Say It In Yiddish



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Michael Chabon told us that The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (246-6080) was offended by this piece when it was first published in Civilization Magazine (Harper’s reprinted it, too, and you can find it and a lot of other Chabon related stuff on his website,

This seemed sufficiently peculiar that we called them up to ask why. But no one knew what we were talking about. Still, if Chabon says they were offended, we believe him. And so the question, to which we have no answer at the moment, is why?

Probably the saddest book that I own is a copy of Say It In Yiddish, edited by Uriel and Beatrice Weinreich, and published by Dover. I got it new, in 1993, but the book was originally brought out in 1958. It’s part of a series, according to the back cover, with which I’m otherwise unfamiliar, the Dover “Say It” books. I’ve never seen Say It In Swahili, Say It In Hindi, or Say It In Serbo-Croatian, nor have I ever been to any of the countries where one of them might come in handy. As for the country in which I’d do well to have a copy of Say It In Yiddish in my pocket, naturally I’ve never been there either. I don’t believe that anyone has.

When I first came across Say It In Yiddish, , on a shelf in a big chain store in Orange County, California, I couldn’t quite believe that it was real. There was only one copy of it, buried in the languages section at the bottom of the alphabet. It was like a book in a story by J. L Borges, unique, inexplicable, possibly a hoax. The first thing that really struck me about it was, paradoxically, its unremarkableness, the conventional terms with which Say It In Yiddish advertises itself on its cover. “No other PHRASE BOOK FOR TRAVELLERS,” it claims, “contains all these essential features.” It boasts of “Over 1,600 up-to-date practical entries” (up-to-date!), “easy pronunciation transcription,” and a “sturdy binding–pages will not fall out.”

Inside, Say It In Yiddish delivers admirably on all the bland promises made by the cover. Virtually every eventuality, calamity, chance or circumstance, apart from the amorous, that could possibly befall the traveller is covered, under general rubrics like “Shopping,” “Barber Shop and Beauty Parlor,” “Appetizers,” “Difficulties,” with each of the over sixteen hundred up-to-date practical entries numbered, from 1, “yes,” to 1611, “the zipper,” a tongue-twister Say It In Yiddish renders, in roman letters, as BLITS-shleh-s’l. There are words and phrases to get the traveler through a visit to the post office to buy stamps in Yiddish, and through a visit to the doctor to take care of that krahmpf (1317) after one has eaten too much of the LEH-ber mit TSIB-eh-less (620) served at the cheap res-taw-RAHN (495) just down the EH-veh-new (197) from one’s haw-TEL (103).

One possible explanation of at least part of the absurd poignance of Say It In Yiddish presents itself: that its list of words and phrases is standard throughout the “Say It” series. Once we accept the proposition of a modern Yiddish phrase book, Yidish versions of such phrases as “Where can I get a social security card?” and “Can you help me jack up the car?”, taken in the context of the book’s part of a uniform series, become more understandable. But an examination of the specific examples chosen for inclusion under the various, presumably standard, rubrics reveals that the Weinreichs have indeed served as editors here, considering their supposedly useful phrases with care, selecting, for example, to give Yiddish translations for the English names of the following foods, none of them very likely to be found under “Food” in the Swahili, Japanese, or Malay books in the series: stuffed cabbage, kreplach, blintzes, matzo, lox, corned beef, herring, kugel, tsimmis, and schav. The fact that most of these words do not seem to require much work to get them into Yiddish suggests that Say It In Yiddish has been edited with a particular kind of reader in mind, the reader who is traveling, or plans to travel, to a very particular kind of place, a place where one can expect to find both ahn OON-tehr-bahn (subway) and geh-FIL-teh FISH.”

What were they thinking, the Weinreichs? Was the original 1958 Dover edition simply the reprint of some earlier, less heartbreakingly implausible book? At what time in the history of the world was there a place of the kind that the Weinreichs imply, a place where not only the doctors and waiters and trolley conductors spoke Yiddish, but also the airline clerks, travel agents, ferry captains, and casino employees? A place where you could rent a summer home from Yiddish speakers, go to a Yiddish movie, get a finger wave from a Yiddish-speaking hairstylist, a shoeshine from a Yiddish-speaking shineboy, and then have your dental bridge repaired by a Yiddish-speaking dentist? If, as seems likelier, the book first saw light in 1958, a full ten years after the founding of the country that turned its back once and for all on the Yiddish language, condemning it to watch the last of its native speakers die one by one in a headlong race for extinction with the twentieth century itself, then the tragic dimension of the joke looms larger, and makes the Weinreichs’ intention even harder to divine. It seems an entirely futile effort on the part of its authors, a gesture of embittered hope, of valedictory daydreaming, of a utopian impulse turned cruel and ironic.

