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Michael Wex : Yiddish

Michael Wex's picture
Date:Dec 5, 2005
Time:5 PM Pacific (GMT -8)
Topic:German for Blasphemers:
The How and Why of Yiddish
Duration:One hour

Transcript of the chat follows the introduction.

About the Speaker

Writer and raconteur, bon vivant and itinerant teacher of Yiddish, Michael Wex has been called "a Yiddish national treasure"; Born to Kvetch, his book about Yiddish, was hailed by The New York Times as "wise, witty and altogether wonderful."

The last brittle sprout of a rabbinic family-tree, Wex is the sole descendant of the Rebbes of Ciechanow and Strykow to have been born in Lethbridge, Alberta. Although he has taught at both the University of Toronto and the University of Michigan, Wex attained the summit of his academic career as a fellow of Massey College in the University of Toronto; loosely speaking, he was Robertson Davies' roommate. At the same time, he was a frequent guest in the house of the late Stretiner Rebbe, Rabbi Isaac Langner.

Wex's activities extend into virtually every area of contemporary Yiddish. He has lectured and performed in venues ranging from Borscht Belt hotels to recreation centres in what was once East Germany. Some of his Yiddish songs have been recorded by such klezmer bands as The Klezmatics, Sukke, and The Flying Bulgars. Wex has translated extensively from Yiddish to English, while his authorized Yiddish translation of Weill and Brecht's Threepenny Opera premiered in June, 2001.

Wex 's teaching and lecture activities--a unique combination of learning, stand-up comedy and probing investigation into the nature of Yiddish and Yiddishkayt--have taken him from Toronto to Budapest, and to many points in between. The approach is so unique and appealing that his annual series of classes on Yiddish at Klezkamp has been renamed Wexology--and not at Wex's instigation. The only complaint ever heard is that people are enjoying themselves so much that they forget to take notes.

Transcript of the chat

Anu Garg
Welcome to the 19th online chat at Wordsmith.Org!

Today we welcome Michael Wex, author, speaker, and performer. His latest book is "Born to Kvetch". He is joining us from Toronto, Canada. Michael will discuss Yiddish. The topic of today's chat is "German for Blasphemers: The How and Why of Yiddish".

Welcome, Michael!

Michael Wex
Hi, Anu. It's a pleasure to be here.

Anu Garg
Today, I received a message from a reader in Toronto. It read,
There is a Jewish community centre in downtown Toronto, recently renovated to include a fitness centre. There is a logo on a large sign on the side of the building, which states "Less Kvetching, More Stretching".

Michael Wex
I live not far from the building in question and can testify to the truth of the sign. Regrettably, I had nothing to do with it.

Anu Garg
Michael, tell us about your new book.

Michael Wex
Born to Kvetch attempts to look at two major aspects of Yiddish: how and why it grew out of medieval German dialects--that is, why Jews not only felt a need for a language of their own, but insisted on taking this one with them long after they left German-speaking territory; and how the language tends to look at life and the various activities that go into it.

Sarah Benor - Los Angeles
Michael: do you think you could write another book "born to kvell" - about how Yiddish is conducive to saying nice things?

Michael Wex
I think it would be a lot shorter than the present volume. Although you can say nice things in Yiddish (and people sometimes do), Yiddish tends to shy away from unmitigated compliment for various superstitious reasons. To praise something means to call the attention of demons to it, and hence to endanger the object of praise.

Dolly Tiger-Montreal
I once heard Isaac B. Singer talk about Yiddish: how English is such a poor language, you have only two words for beggar: panhandler or beggar, while in Yiddish - and he started enumerating about 15 different words, in every shade of connotation.

Michael Wex
Yiddish has a great affinity for poverty. Dales--Yiddish for poverty--is practically personified in the language. We've got to remember that until the rise of the Nazis, poverty--not antisemitism--was considered the single biggest problem facing the Jews of Europe. Poverty was to Yiddish what plankton are to fish--necessary but replaceable.

Moish - Vancouver
Michael, regarding the origins of Yiddish, does your book touch on why Yiddish appears to be a lot closer to English than German is? Is that a direct affect of English on it or did it start out like that?

Michael Wex
It has more to do with changes to German syntax that occurred in the wake of Luther's translation of the Bible, by which time Yiddish (like Dutch and the Scandinavian languages, which stand in a somewhat similar relationship to German) was already functioning independently of German.

