One hopes that the New York Times story today on Jay Roach’s upcoming film, "Dinner for Schmucks," starring Steve Carell, will inspire us all to brush up our Yiddish. Critics have started to question the appropriateness of the title given to Roach’s new film, a comedy of manners in which Carell plays a hapless idiot. Given the premise, "schlemiel" or "shlimazl" — Yiddish words that more closely translate into "idiot" — should be in the title. But certainly not "schmuck," which is more a kin to "jerk."
But reading the story got me thinking. First, I thought about Michael Wex’s recent book, "Just Say Nu," a hilarious guide to Yiddishisms. Wex, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Week, notes that Yiddish does not just have one word to "idiot," but a whole arsenal, each one indicating a finer-grained understanding of the myriad types of stupidity.
"Schlemiel" (someone whose awkward or clumsy) and "shlimazl" (a stupid person with bad luck, specifically) are just for starters. "Shmendrik," "kuney-laiml," and "yold" probably go further. Here’s how Wex distinguishes them: “A shmendrik walks (or drives) into a wall because he expects it to get out of his way; a kuneh-laiml didn’t notice the wall to begin with." As for a "yold," it basically means a gullible kind of stupidity. Like someone who takes any old excuse at face value.
Second, I was reminded of a more serious, and deeply enlightening essay by Harold Bloom, in the New York Review of Books. Bloom wrote the essay in review of the great Yiddish scholar, Max Weinrich’s re-released "History of the Yiddish Language" (Yale University Press, 2008). The book tells the oft-forgotten story of the history Yiddish, if indeed it was ever known.
Some debunking is in order: Yiddish, a polyglot language composed mainly of Hebrew, Latin, Germanic and Slavic idioms — and in no clear order — was not actually given its name until the 17th century. That’s significant in part because it might challenge our nostalgia for a language that was, in essence, constantly morphing throughout its 1000 year history.
The same could be said of Hebrew, Bloom notes, a language which was only for a very small period the lingua franca of Jews. What’s more, Hebrew itself was a basically a fusion Semitic and Canaan tongues, sometime before the 6th century BCE. Most Jews stopped using Hebrew after the Babylonian Exile, in 586 BCE, as it was gradually replaced with Aramaic. Then, after Temple Destruction No. 2 — i.e. the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 AD — a large portion of Jews began speaking Hellenistic Greek.
There was a panalopy of other Jewish languages spoken throughout the 3,000 years of the Jewish history too, many of which are extinct, from Judeo-Persian to the Ladino. The existence, or former existence, of these rich languages might remind us all of the phenomenal history of the Jewish people (or peoples, really) that has spanned so much of the globe.
In fact, it’s worth noting that Yiddish — the language of Eastern European Jews — was, prior to the Holocaust, frequently cited for the rich cultural heritage carried within it. As Franz Kakfa once wrote, Yiddish "consists only of foreign words…[yet they] do not rest within it, but rather preserve the hast and vivacity, with which they were taken in."
He must have had this in mind when he gave his famous speech to a Jewish audience in Prague that had come to see a Yiddish play, in 1912. As Bloom notes, Kafka defused the anxieties his audience probably felt toward hearing a play in Yiddish, already a strange and foreign tongue, with this: "I would like to assure you, ladies and gentleman, that you understand far more Yiddish than you think."