With angst, my mother would spout, “Oy, Gut in himmel.” Then, she would sometimes emphasize it in English—“Oh, God in heaven.” Either way, we knew she was flustered about something we had done.
When a cousin in Florida invited me to join a Facebook group, Yiddish Word of the Day (A Light, Fun Group of Yiddish Lovers), I immediately clicked on it. I knew that revisiting those words and expressions in 2021 would be cathartic.
Many posts are written simply as one Yiddish word to which readers dabble at the English translation. The interpretation of the Yiddish words and phrases often receives varied responses. Following along, I think back to my childhood home life as I sound out the daily barrage of postings.
My parents, born in 1911 and 1915, grew up with Yiddish as their first language, and they used various words and expressions from the mamaloshen (mother tongue) throughout their years. While I don’t use as many of the Yiddish sayings that they did, I remember them well. I hope that our children picked up a sizable Yiddish vocabulary.
I know my husband hears a lot of Yiddish around me. While it was my mother-in-law’s first language, she no longer used it daily as much as my parents did, and my father-in-law only had a few standards, such as “hand me a gopl,” meaning a fork. I don’t think I ever heard him say “fork.”
Why should such a flavorful language be lost throughout the generations? I jotted a thank you to the group: “Thank you. The words were so much a part of my life growing up, I can hear my parents, plus aunts and uncles long gone. They all made me who I am today and I still use many of the words and phrases. Nothing feels better than hearing my granddaughter repeat, “Oy, gevalt!” at 2½, knowing that another generation will be basked in the glory of Yiddish.”
When our granddaughter at age two started to squeal, “Oh no!” I followed with “Oy, gevalt!” She has the look of pure joy when she giggles as she hears and repeats the Yiddish expression. My husband notes that our younger son says, “Oy gevalt!” That makes me wonder how many other Yiddish words and sayings our children have picked up over the years, and if they even realize it.
An older cousin, with whom I became acquainted in the l990s, told me that I write with a Yiddish accent. While rereading my manuscript, I saw what she meant and edited more and more.
While I am not proficient in Yiddish, the more I view the prolific Facebook group postings, I realize that I know most of the posted words. I wish the spelling of some of the Yiddish words would be easier. It would be fun to add to the Facebook page with more expressions my parents and other relatives regularly used. Seriously though, I can’t spend all day on Google Translate.
Then, again, there are nights I stay up bursting with laughter while reading some of the things posted by the group. There was the one about the Yiddish words for body parts and bodily excrements. That was riotously funny. Knowing as much, or as little Yiddish as I do, it makes me happy when I can join in on the fun.
When someone posted, “I’m going to make chaluskas for my hubby,” as in “Name that Tune,” folks rapidly responded with the definition shown as “stuffed cabbage.” My response to cahluskas was, “If it tastes chaluchus, that would be awful.” That’s the beauty of most of us in the group not knowing how to spell the Yiddish words.
After looking it up the old-fashioned way, in “The Joys of Yiddish,” which I keep on my computer cabinet shelf, and out of habit quickly check before giving in and searching the web, I saw a couple of spellings but the one closest would be chaloshes. My spelling sounded correct to my ear, and it is why chaluskas struck me as chaloshes. This Yiddish word-search highlights my complaint as a young girl when my brother Stu was asked how to spell a word and he would insist, “Look it up in the dictionary,” and I would sassily respond, “How do you look it up in the dictionary if you don’t know how to spell it?”
Some of the words posted by the group I didn’t even know were Yiddish. I heard them so much that I thought they were English. That’s something that I learned from the tantalizing Facebook group. My cousin replied, “As you know, Sharon, I only spoke Yiddish with my mom. And I missed it. So I joined a Yiddish conversation group... You may be surprised to learn that some of the Yiddish words our parents used were actually Polish or Russian or some other Eastern European language! Oy, how I love that language!”
Live and learn. And, as my father would say, “A bi gesunt und gai viter” (sp?) Roughly translated, “Be well and keep going.”