Commentary Magazine

In Praise of Yiddish, by Maurice Samuel

Language of Exile

In Praise of Yiddish.
by Maurice Samuel.
Cowles. 238 pp. $7.95.

Jews, it may be said, are cultural universalists par excellence; even when residing within their own linguistic jurisdictions—Yiddish in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe, Hebrew in present-day Israel—they have always been, and remain, avid consumers of the published products of Western civilization. Hence the enduring Jewish practice of translation. In Eastern Europe, this practically amounted to an industry as popular scientific and philosophical works, histories, political tracts, fiction, and what have you were rendered into Yiddish and traditional Hebrew for the edification of a reading public hungry for “enlightenment.” The tradition continues in Israel today, where translations from foreign languages account for about one-third of all adult books published. (It would seem that the contemporary reader in Israel has more in common, insofar as his cultural tastes are concerned, with a Jew in Poland of fifty years ago than with his counterpart in the United States, where translations constitute a mere 10 per cent of trade-book publication.) As for the Jews in the English-speaking Diaspora, translations are as much a requirement, but here a reverse process obtains. Jews in the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia have ready linguistic access to Western culture, but they are for the most part ignorant of the languages which contain their people’s religious texts, historical records, and literary creations. For such Jews translations from the Hebrew and the Yiddish are what is needed—and it is good to report that their number is increasing—in order to overcome the handicap of estrangement rather than insularity.

Hebrew, given its historic preeminence, to say nothing of its special sacred character, has of course enjoyed a longer tradition of translation than has Yiddish, a comparative newcomer to the family of Jewish languages. Moreover, Yiddish, for much of its history, was denigrated by the intelligentsia as the “jargon” of the masses and its literature regarded as unworthy of serious consideration, let alone translation. Indeed, it was not until 1898 that the first translation from Yiddish into English appeared, when Leo Wiener, professor of Slavic languages at Harvard, produced a prose rendition of Morris Rosenfeld’s sweatshop poems. Since that pioneering effort, the status of Yiddish literature has continued to rise, in generous measure owing to the accomplishments of Maurice Samuel, the dean of Yiddish translators, who, over the years, has been responsible for many excellent English translations of Yiddish works.

In Praise of Yiddish, Samuel’s new book, is a capstone to his career as translator and Jewish cultural mediator. It should prove a boon not only to those who wish to learn the art of translating from Yiddish, but also to all who would penetrate the real character of the language. Maurice Samuel’s special talent, to quote Robert Alter, has been “to explain a world alien to Western readers by locating it on cultural coordinates familiar to them.”1 This ability was displayed to striking effect in his now classic works, The World of Sholom Aleichem and Prince of the Ghetto, which have served to introduce generations of non-readers of Yiddish to the culture of East European Jewry. In the present work, Samuel continues in his role as cultural mediator, taking the reader into the inner laboratory of the language and unraveling a good many of the complexities peculiar to the development of Yiddish. For Yiddish, more than most languages, blends a variety of strains and cultures, and the resulting mix can often confound the would-be translator, as well as the student and the ordinary reader.

Through informal discourse, interspersed with apposite doses of history and folklore, etymology, and personal anecdote, Samuel sets himself the task of “convey[ing] to the English reader the inside feel of Yiddish.” The discussion opens with a description of the character of the Yiddish language. Yiddish, Samuel notes, is the goles (exile) language of the Jewish people, indeed, the most important of all exile languages, having endured longer than either Aramaic or Dzhudezmo (Judeo-Spanish)—thus far, for a thousand years—and having been spoken by more Jews at any one time than any other Jewish tongue; within living memory, before the near total destruction of East European Jewry, Yiddish was still the day-to-day language of over ten million Jews.

Yiddish, moreover, has embodied the migrations of its speakers over the centuries and thus is a repository of European Jewish civilization. The oldest stratum of the language, as Samuel indicates, is the Hebrew/Aramaic, associated largely, though not exclusively, with the sacred system of the Jewish community. The second layer, and the thinnest, derives from Old French and Old Italian, and here Samuel regales the reader with examples—for instance, tsholnt, the Sabbath dish of meat, potatoes, and beans, set in the oven on Friday and kept there until the Saturday meal, harks back, etymologically speaking, via Old French, to the Latin calens (“to be hot”) and is related to the French chaud and chaleur. Bentshn, the recitation of the blessing after meals, has its source, by way of Old Italian, in the Latin benedicere. Yente (Yiddish for a busybody, but also a respectable female name) originates, curiously enough, in the French gentille. The third stratum, and a very substantial one, is formed by German, specifically Middle High German, the language spoken in the Middle-Rhine basin in the 9th and 10th centuries. From that region Yiddish spread, over the following two hundred years, throughout the entire German-speaking territory, receiving a strong infusion from the various German dialects, but principally from the High German of Southern and Central Germany. By the middle of the 13th century the Yiddish orbit extended well beyond the Danube into the Slavic East, a development that had an indelible effect on the linguistic structure of Yiddish and contributed yet another important stratum to the language. Here, in the next 250 years, Yiddish was formed.



