Spoken by over 11 million Jews in Eastern and Central Europe before WWII, Yiddish is still today spoken by an estimated 600,000 people. It is also widely used in in traditional Jewish religious communities in Hasidic yeshivas.
Global Voices spoke to Canada-based Matthew Katzman, who is the author of new book “Oy Vey! Yiddish Slang 101“ (“Oy vey!” expresses exasperation in Yiddish), a satirical dictionary that weaves personal family stories with hilarious Yiddish expressions to understand the evolution of the language and how people of different generations relate to it each in their own way.
Katzman was born and raised in Toronto, attended Jewish school for most of his young life and learnt the Yiddish language from his grandparents. He graduated in psychology from Queen’s University, and is currently completing his master’s in journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University.
The interview took place by email and is edited for style and brevity.
Filip Noubel (FN): Can you explain the current status of Yiddish: Where is it spoken and by whom across the world?
Matthew Katzman (MK) Yiddish is spoken all around the world. It is a mishmash of all sorts of languages fused together, such as German, Hebrew, French, Italian and others. It is still spoken by many worldwide but predominantly in Israel, the US, and some Eastern European countries. Before WWII, it was spoken by lots more Jews. With so many Jewish lives lost in the Holocaust, the language largely faded.
In my community, everyone is familiar with the language to some degree. It represents very different things to different people. I think generationally is the best way to look at it. For my Zaidy and Bubbie, aka my grandparent’s generation, I think it's seen as a formal language. Many used to speak it with their parents, to their kids, and to each other.
My father’s generation saw it as a language, but not one that was as relevant or accessible. Especially because, by that time, growing up around more secular Jews in Canada, it didn’t have as much use. He was taught it by my grandparents and can still remember a lot of it, but I think it’d be tough for him to have a full conversation with it today.
For my generation, I think it could be seen as more of a tradition than an actual language. At least for me, the words take on representations rather than the actual meaning. I wouldn’t necessarily string together a collection of words to make a sentence, but I would drop one of the hilarious, punchy, goofy, or powerful Yiddish words I know in an everyday sentence.
FN: Is Yiddish an endangered language? How is it passed on to the next generation? Is it also present online?
MK Some have called Yiddish a dying language and UNESCO has even labelled it as endangered. While fewer people speak it today, it is still spoken all over the world.
I attended a fairly well-known Hebrew school in Junior Kindergarten where Yiddish was taught and still is today. In the community I grew up in, Yiddish was fairly present. Not that any of my Jewish friends are fluent, but words that are part of the dialect are still part of our everyday conversation. We’d laugh and call my buddy a “klutz“ if he missed an easy catch in a softball game. Or say that it gives us “naches“ to watch their fantasy football team win a championship. Maybe after my friends and family read this book, we’ll find a way to throw a “nochshlepper” here or an “eppes a nudnik“ there.
In terms of the internet presence, we’ve been connecting with speakers through online Yiddish communities. We’ve already had so many people express interest in purchasing “Oy Vey!” before it's been published. There are still many Facebook and Reddit groups to discuss the culture, read stories, and feel connected to the language. You won’t be seeing it talked about in mainstream media very often though, that’s why I feel so strongly about this project. I want to help people connect to a fun, colourful language that has a place so close to my heart.
Online, Yiddish can be heard quite often in a popular Israeli series called Shtisel describing a Jewish Orthodox community, as this YouTube video shows:
FN: What is your background in Yiddish? Has it been spoken in your family? If not, how did you learn it? What do you find the most amazing in this language?
MK: Yiddish has been in my family for generations. Not sure how far it goes back but it was probably first spoken to me as a baby by my Zaidy and Bubbie.
I think Yiddish functions best as a reminder or connector to our past. Writing this book made me feel linked to my Jewish ancestors who came from “shtetls“, which are the small, poor Jewish villages that housed them in Eastern Europe.
The drive to pass on the traditions of Judaism, like the Yiddish language, is strong for me. In “Oy Vey!,” I joke that my number one priority in writing the book is so my grandparents would be proud of me. I guess in some way, I feel a responsibility to pass on the rituals they fought so hard to keep.
I wouldn’t say the Yiddish language was pressed to be passed on in my family though. When you read the book, you’ll notice that I delve into a lot of personal anecdotes from my life. I really wanted to be open and create a personal feel to the book, while keeping it pretty silly.
FN: Yiddish has a large amount of colorful curses. Are they still used among native speakers, including in conservative communities?
MK: There’s almost too many to count. Almost. I have a lot of favourites. There’s actually a whole chapter in Oy Vey! dedicated to this. Here’s a few of the best.
- Es zol dir dunern in boykh, vestu meyen az s’iz a homon klaper: Your stomach will rumble so badly, you’ll think it was a Purim noisemaker.
- Zolst zeyn azoy reykh, az dayn almnhs man darf keynmol nisht arbetn a tog: May you be so rich your widow’s husband has to never work a day.
- Vaksn zolstu vi a tsibele mitn kop in dr'erd: May you grow like an onion with its head in the ground.
You’ll still see some of these curses used today. “May you grow like an onion with its head in the ground” is probably the most commonly seen in pop culture, such as in the musical “Fiddler on The Roof.”
I think the reason there are so many curses is because Jewish people can be passive aggressive when upset. I don’t want to speak for an entire religion/culture/nationality, but, in my personal opinion, a Jewish person would much rather send you hints to how they’re feeling rather than outright say how they’re feeling.
When those hints don’t work, you might have all this internalised frustration. Instead of just confronting someone about what’s upsetting you, you go back to your home in the “shtetl” and utter a few of the most devastating curses you know. It feels cathartic. To be clear, I have never met another Jewish person who has cursed another person, but I like to imagine it happens from time to time.
For the book, I created a character named “Shlomi” who gets mentioned throughout the book as someone who curses in Yiddish. While I have few enemies, he is a culmination of all the people who have wronged me in the past. Would I truly utter a curse unto someone who did me wrong? Like that they may lie in the ground and bake like a bagel? The jury's out on that.