An MCCC professor discusses the origin of Yiddish expressions in American culture

A professor from Monroe County Community College hosted a presentation on some of the common Yiddish words and phrases that have made their way into everyday American English.

Michelle Toll, Assistant Professor of English at MCCC, recently presented “Yiddish Words and Phrases in American Culture” via Zoom. Many MCCC staff and faculty, as well as members of the community, attended the session.

Toll began the session by noting that May is Jewish American Heritage Month. She also noted that there are very few — about a quarter of a million — Yiddish speakers in the United States today, most of them Hasidic Jews living on the East Coast.

She added that Yiddish should not be confused with the religious Hebrew language, although the two languages ​​share similarities.

“Yiddish is a secular language, although it was mostly spoken by Jews,” Toll said. “It was not the language of prayer and religious texts. It was for everyday use. »

MCCC President Kojo Quartey asked how big the differences were between Hebrew and Yiddish. Toll replied that a Hebrew speaker would not understand a Yiddish speaker except for a few scattered words.

Toll explained that although the language is written with Hebrew characters, its main influences come from European roots. For example, German and Yiddish have a common root language, and Yiddish followed various expulsions and migrations of Jews throughout the Middle Ages.

Toll explained that there were three main Jewish diasporas that moved around the world through the ages – the Ashkenazim settled mainly in Eastern Europe and were the most Yiddish-speaking group.

Toll said that while Yiddish has a lot of Germanic grammar, there are also influences from other Romantic languages, from the Ashkenazic movement across Europe over the years.

The lesson then moved to the sounds of the Yiddish language. She played a clip from the Netflix show “Shtisel,” which featured characters speaking to each other in Yiddish. This highlighted the similarity of sound with the German language.

Toll said Yiddish was once a widely spoken language, but has declined significantly over the years. She said that before the Holocaust there were approximately 11 to 13 million Yiddish speakers in the world. About 85% of those who died in the Holocaust spoke Yiddish.

Throughout American history, groups of Jewish immigrants have brought the language with them. Toll said this resulted in Yiddish publications such as New York’s The Morning Journal, which ran from 1901 to 1971.

The second half of the session focused primarily on examples of Yiddish phrases commonly used in everyday America. However, Toll first explained that it is important to remember that Yiddish words and phrases have both denotative and connotative meanings, just like English. For example, “shmate” is literally defined as a torn rag or piece of clothing. However, the same word is sometimes used to describe a child’s “blankie”.

“Mensch” is another example. The word comes from the same German word, which simply refers to a man. However, in Yiddish it describes a person of integrity.

Other examples of common Yiddish words Americans know today include “shlep”, “shtick”, “chutzpah”, “schmooze”, and “nosh”.

Yiddish also has words that have no direct translation into English. For example, “machetunim” is a word that describes (plural) a child’s stepmother and stepfather.

“We don’t have a word for it,” Toll explained. “That’s a very useful word.”

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