The Weinreichs have laid out, with numerical precision, the outlines of a world, of a fantastic land in which it would behoove you to know how to say, in Yiddish,

250. What is the flight number?

1372. I need something for a tourniquet.

1379. Here is my identification.

254. Can I go by boat/ferry to—-?

The blank in the last of those phrases, impossible to fill in, tantalizes me. Whither could I sail on that boat/ferry, in the solicitous company of Uriel and Beatrice Weinreich, and from what shore?

I dream of two possible destinations. The first might be a modern independent state very closely analogous to the State of Israel–call it the State of Yisroel–a postwar Jewish homeland created during a time of moral emergency, located presumably, but not necessarily, in Palestine; it could be in Alaska, or on Madagascar. Here, perhaps, that minority faction of the Zionist movement who favored the establishment of Yiddish as the national language of the Jews were able to prevail over their more numerous Hebraist opponents. There is Yiddish on the money, of which the basic unit is the herzl, or the dollar, or even the zloty. There are Yiddish color commentators for soccer games, Yiddish-speaking cash machines, Yiddish tags on the collars of dogs. Public debate, private discourse, joking and lamentation, all are conducted not in a new-old, partly artificial language like Hebrew, a prefabricated skyscraper still under construction, with only the lowermost of its stories as yet inhabited by the generations, but in a tumbledown old palace capable in the smallest of its stones (the word nu) of expressing slyness, tenderness, derision, romance, disputation, hopefulness, skepticism, sorrow, a lascivious impulse, or the confirmation of one’s worst fears.

The implications of this change in the official language of the “Jewish homeland,” a change which, depending on your view of human character and its underpinnings, is either minor or fundamental, are difficult to sort out. I can’t help thinking that such a nation, speaking its essentially European tongue, would, in the Middle East, stick out among its neighbors to an even greater degree than Israel does now. But would the Jews of a Mediterranean Yisroel be impugned and admired for having the same kind of character that Israelis, rightly or wrongly, are widely taken to have, the classic sabra personality: rude, scrappy, loud, tough, secular, hard-headed, cagey, pushy? Is it living in a near-permanent state of war, or is it the Hebrew language, or something else, that has made Israeli humor so dark, so barbed, so cynical, so untranslatable? Perhaps this Yisroel, like its cognate in our own world, has the potential to seem a frightening, even a harrowing place, as the following sequence, from the section on “Difficulties,” seems to imply:

109. What is the matter here?

110. What am I to do?

112. They are bothering me.

113. Go away.

114. I will call a policeman.

I can imagine another Yisroel, the youngest nation on the North American continent, founded in the former Alaska Territory during World War II as a resettlement zone for the Jews of Europe. (For a brief while, I once read, Franklin Roosevelt was nearly sold on such a plan.) Perhaps after the war, in this Yisroel, the millions of immigrant Polish, Rumanian, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Austrian, Czech and German Jews held a referendum, and chose independence over proferred statehood in the U.S. The resulting country is obviously a far different place than Israel. It is a cold, northern land of furs, paprika, samovars and one long, glorious day of summer. The portraits on those postage stamps we buy are of Walter Benjamin, Simon Dubnow, Janusz Korczak, and of a hundred Jews unknown to us, whose greatness was allowed to flower only here, in this world. It would be absurd to speak Hebrew, that tongue of spikenard and almonds, in such a place. This Yisroel–or maybe it would be called Alyeska–is a kind of Jewish Sweden, social-democratic, resource rich, prosperous, organizationally and temperamentally far more akin to its immediate neighbor, Canada, then to its more freewheeling benefactor far to the south. Perhaps, indeed, there has been some conflict, in the years since independence, between the United States and Alyeska. Perhaps oilfields have been seized, fishing vessels boarded. Perhaps not all of the native peoples were happy with the outcome of Roosevelt’s humanitarian policies and the treaty of 1948.” Lately there may have been a few problems assimilating the Jews of Quebec, in flight from the ongoing separatist battles there.

This country of the Weinreichs is in the nature of a wistful fantasyland, a toy theater with miniature sets and furnishings to arrange and rearrange, painted backdrops on which the gleaming lineaments of a snowy Jewish Onhava can be glimpsed, all its grief concealed behind the scrim, hidden in the machinery of the loft, sealed up beneath trap doors in the floorboards. But grief haunts every mile of that other destination to which the Weinreichs beckon, unwittingly perhaps but in all the awful detail that Dover’s “Say It” series requires. Grief hand-colors all the postcards, stamps the passports, sours the cooking, fills the luggage. It keens all night in the pipes of old hotels. The Weinreichs are taking us home, to the “old country.” To Europe.