Sarah Benor - Los Angeles
Do you have any wisdom into why Yiddish and Judeo-Spanish/Ladino seem to be the only 2 Jewish languages that survived several hundred years in a territory away from their original co-territorial non-Jewish language?

Michael Wex
In both cases, the speakers developed a wide-ranging culture in the language--and in both cases, there was an extensive and highly developed system of Jewish education (think kheyder and yeshiva in Central and Eastern Europe, for example) that functioned in the language.

Betty N. Bethesda
Which of the 3 dialects of Yiddish did the Jews in the Ukraine speak?

Michael Wex
Depends on where in Ukraine. West Ukraine (for instance, L'viv) was Galicia and the Yiddish was galitsisyaner; the eastern part of Ukraine was closer to litvish and included many typically "Lithuanian" features of pronunciation and vocabulary.

Moish - Vancouver
What do you see as the prospects that Yiddish will survive as a spoken language for another 50 years?

Michael Wex
I think they're fairly good, if only because of the amazing growth of the Hasidic population, which is virtually all Yiddish-speaking. I don't see a huge future for the more secular side, but I'd be wary of making any hard-and-fast predictions. The hasidim have a day-to-day reason and need to speak the language; I don't know if the more secular adherents of Yiddish have more than a fervent desire to do so.

Sarah Benor - Los Angeles
About the Jewish languages question: You have a good point, but that doesn't explain why Judeo-Arabic didn't survive when its speakers found themselves in Spanish lands - or why Judeo-Greek was replaced by Judeo-Romance languages.

Michael Wex
For the same reason that Yiddish displaced the Judeo-Romance languages that the original settlers in the Rhine basin brought with them from what are now France and Italy. Within a couple of generations, the Jews in German-speaking territory had developed the most thoroughly "Talmudized" (if that's a word) civilization in history. The people who developed that civilization also developed Yiddish--in part as a language in which to conduct this highly text-centred society.

Anu Garg
Getting back to kvetching, why is that Yiddish lends itself to such delightful kvetching and also to making such exquisite insults?

Michael Wex
I don't mean to kvetch, but I should apologize: aol logged me off for "inactivity".

Back to kvetching and insults... These are basically the same basic thing--think of the insult as the kvetch militant--and both have a long history in Judaism, one that reaches all the way back to the Bible.

Moish - Vancouver
German-speaking Jews have had a somewhat condescending view of Yiddish as basically a dumbed-down version of German. Do you think there is any justification for this?

Michael Wex
There's no justification for such a view at all. It betrays a near total ignorance of what Yiddish is about, as well as an unjustifiable conviction that post-Luther German is the only German in existence. The two languages have little in common. Something all the more amazing when one considers how much vocabulary they share.

sarah - los angeles
Picking up on Moish's question: Where do you draw the line between Judeo-German and (Western) Yiddish? Someone asked me the other day if "Oma" is Yiddish.

Michael Wex
There isn't much problem with Western Yiddish anymore, because there are so few speakers. It isn't so much a matter of single words (though I'd argue that Oma isn't Yiddish), as what those words mean when they're put together. If you understand the phrase, "nisht geshtoygn un nisht gefloygn" (didn't climb up and didn't fly" ), which means b,.s., as a denial of Christianity, you're speaking Yiddish, whether or not you say Oma. If you don't, it's German.

Moish - Vancouver
Little in common . . .? Isn't all of the basic syntax and morphology of both Yiddish and German the same?

Michael Wex
Moish, you're right. It's what these things come out meaning that's the crux of the difference, what the syntax and morphology end up representing.

Betty N. Bethesda
Why do the Hasidim continue to speak Yiddish? to remain separate?

Michael Wex
With respect to the Hasidim, you've hit the nail on the head. Interestingly, there's a problem among many formerly Polish hasidim in Israel: too many speaking Hebrew. It hasn't happened yet with English.

Dolly Tiger-Montreal
Have you ever visited the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass? Its founding is a fantastic story., originating in Montreal. Yiddish is still being taught here in parochial schools. and not only for chassidim.

Michael Wex
I'm familiar with the Book Center and with Aaron Lansky's work--it's a great thing. But if you call them, you'll discover that they do most of their business in English. There's nothing wrong with that, but they're more oriented to preservation than propagation.

sarah - los angeles
Back to the Western Yiddish / Judeo-German question: I mean historically: when talking about a text - like Gluckl von Hamlen, for example - how do you determine whether to call it Western Yiddish or Judeo-German?

