When I was young, I had a friend whose father but not mother was Jewish; thus, by the rabbinic rule, he was not Jewish; he was raised Methodist. But from his father he knew a lot about the Jewish ways. One thing I remember him saying was that Yiddish was basically a slang German that allowed Jews to insult the people of their host county without being discovered. I’ve quoted that for the last couple decades, but wanted to know more, and confirm it. So it was with interest that I saw a display case full of copies of a book that give as much information on Yiddish as anyone could wish short of actually learning it.
The full title information is: Michael Wex. Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of its Moods (St. Martin’s Press, 2005). In the following, page number references are given in parentheses.
The language is built from German (15), plus words and phraseology from the Romance and Slavic languages, as well as Hebrew or Aramaic (15ff; 24ff). There are also a number of dialects (47ff).
A Yid is a Jew, and yiddish is contrasted with goyish as Jewish and Gentilic, or better: like a Jew, versus like a non-Jew (17). However, “unless otherwise specified, a goy is usually assumed to be a Christian” (18).
A Jewess would not be called a Yid, but rather, a yidishe tokhter (cf. Ger. jüdische Tochter = Jewish daughter) or yidish kind (jüdisches Kind = Jewish child) (65). [In this we can see an exemplar of a general delicacy on the street toward applying ethnic terms in bare form to females: I can’t imagine any woman being called a dego, wop, mic, honky, or nigger. This fact itself will be worthy of further exploration another day.]
Wex highlights pain and longing as the common factor creating the dynamic of yiddish. This led to a common ethnic tendency to kvetsh, or complain: hence, the title of the book. The original kvetsh was in Ex. 14:11-12, when the Israelites were for a moment trapped against the Red Sea: “And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (3). Continuing in the OT, prophecy, Wex says, was an ongoing kvetch.
However, anchoring the tendency in the Bible must be regarded as a reading back into history, for Wex makes it crystal clear that Judaism has next to nothing to do with the Bible: “Judaism relates to the Bible only as it is refracted through the Talmud and the Talmudic way of thinking” (12).
Presumably following from this Talmudic view of the world, are a variety of themes embedded in the language.
Philosophy and sociology built into the language
- “Metaphysical realism” is claimed, in this form: that the name of something is not arbitrary, but part of its essence: a rose by another name would not be a rose. (99ff.)
- Demonology. There is a plethora of names for demons, gremlins, goblins, and devils (91ff.) This leads to a kind of linguist bribery to hold these spirits at bay, by a laconic habit of speech that gives the devil his due in order to make him go away. Thus, a sick child might be called “old man” to reduce the prize value in taking him. Similarly, the well-known custom of smashing the glass at the wedding is, according to Wex, a form of apotropaic, “to give the demons their due so they can leave.”
- The previous two themes lead to antiphrasis, or calling something by its opposite: as a funeral service listed in the directory as “matters pertaining to happy occasions” (104).
- In turn, these themes make it easier to understand Jewish superstitions about counting. An exact number would give the devil a chance to reduce the count. Thus, sometimes “non-counting” is done: not-1, not-2, not-3, not-4 (105).
- Likewise, we begin to understand the Jewish “niggardliness with compliments and pleasant remarks” (111). This too is tied to superstition.
Word clusters of the language
As one might expect, there are lots of words for money (154-158).
The food proscriptions which ratify the “difference between yidish and goyish, sacred and profane, proper and improper” (175) are especially extensive with respect to food. Treyf comes from references to beasts discovered with torn (Heb. taraph) flesh in Ex. 22:30 and Lev. 22:8; now it essentially means non-kosher.
There is an endlessly rich (or should we say: fetid) reserve of words for private parts (249ff).
A great number of words covering life from birth to death are explained by Wex with literary panache.
Here is the civic spirit of the Jew, according to Wex: “The yiddish tendency to rain on parades and deflate the expectations of others arises from a similar impulse to see everything sub specie aeternitatis and wonder if it’s good for the Jews.” (24) Note well: the category of the eternal is identified by Wex with, “what’s good for the Jews.” This is set in radical contrast to their regard for their hosts: “The Jews are not merely out of step with Christian civilization, they hold it in utter contempt” (24). Note well, that Jewish hatred is not merely religious (if merely is the right word) but extends to our entire culture as well.
The yid calls our women shikse. I used to naively think this was a cute variation of “chick,” but we learn far different from Wex.
The masculine form is shekets. Even an ignorant unobservant Jew could be called shekets; “how much more so, a gentile” (68). In Lev 11, the word to describe unclean animals is abomination in English, which translates the Hebrew shekets. This is what he is calling our women: lizards, unclean animals. “But that doesn’t mean that the gentile’s bestial daughters are lacking in animal magnetism” (68). [This raises the question: then in their hearts, is their fornication not properly to be placed sub specie bestialitatis?]
The religious posture
Yiddish is everything my friend said, only more so. It is actually explicitly based on blaspheming our Savior, according to Wex. “Yiddish started out as German for blasphemers, as a German in which you could deny Christ…” (21).
To say, in effect, “hogwash,” they mutter “nisht geshtoygn un nisht gefloygn” (he did not rise, he did not fly). In short, their denial of our Savior’s mighty work is an everyday grunt for them. Jesus, according to Wex, is “the bastard son of an unclean woman. Official Jewish opinion has nothing in common with, say, the Muslim view of Jesus as prophet.” (18) We need to look this fact hard in the face, especially in view of the American love-affair with the Jew. Wex does not mince any words:
Contrary to the usual ‘people of the Book’ shtik (the phrase, incidentally, comes from the Koran), Judaism is a Talmudic, not a biblical religion; without the interpretive guidance of the Talmud, the Hebrew Bible can lead to Jesus on the cross as easily as to me at my bar mitzvah. (11-12)
In other words, what’s the Savior of the world compared to me?
First, as a quick side note on the yiddish vulgarities: Many of these words have crept into current slang even by Christians, who obviously don’t know what they mean. At least, I hope they don’t know what they mean. For a recent example, skip to the bottom of this article. I wish all the Christian vulgaristas out there on the web would go down to Barnes and Noble and cop a read of chapter 12, as a step toward cleaning up their language by un-yiddishizing it.
Wex gives numerous examples of jokes and mannerisms by which the yid mocks and torments his hosts. Indeed, if Wex is right, it is hard to imagine a group of people more insufferably obnoxious: full of aggression, disdain, insult, blasphemy, sedition, corruption and arrogance. The pogroms of eastern Christendom come into a new and more sympathetic light, even if they cannot finally be justified.
Any one who, in contemplating the Prince of Peace, who was bruised for our iniquities, who willingly laid down his life that men might live, sneers something about “the skinny guy on the cross” (14), is surely an illustration of man in his totally depraved condition. Here, the Jew partakes in the wickedness of all men, but adds an aesthetic to the mix that is shocking and dehumanizing.
As Christians, we must of course love this stiff-necked people and pray for their Holy Spirit-induced conversion. But at the rhetorical level, this love must take on the tone of firm contradiction: the Antithesis must be pressed hard.
At the civic level, we need to make it clear that a people that behave this way have forfeited their right to dwell as a nation within a nation; let alone to be coddled and favored as is the case in modern America. Just to repeat one small aspect: a tribe that at once impurely lusts after our women and insults them, needs to be firmly confronted, if we would stand up and be men.