Here’s looking at you, Yiddish

The continuing joys of Yiddish

2 minute read

Kvell is a Yiddish word that ought to be better known: Like chutzpah and kibitz, it would add richness and color to English. Leo Rosten, in his classic The Joys of Yiddish, defines kvell as “to beam with immense pride and pleasure.”

It comes, like so many Yiddish words, from the German — kvellin, to gush or swell. Parents and grandparents from all religions and cultures are specialists in kvelling; they’ve been kvelling over their children and grandchildren since there have been children and grandchildren.

While Jews have prayed in Hebrew for a thousand years, Yiddish was the lingua franca of the Jews in Central and Eastern Europe: On the eve of World War II, 11 million people spoke it. These European Jews also spoke the language of the region in which they lived (German, Italian, Polish, Russian), but the language of the home, the language of the heart, the language of Jewish theater and literature was Yiddish.

That European world, of course, was destroyed by Hitler. Even today, though, people the world over still speak Yiddish. Here in the United States, not many speak it as fluently as our parents or grandparents did, but most North American Jews know a smattering.

That schlemiel is no rocket scientist

Supposedly in the 1970s Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Yiddish author and Nobel Prize recipient, ironically observed that while Yiddish had no word for “rocket ship,” there were countless ways to call someone an idiot. (Schlemiel, schnook, shlub, nebbish.) May kvell join that distinguished list of Yiddish words — such as schlep and kvetch and shtick — that are now part of the English lexicon, used every day by Jews and non-Jews alike.

Yiddish pops up in the darnedest places. Many years ago, the story goes, a gentile in Texas shouted at his coworkers, “Someone please turn on the air conditioning. I’m schvitzing to death here.” That comes from the Yiddish verb schvitz, to sweat. But schvitz can also be used as a noun, signifying a visit to a steam bath. In the 1960s, when I was in my 20s, I used to go with my buddies to Center City to the Camac or Broadwood, both long gone. We’d play basketball, the older guys played handball, and the real old or the real fat guys, naked and wrapped in towels like Roman senators, many of them smoking cigars, played gin rummy. Then we’d all end up schvitzing in the schvitz.

I love the sound of Yiddish, the memories it evokes, and the people who created it. And I hope you’ll have something to kvell about today — and every day.

What, When, Where

In the Philadelphia area, you can learn Yiddish at Gratz College.

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