Michael Wex
One of the main determinants is the form of the writing: is it in the Hebrew or Latin alphabets? (or Fraktur, for that matter). Glikl herself isn't always clear about when she's speaking German and when she's speaking Yiddish, and doesn't in fact differentiate them in her memoirs.

Marsha - Honolulu
On a new thread ... I just learned that the word I have pronounced as "meiseh" (story) is pronounced "meintze" by some whose parents came from certain sections of Poland. Are you familiar with other dialects within Yiddish?

Michael Wex
Your family must be litvakes, from Lithuania, Ukraine or White Russia. The "meintze" people are from parts of Poland and Galicia. The standard language (and probably the majority of speakers overall) would say "mayse". Those are the three main Eastern Yiddish dialects.

Marsha - Honolulu
Actually, my family came from the same city in Poland (Kosov) that the others did -- they're my mother's first cousins. But those my age were born and reared in England or Brazil; so I had thought it was the other American influences in my grandparents generation once they moved to the USA that mattered.

Michael Wex
Perhaps, Marsha, the non-Kosover parents were from elsewhere; perhaps the cousins were influenced by teachers, etc., if they attended Yiddish schools

Marsha - Honolulu
Thanks so much for your time and for sharing your knowledge

Betty N. Bethesda
Just a comment: thanks for explaining so much about the language I heard my grandparents speak (I'm reading your latest book). All I know in Yiddish is, maybe 30 phrases, but I have a great curiosity about the language.

Michael Wex
Thanks, Betty.

Moish - Vancouver
How was the standard language determined and do speakers of other dialects accept this?

Michael Wex
Like most standard languages, by committee--in this case, a group of scholars associated with YIVO, the Jewish Scientific Institute, founded in Vilna and currently headquartered in New York. Most "regular" speakers have little truck with their recommendations; however, their orthographic guidelines were eventually adopted by most of the secular Yiddish school system and have made considerable inroads. The preferred pronunciation--closest to the Lithuanian dialect--never really captured the Polish and Galician masses. The basic grammar has, however, been accepted fairly generally.

Moish - Vancouver
Regarding the meiseh/meinseh distinction my father came from Odessa yet said meinseh?? How would this happen?

Michael Wex
Thank you.

Michael Wex
Odessa was originally settled by Jews from Galicia (remember, it's a fairly new city and was deliberately founded); there was more galitsyaner influence on Odessa Yiddish than elsewhere in that part of Russia

Poohberry5
I miss hearing Yiddish. My grandmother and grandparents would speak it around the house. This is where I learned some Yiddish. Now I heard a lot of codeswitching when speaking with Jewish people. They will speak in English and put in Yiddish words into their sentences which adds some schmaltz to the conversation.

Michael Wex
Individual Yiddish words have become very much a sort of identity marker in the speech of many Jewish people, quite often as a way of saying simply "I'm Jewish" at the same time as they're saying something else.

sarah - los angeles
How do you explain the ayin becoming "n" in words like manse and yankev? Is it an influence from Judeo-Italian?

Michael Wex
In extreme cases (such as yeshivish), it's sometimes hard to know if what's being spoken is still English.

Michael Wex
The N always comes in cases in which the Hebrew vowel patakh is followed by a khataf-patakh. The same thing also happens with "Yahddus" (Judaism), which comes out as "yandes" and da'aga" (worry), which has the collocation of vowels only in the construct, but still comes out in some Yiddish as "dange"

Betty N. Bethesda
Did the Soviets take steps to stop Soviet Jews from speaking Yiddish?

Michael Wex
Yes--by killing the major writers, forbidding the use of traditional spelling (in order to distance the language from its Hebrew roots) and generally trying to make it dangerous and irrelevant. That they didn't succeed entirely is another instance of the surprising ways in which Yiddish refuses to disappear.

sarah - los angeles
If people are interested in discussing Yiddish and other Jewish languages, they should check out www.jewish-languages.org and subscribe to the Jewish Languages list (we'll be having a discussion forum starting next week about John Myhill's new book *Language in Jewish Society*).

Moish - Vancouver
Michael, this was very informative. Where can I find your book?

Michael Wex
It should be available in general bookstores. In Canada, Indigo certainly has it and I believe that Duthies in Vancouver also carries it.

Anu Garg
That was our last question for today. For more, please see Michael Wex's new book Born to Kvetch or visit his Web site.

Anu Garg
Thank you, Michael Wex for being here today. Thanks to all who participated.

Michael Wex
Thanks for having invited me, Anu. I really enjoyed myself.

Poohberry5
Thank you. It was very enjoyable and informative.


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