It may not be good for the American political system, but at least it’s good for Yiddish. A bissel, that is.
That’s how many Yiddish enthusiasts responded to presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s recent foray into the world of Yiddishisms, according to Michael Wex, Yiddish scholar and bestselling author of “Born to Kvetch.” Trump, in his latest bit of narishkeit, told a crowd of 7,500 last Monday in Michigan that Hillary Clinton got “schlonged” by Barack Obama in 2008. His comment (a vulgar euphemism for the male member, or literally “serpent”) got media outlets, well, shvitzing.
“If he had just said Obama wiped the floor with Hillary, or that she was screwed, no one would have blinked,” said Wex. “His use of Yiddish set people off with a bang.”
It’s not the first time Trump has careened into unwelcome Jewish territory of late. At a recent appearance before the Republican Jewish Coalition, he fired off several Jewish (anti-Semitic?) stereotypes in rapid succession, telling GOP Jews that they wouldn’t back him because he didn’t want their money, and referring to himself as a “negotiator like you folks.”
In some ways, Trump, whether he knows it or not, is riding a Yiddish wave. When he made his comments, the weeklong Yiddish New York festival was just about to start; hundreds would soon gather at the 14th Street Y to participate in an intergenerational celebration of the Yiddish language, culture, history, music and art. Kulturfest, an eight-day, $1.4 million celebration of Yiddish culture, took place in venues all over New York City in June.
“The idea of Yiddish finding its way back into public discourse, especially when it comes from someone who you don’t expect to hear it from, grabs people,” said Wex, referring to Trump’s faux pas and the ensuing shock as the “dog-talking factor.”
“We just didn’t expect to hear it from Trump. If Bernie Sanders had said something like that, it wouldn’t have received nearly as much publicity.”
To be sure, this isn’t the first time Yiddishisms have cropped up during political campaigns. In October 1998, New York Sen. Alfonse D’Amato made an impassioned pitch for support at a closed-door breakfast meeting with Jewish leaders while denouncing his Democratic challenger, Rep. Charles Schumer, as a “putzhead.” Some say the comment, reported by The Jewish Week, helped Schumer defeat the three-term Republican incumbent.
While the excitement of some Yiddishists is understandable, it’s misinformed, said Wex. Yiddish, in its most traditional sense, allows Jews to talk about subjects unacceptable in larger society without fear of negative repercussions. Seeking validation from the outside world goes “totally counter” to what Yiddish is about, he said.
“Yiddish was used to insult the people around you without them knowing what you’re saying; my parents used Yiddish when they were fighting amongst themselves or saying terrible things about the neighbors,” said Wex. “People are happy to see Yiddish out there in the public eye, when in fact things should be moving in the opposite direction.”
Today, experts estimate that there are as many as 1.76 million Yiddish speakers worldwide, with about 200,000 of them in the United States. New York City is said to be home to more Yiddish speakers than any other place in the world, including Israel, and the great majority of them are ultra-Orthodox Jews who use Yiddish as their everyday language while speaking Hebrew as the language of prayer and devotion.
And while many Yiddish aficionados fear that the end of the forever-dying language is near, the use of Yiddish in politics or popular culture is no panacea, said Wex.
“If Donald trump is using Yiddish, we have failed,” he said.
But, as Yiddish logic dictates, things could be worse. “The day Ben Carson starts speaking Yiddish,” Wex quips, “we all better hide.”