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Yiddish is no laughing matter

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At the 2012 Ashkenaz Festival Parade created by Shadowland Theatre. RACHEL ROSENBLUTH PHOTO

Next month, Canada becomes the global centre of Yiddish culture for a few weeks with the KlezKanada retreat in the Laurentians and the massive Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto. These first-class celebrations of Yiddish culture stand in stark contrast to a widespread phenomenon of diminishing the language as a lovable joke.

I have been at several Jewish gatherings lately where all present laughed heartily at the mere mention of Yiddish words, although neither the circumstances nor the setting was comedic. The topic of discussion was simply Yiddish words and their meanings. Observing these situations, together with various online quizzes designed to amuse by testing Yiddish savvy with a list of bawdy words peppered with “Yinglish,” left me wondering: “What’s everyone laughing at when they laugh at Yiddish?”

The editors of the Yiddish studies journal, In geveb, Diana Clarke and Saul Noam Zaritt, partly addressed this question in response to a viral video from the Fiddler on the Roof Broadway opening with guests attempting to define Yiddish words. The editors acknowledge that the “pop-cultural Yiddish counterlife within American slang” has a large effect on the perception of Yiddish in broader society, but assert that “for those who study the histories and genealogies of the language, Yiddish is not inherently funny, nor can it be reduced to a set of vulgar phrases and guttural sounds.”

Considering the source of this humour, they discuss the legacy of Yiddish in American entertainment. They also reference language psychologist Chris Westbury describing English speakers’ tendency to laugh when their expectations for common sounds in language are transgressed.

While these insights are valuable, highlighting the place of Yiddish in comedy and the way English speakers react to unusual combinations of syllables doesn’t clarify the whole picture, especially when most Jewish English speakers are exposed from infancy to the sounds of Yiddish.

As a prominent lecturer about Yiddish, best-selling author, Michael Wex (whose latest book, Rhapsody in Schmaltz, is about Yiddish food) is very familiar with the chuckles prompted by uttering the mamaloshen.

I asked Wex about what causes this laughter. “Putting Yiddish words into English when they shouldn’t be there is an easy way of getting a laugh. It reminds people that there’s this other side of us – there’s something there that makes us different from everyone else. Sometimes that laugh is coming out of the feeling that the joke’s on us. People are ashamed of the fact that they don’t actually know the language or the culture.”

Laughing, then, is a response to the familial comfort of the few words one does know – even mispronounced and misused – as well as to the deep discomfort of not knowing much at all. Wex noted that Jews are unfamiliar with the “high-class” side of Yiddish. Yiddish-speaking immigrants to North America had a very low-class standing socially, and Yiddish was thus viewed by many as “naïve but common-sensical with an earthy wisdom of its own.”

We’ve attached to Yiddish the patronizing bemusement afforded a simpleton or a senile zayde with whom the language has become so associated. Discomfort seems to me a gentle word for deep-seated antipathy attached to Yiddish. In part, when Jews prod at the essence of the language, equating it as fundamentally funny, we reveal how we’ve internalized the messages of those who denigrated Yiddish culture as debased.

The humour, which has come to characterize contemporary Jews, needn’t be discarded, but it’s worth noticing where the laughter stems from. Is the joke at the expense of our own self-worth? Is the chuckle actually a pained reaction to the rather unfunny tides of assimilation? Clark and Zaritt conclude: “Jokes can be made in Yiddish, but Yiddish itself is not the joke.”

We can’t return to a Jewish reality peopled with Yiddish speakers. But we can refuse to subsist on a diet of shpilkes and shlemiels alone. One can get a taste at KlezKanada and the Ashkenaz Festival of the very complex flavours that Yiddish culture has stewed for over 1,000 years – seasoned with intellectual insight, philosophical inquiry, poetic prose, revolutionary zeal and so much more. n

Evelyn Tauben is a producer, curator and writer in Toronto.