In this Europe the millions of Jews who were never killed produced grand-children, and great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren. The countryside retains large pockets of country people whose first language is still Yiddish, and in the cities there are many more for whom Yiddish is the language of kitchen and family, of theater and poetry and scholarship. A surprisingly large number of these people are my relations. I can go visit them, the way Irish Americans I know are always visiting second and third cousins in Galway or Cork, sleeping in their strange beds, eating their strange food, and looking just like them. Imagine. Perhaps one of my cousins might take me to visit the house where my father’s mother was born, or to the school in Vilna that my grandfather’s grandfather attended with the boy Abraham Cahan. For my relatives, though they will doubtless know at least some English, I will want to trot out a few appropriate Yiddish phrases, more than anything as a way of reestablishing the tenuous connection between us; in this world Yiddish is not, as it is in ours, a tin can with no tin can on the other end of the string. Here, though I can get by without them, I will be glad to have the Weinreichs along. Who knows but that visting some remote Polish backwater I may be compelled to visit a dentist to whom I will want to cry out, having found the appropriate number (1447), eer TOOT meer VAY!

What is this Europe like, with its twenty-five, thirty, or thirty-five million Jews? Are they tolerated, despised, ignored by, or merely indistinguishable from their fellow modern Europeans? What is the world like, never having felt the need to create an Israel, that hard bit of grit in the socket that hinges Africa to Asia?

What does it mean to originate from a place, from a world, from a culture that no longer exists, and from a language that may die in this generation? What phrases would I need to know in order to speak to those millions of unborn phantoms to whom I belong?

Just what am I supposed to do with this book?

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§ 5 Responses to “Say It In Yiddish”

  • Spencer says:

    It’s odd that anyone would take offense at this. I think that the reason the “say it in” approach works with this is because it’s not just a language, but a culture, a lifestyle, and history and a people that it references.

  • Bill says:

    I think the offense taken is Chabon’s implication that Yiddish is completely dead, and that therefore the Weinreichs were being foolish, both of which are far from the truth. Yes, it’s an odd book. Yiddish is spoken now, and used in life and business (there are still ATMs that serve in Yiddish).

    Yiddish continues to hold on in the haredi community. Judging by the recent study of New York Jewry, it’s fairly likely that in a century’s time, the majority of Jews will be “ultraorthodox.” So who’s to say that at that time, most Jews will be fluent?

  • Dave says:

    In 1958, when the phrase book was written, Yiddish was still widely spoken in immigrant communities in many countries, as well as by many Jews in the Soviet Union who had survived the Holocaust. If you were speaking to someone in Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv or Paris that you knew to be Jewish (and Ashkenazi), it would have been quite reasonable to ask any question, even “What is my flight number?” in Yiddish.

    But when and where could you have, say, gotten an ID card in Yiddish, sent mail addressed in Yiddish, pleaded a case before a court of law in Yiddish, or taken university physics courses in Yiddish?

    Strangely, there is an answer to this question: Byelorussia during the period from 1920 to 1935. (Stalin decided to put an end to it all before the war, so I must admit that this was no longer possible in 1958.) This is detailed in the book “Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk” by Elissa Bemporad.

    For some surprising visual evidence, check out this page in Russian.

    At that time, about 40% of the population of Minsk was Jewish. You’ll see that the entrance sign to Minsk State University was in two languages – Byelorussian and Yiddish, as was the library stamp at that university. The central train station in Minsk had the name of the city written in all four official languages of Byelorussia – Byelorussian, Russian, Polish and Yiddish. Likewise, the coat of arms of Byelorussia had the motto “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” written in all four languages.

    Bemporad also wrote an article about this period which can be read for free online:

  • Kyt says:

    Yiddish phrase books may not be as useful as say for example, a German phrase book for most of Germany. But I can assure you, that if you do not speak the native language of the country you are in, often, Yiddish will work among Jews. I found this out the hard way, when I ran into Russian Jews. My Russian consisted of 6 words (Yes, No, Thank you, Home, Journey), their English consisted of around 3 words, (Hello, Yes, No). No very useful for a Jewish debate, let alone finding hidden Jewish places of interest – restaurants, shops – that cater to Jews. Where was I? In the United States, in a city that was not known for is Hasidim. And yet, Yiddish would have been very useful.

  • Norman Green says:

    I only speak a smattering of Yiddish but know people who converse in it easily when given an appropriate opportunity. I can remember shopping at a bakery or deli in Yiddish with my grandmother. And about 20 years ago, my son was working on a school project with a friend from the USSR. His mother spoke virtually no English; I speak almost no Russian. But when she called to ask for him, she and I were able to have a conversation, about 4 sentences by each of us, in which I promised that we would feed him supper and bring him home and that he was a fine young man. I believe we both reached the limits of our ability in Yiddish in that brief talk. When I went to tell Pavel that I had spoken with his mother, he insisted that it was not possible. But when I told him we had spoken in Yiddish, he relented, for he knew that she spoke a little of it. Yiddish remains a superior language, and I expect that we all will speak it when the Messiah comes.

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