Many Americans recognize Yiddish — a derivative of Hebrew and German spoken by Jews of Ashkenazi descent — through words like like klutz, tush, and schlep that have crept their way into the English lexicon.
But the mama loshen (mother language) is more than a few words peppered throughout episodes of “Seinfeld.”
Leo Rosten, the Jewish humorist and author of “The Joys of Yiddish,” called it a “marvelously resilient tongue” that captures a subtlety of feeling through sentimentality and sass. Yiddish is the dark comedy of linguistics: carrying hyperbole, nuance and complaint, steeped in history and folklore. Best spoken with idiomatic grunts and hand gestures, it is full of expressions — roughly half of which are insults and d*ck jokes.
The evolution of Yiddish mirrors the immigrant experience itself, borne of diaspora and destroyed by assimilation. My own immigrant family — the Mermelsteins, the Klatzkers, the Pachtingers, the Weisses and the Gorenefskys — lived in the crowded tenement buildings of New York in the early 19th century, speaking Yiddish at home and English in the streets. Through my Bubbe (grandma) and father, some of the best phrases and words were passed down to me.
Now, as the last generation of native Yiddish speakers approach the end of their lives, I asked Bubbe to conjure up her favorite words and expressions to live by.
1. Balabuste (balla-boosteh)
Balabuste comes from the Hebrew term for “baal habayit,” or master of the house, a term reserved for men who headed up their households. Yiddish took on the German convention of softening “t” sounds with “s,” which turned into baal-ha-baayis, and eventually, balaboos. The female version was originally designated for the wife of such a man; a woman who was an authoritative and skilled homemaker and excellent cook. But in a culture full of mouthy, assertive women, a balabuste came to signify any female owner or manager, boss lady, Queen or nasty girl.
I come from a long line of balabustes who lived well past 100. My Bubbe recalls her mother-in-law, Esther, known as “The Chief,” hovering over the pot with a long cigarette dangling into the soup. Esther said it made it taste better.
2. Gay kaken ofn yahm! (gay-kachen-afen-yahm)
Literally, it’s “go take a shit in the ocean,” but is synonymous with “go take a hike” or “get outta here.”
Though this is one of the most widely used Yiddish insults, there are several food-related alternatives for the easily offended. For starters, “lign in drerd un bakn beyg” means “may you lie in the earth and bake bagels” — as in “go to hell, where you will make bagels that you may never eat!”
Yiddish understands a good put-down, and that hell hath no fury like a life with no bagels.
3. Farblondjet (far-blawn-jit)
How can you f*ck something up in Yiddish? Let me count ye the ways.
Farblondjet comes from the Slavic word for “wander” or “roam,” though English lacks the adequate specificity of meaning. If you are farblondjet, you are really lost, mixed up, off the rails, halfway through a bad joke, and otherwise “in deep.”
According to Rosten, “[farblondjet] refers not simply to being lost, but to having-gotten-way-the-hell-and-gone-off-track.”
Not to be confused with farpotshket (sloppy), farchadat (dopey) or fartootsteh (confused, disoriented).
4. Plotz (plots)
Aside from sheer euphony, plotz is a favorite for its flexibility of meaning. From the German word for “to burst,” to plotz is to become overcome with emotion, good or bad. You might plotz from hearing a joke so funny you pee your pants, from an exhausting day at work, or from existential suffering.
5. Toytn bankes (toy-ten bon-kiss)
This one is an all-time family favorite. From the expression “Es vet helf vi a toytn bankes” (“it helps like cups on a dead man”), it’s a melodramatic way of saying that something doesn’t help. The abbreviation, toytn bankes, has taken on meaning for a wasted effort or a lost cause.
My Bubbe says the expression is a callback to a time when it was customary to help a sick person by drawing blood to the surface under a small heated cup swabbed with alcohol to suck out bad spirits and improve circulation. In addition to “cupping” being an ancient practice of Chinese medicine, it may be Ryan Lochte’s only connection to the Yiddish language.
Though some of Yiddish has successfully transitioned into the 21st century, a rich language is at risk of disappearing; it is widely believed that 85 percent of the Jews who died in World War II were Yiddish speakers, and the generations that followed mostly gave up the mama loshen, blending into American whiteness.
Luckily, an expressive culture full of good insults will never be obsolete. A recent revival of Yiddish, Klezmer music, and Ashkenazi foods has breathed new life into Ashkenazi American Jewry, urging us to remember who we were before immigrants from Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Russia all became “The New York Jew.”
In honor of my Bubbe’s 97th birthday, I plan on doing my part to revive Yiddishisms in everyday speech. And with their healthy sense of humor and low tolerance for bullsh*t, Bubbe and the Yiddish language might just outlive us all.