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Opinion: The oys! of Yiddish

It’s easy to dismiss Yiddish as a relic of a bygone age when Jews schlepped around in shtetls, moaning about their tsores.

But recent news from Canada proves it’s not just boobas and boffins who still rely on the old mother tongue. Devotees, it seems, turn up in unexpected places.

Police their have banned citizens from using the word “shiksa” after a hate crime study found the pejorative Yiddish word for a non-Jewish woman was being used by youngsters as a term of abuse. Under this new category, gentiles of the female persuasion are now listed as a potential victim group, in need of state protection alongside other “minority” communities.

It’s good to see the lovely old lingo – the lingua franca for European Jews from the tenth century to the Second World War – hitting the headlines, even if it is just politically correct police overreacting to a few Vicky Pollards misusing one of the ugliest words in the Yiddish lexicon.

Shiksa is, after all, born from a blend of guttural syllables that must be gathered at the very back of the throat and virtually spat out for accuracy. A bit like chrain.

The word featured appeared frequently in Phillip Roth’s glorious 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint, in which eponymous star Alexander obsesses of over Mary Jane Reid, whose nickname Monkey was a tribute to her “remarkable agility at achieving a variety of sexual positions”.

Thirty years later, before converting to Judaism, Sex and the City’s Charlotte was described by her Jewish husband as a “shiksa goddess”, while Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes savoured the thought of having “shiksappeal” – the notion that Jewish men love the idea of meeting a woman who is not like their mother.

But the word shiksa is very much a Yiddish exception to the rule. The language is, after all, intimately onomatopoeic, with many of its words instinctively understood simply by the sounds they make.

If shiksa is perhaps the harshest word, the softest is an often-used two-letter refrain that is more a sound than a syllable. Leo Rosten’s magnificent The Joys Of Yiddish – perhaps the wittiest book ever committed to paper – identifies 25 uses for the expression “ oy!”.

I don’t have the energy (I’m a little farmutshet) to list them all, so here’s just a flavor of the word’s flexibility.

Apprehension: “Maybe he’s sick? Oy!”

Astonishment:  “Oy, how he has changed.”

Contentment: “Oy, what a delicious dinner!”

Disbelief:  “My own husband! Oy!”

Dismay: “Oy, I gained ten pounds!”

Despair:  “It’s hopeless, I tell you! Oy!”

Euphoria:  “Was I happy? Oy! I was dancing on air!”

Regret:  “Him we have to invite? Oy!”

Relief: “Oy, now I can sleep.”

Shock:  “What? Her? Here? Oy!”

And horror:  “He married a dwarf! Oy!”

Rosten’s 1968 tome is credited with instilling “Yinglish” into everyday English. So much so that refrains that roll off the tongue like phonetic poetry are now embedded in our vocabulary – shlep, klutz, plutz , gezunterheyt. You go to Las Vegas to schpeel, to a party to schmooze and to a restaurant to nosh.

And Del Boy in Only Fools And Horses, never one to refuse a full English breakfast with extra black pudding, was an enthusiastic employer of the term “kosher” when required to verify the legitimacy of his latest little earner.

Literature is still being written in Yiddish and works translated. A few years ago the classic novel The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupery was published in Yiddish for the first time.

The language also thrives online, with innumerable resources, ranging from a virtual shtetl to advice on computer programming in the old dialect. And undergraduate courses run throughout Europe, with Oxford University offering an MA in Yiddish studies.

Whether on the mean streets of Toronto or the high streets of Stamford Hill, only one language is so rich in psychological and social insight that it is capable of expressing a myriad of intricate thoughts and feelings in a few simple, satisfying syllables. Yiddish refreshes the sentences other languagues cannot reach.

And, best of all, you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it.

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About Me

Newspaper editor and publisher with 30-years’ experience at national and local titles in the UK and USA including the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror and Jewish Advocate. Editor of Jewish News (Free Weekly Newspaper of the Year 2021/22) since 2009. Columnist for The Times, Daily Telegraph, New Statesman, Independent and others.


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