My Yiddish is returning in my old age—although I never knew it much in the first place. Growing up, I understood enough Yiddish to realize that my mother was talking about me to one of her sisters or that she was discussing something that my youthful ears weren’t supposed to hear. I could usually get a good idea of the subject matter with the handful of words I knew.
But as I became an adult, began my career (where the Jew to gentile ratio has always been about 5:250), and traveled to far-away places, my vocabulary didn’t include Yiddish words beyond schlep.
In later life, I married for the second time, and my current and, I hope, forever husband is a Protestant, with no particular denomination affiliation. That means he’s a WASP and has little experience with a boisterous ethnic group. His relatives are lovely people, intelligent and sufficiently irreverent that we have a great deal in common and get along well. By now, my husband has become used to the in-your-face aspect of my family and Jewish friends. He enjoys it, or so he says.
What does this have to do with the return of my little-used Yiddish? As soon as I married him, I began to think in terms of the most colorful Yiddish words. Sometimes words pop out of my mouth unintentionally, when I haven’t thought about them in decades. Other times, they come to mind, but it's when I’m talking with non-Jewish acquaintances, so I’m forced to search for another word. But Yiddish words and expressions hit the mark like no others. Doesn’t farmisht describe the situation so much better than confused? And there’s no better way to reject something than by crossly uttering feh!
Recently, these words came to mind in place of their common—and expected—English ones:
• Mishegas when something is crazy, mixed up, especially when considering someone else’s emotional baggage.
• Nu, when waiting for an answer (instead of So?)
• Shpilkes, when I try to describe the driver who can’t stay in one lane for more than two seconds and has to weave in and out to get one car length ahead. He can’t sit still!
• Geshrey, when plain old scream doesn’t describe the sound that comes from the depth of the soul.
My husband likes to hear Yiddish words and learn what they mean. But when he tries to repeat one, he mispronounces it. I haven’t found many non-Jews who can say kvetch (to complain) in one syllable. Try it. Ask a non-Jewish friend or colleague (preferably one who hasn’t spent years surrounded by Jews) to say the word. It’s usually “ka-vetch.” Most can’t figure out how the k and v sounds can come out as one.
*Fershtay? It means “Do you understand?” It’s just not the same, is it?