Yiddish, like most languages, is a product of the historical encounter of its speakers with different cultures and of the fusion of the linguistic components of those cultures. Yet, even after many centuries, the specific cultural origins of the components, or strata, of Yiddish remain distinguishable. Speaking of the Hebrew/Aramaic words and phrases that have found their way into Yiddish, Samuel remarks that they “are as fresh today as when they were minted.” That is partly because Yiddish itself has evolved distinctive signals whereby the various components announce their identity. For instance, written Yiddish retains the original spellings of its Hebrew/Aramaic component and, as Roman Jakobson has pointed out, spoken Yiddish has assigned a penultimate stress to words of Hebrew origin to distinguish them from simple Germanic and Slavic words, which are accented on the first syllable. Furthermore, despite the workings of the fusion process, Yiddish speakers have always retained a “component-consciousness,” a term coined by Max Weinreich to describe the awareness on the part of most Yiddish-speaking Jews of the distinct etymologies that constitute the language. This sensitivity may be accounted for partly by the fact that most Ashkenazic Jews were to some degree bilingual, and even trilingual, familiar not only with Yiddish and Hebrew but also with at least one of the “coterritorial” languages, Russian or Polish.

Samuel suggests that the various components of Yiddish fulfill specific functions, but, aware of the pitfalls inherent in such classifications, he advances the notion tentatively. He characterizes words of the Slavic component as “homey and intimate,” nearer to the “folk” than their Germanic equivalents. The Hebrew element is reserved largely for the ritual and religious culture; and it was widely believed that a Yiddish liberally sprinkled with rabbinic Hebrew elements reflected the speaker’s Talmudic erudition. It turns out, however, as Marvin I. Herzog has indicated in his study of Yiddish dialects,2 that the presence or absence of a rabbinic Hebrew vocabulary is determined not so much by the extent of the speaker’s learning as by regional distribution patterns. “Market women in one area,” Mr. Herzog notes, “make free use of words and phrases that a scholar elsewhere might cite and understand, but which he would no sooner consider Yiddish than he would accept ‘foreign’ words.” In fact, the Hebrew component has served to furnish many words for certain rude concepts, ranging from elegant euphemisms to outright vulgarities. For instance, “hands” in Yiddish is the Germanic hent, but the Yiddish word for clumsy, brutish hands is yodayim, Hebrew for “hands.” The Yiddish for “toilet paper” is asher-yotser-papir. Asher yotser (“who hast fashioned”) are the first two operative words of the blessing recited after bodily elimination.

Samuel estimates the Germanic element of Yiddish at 80 per cent; Leo Wiener put it at 70 per cent; the Yiddish poet, lexicographer, and Bible translator, Yehoash, gauged both the Germanic and the Slavic elements at 80 per cent. But the componental numbers game is a treacherous exercise. Calculations are wildly conjectural and different styles and different texts yield different proportions. The only scientific investigation ever made of the frequency of the Hebrew component showed an immense range in sixty different style categories—from 1.5 to 16 per cent. Altogether, componental statistics reveal little about the nature of any language—this is perhaps particularly true of Yiddish—for the general practice is to count only word roots, while prefixes, suffixes, constructions, and inflections are often overlooked. But, as we have seen, though the lexicon of Yiddish is largely derived from Middle High German stock, the growth and development of the language has been predominantly within the Slavic orbit. In addition, as Roman Jakobson has observed,3 geographically adjacent languages which find themselves in social contact, even though unrelated linguistically, will significantly influence each other’s phonemic and grammatical structures and even displace the earlier effects of the original language family. This, he felt, also held true for Yiddish, as witness the Slavic-Yiddish symbiosis.

Samuel illustrates this theory in the chapter entitled “What is Not German,” where he analyzes a series of compound Yiddish words whose individual parts—prefix and root verb—are of German stock but whose structure and meaning derive from the Slavic. For example, unterzogn (“under” + “tell”) in Yiddish means “to prompt,” but the German untersagen means “to forbid.” The true parallel is to be found in the Polish and Russian: the Polish equivalent is podpowiadac, “to prompt,” and is made up of pod (“under”) and opowiadac (“to tell”); in Russian, the word is podskazat, the product of a similar combination. “To eavesdrop” in Yiddish is unterhern (“under” + “hear”), but in German it is horchen or belauschen. The Polish and Russian forms, however, correspond to the Yiddish: podsluchiwac and podslushivat. The list could be extended indefinitely.

