There are two primary Jewish textual wells that Yiddish culture draws on with great regularity: the Talmud (and the larger Rabbinic tradition) and the Bible. The buckets are pulled up and the Yiddish imagination is watered. I want to focus on one small but noticeable aspect of the Biblical well. These were texts that were read — or listened to — continuously throughout the year, whether they were fully understood or not. One would be surprised if individual words and names didn’t get assimilated into the language. Sometimes, however, the “word” that gets carried across to its new linguistic home wasn’t a discrete bit of vocabulary, but a verb form, with all its grammatical affixes. The most familiar example would be “táshlikh” (literally, “and you shall cast”) as the name for the ceremony performed during Rosh ha-Shanah of symbolically casting ones sins, represented by crumbs, into a body of water. The word is taken from the Biblical verse recited at the ceremony: “And you shall cast all their sins into the depth of the sea” (Micah 7:19).
One of the things to note is how, as with much of the Biblical corpus, it often comes into Yiddish with an ironic cast to it, or with a humorous deflation of that book’s otherwise elevated status. One can begin a story, for example, in a somewhat parodying vein with the phrase “vayhí hayóym.” This phrase, which means “one day…” or “once it came to pass…,” appears several times in the Bible. Notably among these appearances, it occurs three times in the first two chapters of Job. Early on in that book, and in short order, Job suffers terrible losses that try his faith. It is likely because of that that a “vayhí” in Yiddish can mean a calamity.
In Exodus (12:8) the Bible speaks of the children of Israel on their exodus: “They will eat the meat that night, roasted on the fire, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they will eat it.” This last “they will eat it” is rendered in Yiddish as “yokhluhú.” It is a passage which also forms part of the Passover Haggadah, the kind of liturgical reinforcement that can make a Biblical verse stick. This word is how a merchant, for example, might talk of a financial deal having gone poof! and disappeared, devoured by chance and circumstance. Sometimes, however, it needn’t have a humorous complexion. Again from the exodus story, several times the children of Israel were described as crying out to God. Yiddish “vayitsáku” (literally, “and they cried out”) can simple mean an outcry. “Mákhn a vayitsáku” therefore means to make a hue and cry.
“Vayisróytsetsu” (literally, “and they struggled”) refers to Genesis (25:22) and the struggling of Jacob and Esau in Rebecca’s womb. The Yiddish word comes to mean a dispute. “Yirgózn” (literally “they quake”) comes from the trembling of the peoples at God’s devastating might (Exodus 15:14), but in Yiddish it comes to be a rather elevated way of referring to a great anger, as in trembling with rage. A similar kind of extension of meaning is the word “yevorékhekho” (literally, “he will bless you”), which appears in quite a few places in the Bible. In Yiddish, a “yevorékhekho” is a verbal thrashing, when a person just lays into someone with imprecations.
A form which exists in West Yiddish (that is, the dialect of Yiddish of Jews that remained in Germany as opposed to moving eastward into Slavic-speaking places) and which may occur in East Yiddish, though I haven’t encountered it, is “típol” or “típl” (literally, “and she fell”) in the meaning of epilepsy. There is another form, “vayívrekh” (literally, “and he fled”; Genesis 31:21), which occurs in both East and West Yiddish in “makhn vayívrekh,” meaning to flee or run away. It is from West Yiddish that it likely entered the German thieves’ cant (Gaunersprache) in exactly that meaning, though encountered in slightly different forms (fiwrach, fiberach, fiewerach, among others).
One of my favorite such verbal borrowings is from Song of Songs (which forms part of the Sabbath liturgy of Passover) where we read “Let him kiss me [yishokéyni] with the kisses of his mouth” (1:2). The word has entered into a, shall we say, lower stratum of the spoken language meaning a rather vulgar “buzz off.” (Who is supposed to be kissing whom and where is left completely up to the imagination.) “Ikh zog im yishokéyni” (literally, “I tell him yishokéyni”) means I’m giving him the old heave-ho.
But far from sending my loyal readers packing, I hope you have a lovely start of the summer. And as always, “léyent gezúnterhéyt”—read it in good health.
Please send Yiddish questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org