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Monday, March 1, 2010

Norman Lear needs to brush up on his Yiddish

It’s no secret that Yiddish often suffers from a lack of prestige. One of the many signs of this lack of prestige is that it is often not taken seriously, or to be a real language at all. (Now is that a symptom or a cause? We could get into a whole chicken and egg dilemma here). Among the strangest ways in which people show their lack of respect for Yiddish is by quoting a Yiddish word or phrase, completely bungling its meaning and then using said word or phrase to prove some exoteric point that has absolutely nothing to do with the word or phrase they’ve attempted (and failed) to quote. Some would argue that this shows not a lack of prestige, but a respect for and a desire to use what little they know of the language in order to make themselves look more intelligent, cultured, in touch with their routes or “heymish” (which means “home-like” and not “Jewish soul food” as I once saw someone write!) But I’d argue that the very fact that someone would quote a Yiddish word or phrase and not double check the correctness of their usage shows that the language is not taken seriously. Could you imagine someone quoting and entirely mistranslating a Spanish, Japanese or German phrase in a newspaper? No self-respecting writer would do it. But Yiddish….. And if the language is not taken seriously, how can it be respected?

Enter Norman Lear and what might be the single most imaginative bungling of a Yiddish word I’ve encountered yet. Writing in the Washington Post section “On Faith”, Mr. Lear describes his own (generally humanistic) religious views and bemoans the fact that there are (in his opinion) no churches for people like himself. He then describes (and I kid you not) the world as it would be if everyone lived his or her every action according to the principles that Jesus would want them to. Lear continues, "that is "mamaloshen," a Yiddish word describing the understanding that comes when one's common sense derives as much from the soul as the mind.” Mamaloshen, of course, means nothing of the sort and the word’s derivation and meaning are quite easy for anyone to work out for themselves. Mama (it should be “mame”) means mother, loshn is a Yiddish and Hebrew word for language. Hence, “mamaloshen” is the Yiddish word for “mother-tongue.” Mame-loshn is a word that is most often used to refer to the Yiddish language itself. Hence the phrase “redstu mame-loshn” (do you speak Yiddish, literally “do you speak the mother tongue?”).

Of course, nearly every person who does speak Yiddish (or Lear’s “mamaloshen”) as their mother tongue is not measuring their every move based on what Jesus would have wanted them to do. Yiddish after all is a Jewish language and one that today is mostly spoken by very religious Jews (btw they’d refer to themselves as “heymishe yidn”, which again has nothing to do with “Jewish soul-food”!) That’s not to say that Lear’s main point, that most things considered right by most religions overlap is not true. He’s right of course. And judging from the Jewish roots of Christianity it shouldn’t surprise anyone that most things done by religious Jews would follow Jesus’ teachings. That’s because Jesus himself was mostly following Jewish religious tradition. It’s just that the use of a misunderstood (reinvented?) Yiddish word to explain the logic behind Jesus’ teachings is particularly strange and in my experience, completely new.

Now to set the record straight I have nothing against Norman Lear or most of the people who bungle Yiddish words in order to make an esoteric point (ok it does annoy me). I just wished they’d brush up on their Yiddish before doing so. With that in mind Mr. Lear, if you end up reading this (a blogger can dream right?), please contact Yugntruf Youth for Yiddish and we’ll check your Yiddish words or phrases for your next articles.

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