The Slavic influence on Yiddish, Samuel observes at one point, extends beyond the linguistic: “The melancholy of the steppes echoes in Chassidic melodies, and there is a kinship between the mystical religious yearnings of certain Russian and Jewish types.” The Yiddish-Slavic affinity is confirmed in an interesting study which compares English, German, Hebrew, Russian, and Ukrainian translations—all of uniformly high caliber—of a Sholem Aleichem story.4 The Ukrainian rendition turned out by various objective standards to be the most successful in terms of its fidelity to the letter and spirit of the original; the Russian version followed a close second. The English translation was awarded (he lowest mark (it was not a Maurice Samuel translation). This should come as no great surprise, for of the five languages in question English has the least in common with Yiddish—no common territory or even geographic adjacency, no common stock vocabulary, no common religion or culture. The study dramatizes the particular hazards of rendering Yiddish into English and only serves to confirm Maurice Samuel’s own enormous contribution in making Yiddish and East European Jewish culture more readily accessible to English-speaking readers.

In Praise of Yiddish, as I have noted, should prove useful to every would-be translator of Yiddish; and indeed, it can very well serve as a handbook for translators and students alike.5 For besides conveying “the inside feel of Yiddish,” the work also constitutes, in effect, a kind of discursive Yiddish-English dictionary of over a thousand words, idioms, and phrases. These are not merely translated, but are also defined and fully explicated, with appropriate examples. Samuel provides social and cultural micro-histories for individual words and word-clusters—for instance, terms relating to marriage; to philanthropy; to poverty (in all its economic and linguistic variations); to Jewish scholarship. He is perhaps at his best in suggesting English equivalents that are particularly apt. The following examples—only two out of many such—are typical of the Samuel method of translation:

Akhtsn un draytsn, literally, “eighteen and thirteen,” etymologically not Hebraic but Germanic, belongs among Hebraisms by way of content. The numbers eighteen and thirteen add up to thirty-one, for which the Hebrew notation in letters is lamed alef, which make up the word, loy, “no.” But the negative content of the phrase akhtsn un draytsn seems to have different meanings in different localities: (1) as an introduction to a negation, (2) as compelling someone to return to a subject he wishes to evade, (3) as introducing a discussion of money matters: ober vos hert zikh mikoyekh akhtsn un draytsn, “But what about that matter we were discussing?” or “What about the money side of the question”

Klots, “a wooden beam,” as applied to a person, is “heavy, doltish, lumpish,” but when this Germanic word is combined with the Hebraic kashe in klots-kashe, we get something for which there is no English equivalent, and which has to be described at some length. If in the midst of a sophisticated discussion someone simple-mindedly harks back to an elementary question to which the answer has long been tacitly assumed, he is offering a klots-kashe. We must imagine a high-level conference of Madison Avenue executives, and someone asking earnestly, artlessly, “But gentlemen, is advertising a good thing?”

Because In Praise of Yiddish lends itself to such excellent practical use, it is all the more regrettable that there is no special index to words and phrases—an omission which severely limits its utility as a reference tool. But index or no, In Praise of Yidish will be of value to every Yiddish translator, professional or amateur, as well as to anyone who lays claim to Jewish literacy.

There is, one should note in conclusion, a renewed interest in Yiddish among the present generation. (By my own informal estimate, there are some five thousand students enrolled in Yiddish courses at a score of American colleges and universities, to say nothing of the host of adult-study groups throughout the country.) Maurice Samuel observes that the phenomenon may he ascribed to the trauma of the Holocaust; and it may indeed very well be that for many young Jews, in the United States and Israel, learning Yiddish has become a way of bearing witness, of affirming Jewish existence and of refusing to permit Ashkenazic culture to die. For such Jews, too, In Praise of Yiddish will be a welcome and valued work.



1 “Maurice Samuel and Jewish Letters,” COMMENTARY, March 1964.

2 The Yiddish Language in Northern Poland: Its Geography and History, Indiana University Press, 1965.

3 In his (Yiddish) essay, “The Sound Structure in Its Slavic Environment,” in Yuda A. Yofe bukh, YIVO, 1958.

4 “Sholem Aleichem in the Stock Languages: Notes on Translations of ‘Dos Tepl’ into Ukrainian, German, Hebrew, English, and Russian,” by Theodore Gutmans in For Max Weinreich on his Seventieth Birthday: Studies in Jewish Languages, Literature, and Society, Mouton (The Hague), 1964.

5 I take this opportunity to call attention to a truly indispensable Yiddish lexical work and one that Maurice Samuel refers to frequently in his own book: the Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary, by the late Uriel Weinreich, now in its third printing (McGraw-Hill, 790 pp. $18.00). Each section contains over 20,000 entries and the enterprise altogether meets the most exacting standards of dictionary-making. Other lexical tools of high order are: the Thesaurus of the Yiddish Language (Der oytser fun der yidisher shprakh), compiled by Nahum Stutchkoft and edited by Max Weinreich (YIVO); and the magisterial Great Dictionary of the Yiddish Language, edited by Yudel Mark and the late Judah A. Joffe, of which two volumes of a projected ten have already appeared (see my article, “Yiddish: Past, Present & Perfect,” COMMENTARY, May 1962).

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