(idea submitted by Robyn B., Megan R., and Dan H.)
For many Jewish Young Adults, Yiddish was the language of their grandparents a symbol of Jewish heritage and a source of pride at resisting assimilation. Today, apart from select Yiddish-ophiles, it is virtually unknown to the JYA. Yiddish, the Germanic tongue that was the primary language of most Ashkenazi Jews for nearly a millennium and which has a long history and a richly diverse literature, is simply no longer a primary means of communication for the modern JYA, and merely provides conversational flair.
As part of their effort to deny that they are White, JYAs use the an exotic and ancient sounding language to reinforce that they are from somewhere other than Huntington Woods and to remind you, at all times, that they are Jewish. There are many JYAs who, therefore, overstate their command of Yiddish: “Well, I practically grew up speaking Yiddish at home, I basically had to learn English as a second language!” claims JYA “Kate” whose parents are from Detroit and who has never been heard speaking Yiddish with anyone, including her parents.
The JYA usually showcases his or her command of Yiddish when speaking of family members, insults, or male genitalia. The last category is particularly fertile ground, containing more words for “the little bishop in a turtleneck” than the Eskimos allegedly have for snow. The modern JYA typically has command of up to 44 words in Yiddish, dubiously including those words that everyone knows but no one knows are Yiddish like bagel, blintz, dreck, and glitch.
The remaining forty words the JYA may be familiar with are: chutzpah, oy (gevalt), kibitz, klutz, kvell, kvetch, mensch, meshugge, narrishkeit, nebbish, noodge, nosh, nu, plots, putz, schlock, schlong, schlub, schmaltz, schmo (frequently in conjunction with Joe), schmutz, schmuck, schlemiel, schlep, schlimazel, schmeer. schmooze, schnozz, schtick, schtup, schvitz, shiksa, spiel, tchotchke, tuches, verklempt, yenta, yutz and zaftig.These words are typically adapted to standard American morphology, making them work like normal English words. This creates neologisms like: schvitzing, klutzy, and tchotchkes.
Unfortunately, JYAs have a noticeable tendency to misuse and exploit the minimal knowledge they have of this 10th century vernacular. Alpha Epsilon Pi member “Jake” has taken to throwing around the incorrect idiomatic expression “I feel so shnooky this morning, I think I drank too much last night” with his fraternity brothers, unaware that this verbal gaffe would make Sholem Yaakov Abramovich rise from his grave and scream out “Es vert mir finster in di oygen!”
The focus on Yiddish is one of the many ways that modern Jews privilege the Ashkenazi experience of Judaism. The same retro love of the exotic does not extend to other Jewish languages like Ladino, Dzhidi and certainly not the Judaeo-Arabic dialects which remain restricted to their cultural niches to the extent that most JYAs are unaware of their existence.
Among other things, this strongly indicates that when creating their identities, JYAs want to be “not-white” enough to be different, but certainly not “not-white” enough to lose any of the privileges of whiteness to which they’ve become accustomed. “I guess that could be it,” says JYA “Jason,” “But it’s also really fun to use Yiddish cause one, it makes chicks think I’m foreign and two, it’s really fun to say. Schlep. Schlep. You know, I just said it so many times it stopped sounding like a word.”