As frequent readers of my columns may have figured, I don’t really speak a lot of Yiddish. Or at least I try not to use it as a crutch in my writing. Like there are some humor writers out there – particularly in the general public – that think that if you pepper in an “Oy vey!” here and there, it’s just as funny as an actual punch line.
Oy vey. Am I right?
Pause for laughter.
It happens to be that oy vey is one of those Yiddish phrases that everyone knows, because it’s become part of English, along with words like glitch, klutz, yutz, schlep, schlock, schlub, schmo, schnook, shtick, kvetch – basically all the negative words. I wonder where anyone could have gotten the idea that we’re a negative people.
So what do I know about Yiddish? Well, the one rule about Yiddish that I know, from piecing together everyday conversation, is that whenever you get to the crucial part of a sentence and you don’t know how to say it in Yiddish, you can just drop in an English word with a European accent, and everyone will know what you’re talking about. Like, “Ich hub fahloiren mahn keys.”
“You lost monkeys?”
But when I heard that Duolingo finally came out with a Yiddish program, I decided that this might be a good opportunity to learn a couple of modern-day Yiddish words, and see if any of them were not just English words with European accents.
For those of you with better things to do, I should explain that Duolingo is an app that teaches foreign languages via short, five-minute lessons consisting entirely of tests of material it never taught you, and if you answer enough questions, you can earn meaningless points that allow you to do things like dress this owl in little outfits, for some reason. I’m still waiting for them to put him in a tish bekisheh.
It starts off very easy. Like in Yiddish lesson one, it shows you four words in Yiddish – a mahn, a mama, a behr, and a bahlon – and it asks, “Which one is the man?” And you can kind of figure it out, since each word has a cartoony picture next to it.
But then inevitably the difficulty rises, and various characters ask you to translate complicated English sentences starring words they forgot to teach and also they forgot to teach tense and article gender.
Anyway, my goal is to learn enough Yiddish that I can understand kol korehs. Or so I can understand what all these Yiddish robocalls are saying, and why they’re all yelling it. Over music.
Or maybe I’m doing it for business. I perform stand-up comedy on occasion, and I will never forget one such occasion, a couple of years back, which was a sheva brachos in Boro Park. I got up to speak, and as the baal simcha handed me the microphone, he whispered (a little too close to the mic), “Can you do it in Yiddish?”
So maybe I want to learn enough Yiddish so that the next time this comes up, I can mumble out some very simplistic sentences. I’m going to have to write an entire stand-up set about bears and balloons and mommas. And somehow tie it into sheva brachos.
In retrospect, I probably could have gotten away with doing the Whole thing in English with Yiddish pronouns and an accent. Because it turns out – and I’ve discovered this since I started learning Yiddish – that there are a few kinds of words in Yiddish:
- Words that are pretty much English words but with accents. This includes a surprising number of nouns.
- Words that are different from English, but most people in practical conversation use the English-sounding ones anyway.
- Words that have nothing to do with English, but sound close enough to English to mess us up. For example, apparently ver means Who, and vu means where. I’m also pretty sure that anyone Who says, “He’s sleeping by my house for Shabbos,” means the Yiddish word “by”, because the English word “by” means “next to.” Also, just because words are similar in Yiddish doesn’t mean they’re similar in English. As my aunt discovered when she was younger and she told a meshulach to come back later because, quote, “Mahn tatte is nisht in de hoyzen.”
So maybe the idea is to just, as I said, know some practical sentences we can use in case, we, say, have to spend Shabbos by the hoyzen of someone Who speaks Yiddish.
Anyway, I’ve been taking notes as I go, which is what you do when you learn things.
- Mahn, mama, behr, bahlon. I guess this is how they get people started, like “Hey, I know four words already! Wait, what does bahlon mean again?”
- The man in the picture is definitely Sikh. And now he’s giving me a Yiddish sentence to translate. I think the program in general doesn’t want you to assume the nationalities and religions of Who speaks which languages, but I mean Yiddish has it in the name.
