speaks poor Yiddish, and with an American accent. He has said that when he was a kid he thought that when you became an adult you acquired a Yiddish accent. But he’s used Yiddish in his movies. It could be the prominence of Jews in the press. And there’s that New Yorker viewpoint, like in Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper, where he makes a joke about Albert Shanker, who was infamous in New York in the 1970s as the head of the teacher’s union, getting the atomic bomb. I was in a theater outside New York and no one got that one. I’m still surprised to hear non-Jews saying kvetch or nakhes or even goyim-nakhes, which means, not in a nice way, “that which is pleasing to gentiles.” In the old days, immigrant parents whose sons had taken up baseball would shake their heads and say, “Oy, goyim-nakhes…” Now I sometimes hear that phrase from non-Jews.

Schaechter-Viswanath: Often, the meanings English speakers associate with Yiddish words that they use don’t have those meanings in Yiddish. Klutz, for instance, in Yiddish means “a wooden beam,” not a person with two left feet, of whom we would say in Yiddish, tsvey linke fis. There’s another Yiddishism that means “hands of clay.” But klutz doesn’t mean what many people think it means.

Glasser: Yes, and kvetsh means to squeeze, not to gripe.

Schaechter-Viswanath: Kvetsh can mean to press a button.

Glasser: Michael Wex, in his book Born to Kvetch, offers as an illustration of “kvetching” the line about the waiter in a delicatessen asking a table of women, “Is anything all right?” But using kvetch in that complaining sense is not Yiddish.

Is the meaning akin to clenching?

Glasser: Yes, as in a bowel movement. This word has come to mean a constant complainer. Kvetch and klutz have acquired these connotative meanings that are different from their origins.

Schaechter-Viswanath: There’s a wonderful movie with Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford, The Frisco Kid, with Wilder playing a rabbi who’s so terrible at his job that his congregation in Poland sends him to America. He’s out in the country somewhere and sees an Amish man. He thinks this is a Hasid, and says, “Landsman!” but then sees the cross on the Bible in the man’s pocket.

After World War II and during the Cold War many Yiddish-speaking immigrants came to the United States.

Schaechter-Viswanath: That immigration was not a resurgence. During the war, we lost five million Yiddish speakers.

Glasser: That’s true, but Holocaust survivors brought new blood; many did not speak English. They became a new generation of readers and writers and speakers.

Schaechter-Viswanath: Depending on their circumstances in the Old Country, they may have spoken only Yiddish.

Glasser: My paternal grandparents came with Yiddish and some Russian. In small towns, Jews generally did not know Russian.

What sustains Yiddish in today’s America?

Schaechter-Viswanath: The online world is helping to facilitate Yiddish. There’s the online Forward, there are blogs, there are podcasts, and other ways of communicating with language that do not necessarily involve sitting in a room with other people and speaking. I’m not happy about that. I prefer to sit in a room with people and speak with them in person. However, there are a lot of Yiddish courses online.

Glasser: Brainpop.com has animated online Yiddish classes.

Schaechter-Viswanath: People are using Yiddish on social media. I think more people are involved in Yiddish as a result, but it’s a hard thing to quantify.

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