- Thanks to lesson one, I can now say sentences like, “Mom, a balloon!” “Bear, a man!” and, “Momma Bear, a balloon man!” This is going to get me kicked out of Satmar.
- I now know how to say, “My momma is a dolphin in a pyramid in London.” This is going to come up a lot.
- And now the bear is asking me questions. I don’t know that it’s more effective to talk to a bear in Yiddish than to do so in English. Why is the bear wearing a scarf? He’s not wearing anything else. He also seems pretty grumpy. Like he’d rather be hibernating, but he has to stay up to teach me Yiddish.
- We’re very into describing what color everything is all of a sudden. “Your guitar is quite red.” “The table is brown and the bed is blue and the sofa is green.” How exciting. I’m just going to sit there with my host, describing what color everything is. They’re going to be so glad they invited me.
- I can also say, “My name is Mendl.” I cannot yet say, “My name is Mordechai,” but I’ll probably get there eventually. So far, I can either say that my name is Mendl, Gittel, or Shprintze.
- All of today’s sentences seem pretty convinced you’re going to spend a lot of time fighting over babka. Which is probably pretty accurate. “This is your babka.” “That is my babka.” “My babka was brown.” What if I like kokosh?
- I just learned my first new word, I think. I had no idea that tzimmer meant room. I thought it meant carrots.
- I just learned how to say, “Dahn vashtzimmer hut nisht kahn licht (Your bathroom has no lights).” Finally, a useful sentence.
- Putting together what I know, I can probably now say, “Where is the bathroom?” Or possibly, “Who is the bathroom?”
- Little-known fact: Vashti was short for vashtzimmer.
- I can also say, “Your sofa is not here,” which I cannot see myself saying unless my host has gotten robbed and doesn’t realize it.
- “Gittel, you are a woman. You are in Yerushalayim.” Practical situation? Gittel has amnesia, and no one Who actually speaks Yiddish is available to help her.
- “Bist di alt? (Are you old?)” Practical situation: You want to get punched.
- “Vi alt is dus ai? (How old is this egg?)” Practical situation: Another sentence you want to use to make your hosts glad they agreed to have you.
- A lot of the recent sentences are very critical. I just learned how to say, “Dahn hoyz hut fir gitarin ind nisht kayn betten. (Your house has four guitars and no beds.)”
- I’ve learned that there are two kinds of flowers: royzin and bleemen. There is nothing else.
- Another new word: Benkelach are chairs. Not small banks. Though it does sound like what an incredibly loaded person would say: “Yeah, I own a few Benkelach.”
- Okay, now there are a million questions about which chair is yours and which chair is mine but which chair is mine and which chair is yours and which chair is yours and which chair is mine. Look, I don’t care; just sit down. Everyone’s staring at this point.
- I can now say, “Dus kind is nisht mahns. (This kid is not mine.)” And also, “Dus kind is nisht dahns? (This kid is not yours?)” These will come in real handy if we go to the park.
- Today I learned how to say, “Ich hub tzee veinik ketz (I have too few cats),” “Der fish shtinkt (The fish stinks),” and “Zei essen alla mana bleemen (They eat all my flowers).” I think I’m in too deep.
Anyway, that’s as far as I’ve gotten. It’s hard to make too much progress in one day, because every five questions, there’s a Whole siyum where the owl dances with characters of various nationalities such as the Sikh guy and the surprisingly spry Asian Bubby, but for some reason never the angry bear; or he’s off having adventures in space, while you’re sitting at home staring at your device memorizing how to say, “Ich ken nisht gut tantzen (I can’t dance well.)” Which is another practical sentence. And then every tenth question there are ads, followed by the program trying to sell you a premium version that doesn’t have ads, which they would not bother doing if they knew their Yiddish-learning audience.
At this rate, I’m never going to learn enough Yiddish to have a normal conversation that will not cause people to re-evaluate letting me into their home.
“Azoi… Vi alt iz dayn momma?”