Elana and Robin invite their friend and colleague, Julia Weekes, a self-proclaimed yiddishe kop, to help them figure out all the ways that Yiddish is different than Hebrew. (Hint: it’s more than 4!) Stay tuned to hear Julia’s favorite Yiddish words and see how many of them you already knew!

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Show Notes:

  • JuliaWeekes
  • Vocabulary
    • Here are some words mentioned during this episode and their definitions:
      • aleph bet: Hebrew alphabet
      • alter kaker: Elderly person, old-timer
      • Ashkenazi: Jews who are descended from Jews who lived in Central or Eastern Europe
      • balabusta: good homemaker
      • balagula: person of low standing
      • big macher: big shot
      • bobkes: nonsense, rubbish, nothing
      • bubeleh: term of endearment (like sweetie, honey, or dear)
      • chachke: a trinket or knick-knack
      • chazir: pig
      • chazirai: junk
      • chutzpah: extreme self-confidence or audacity
      • feh: interjection used to express disgust, contempt, or scorn
      • gut: good morning
      • gut Shabbos: good Sabbath
      • gut yontif: good holiday
      • Hasidic Jews: a sub-group within Haredi Judaism noted for its religious conservatism and social seclusion
      • Holocaust: The Nazi campaign to use genocide to eliminate European Jews during World War II
      • kashe: a tough, perplexing question
      • kishkes: a person’s guts
      • klotzkashe: a question that the questioner thinks is hard but that is in fact idiotic, possibly because the answer is right under their nose and possibly because there’s no conceivable answer at all
      • kvell: feel happy and proud.
      • kvetch: a person who complains a great deal.
      • Ladino: The core vocabulary of Judaeo-Spanish (Ladino) is Old Spanish, and it has numerous elements from the other old Romance languages of the Iberian Peninsula: Old Aragonese, Astur-Leonese, Old Catalan, Galician-Portuguese, and Mozarabic. The language has been further enriched by Ottoman Turkish and Semitic vocabulary, such as Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, spoken mainly by Sephardic minorities in more than 30 countries, with most speakers residing in Israel
      • loshen koydesh: holy language
      • mamaloshen: mother tongue
      • maven: comes from the Yiddish meyvn, meaning “one who understands.” Often mavens are the people turned to as experts in a field. 
      • mechayeh: Derived from the Hebrew, chai, meaning life. Something delicious, delightful or enjoyable is mechayehdik.
      • megillah: “scroll” in Hebrew
      • mensch: a person of integrity and honor
      • nu?: An exclamation of surprise, emphasis, doubt, etc.
      • noodge: from Yiddish nudyen: to be tedious, boring
      • nudnik: a pestering, nagging, or irritating person; a bore.
      • oy gevalt: “oh, violence!” Used to express shock or amazement
      • oy vey: “oh, my!” Used to express dismay or grief
      • oy vey iz mir: “oh, woe is me!” Used to express dismay or grief
      • plotz: to collapse or faint
      • Punim: face
      • Purim: a Jewish festival known for extravagant costumes, the exchanging of gift baskets, performances, and a feast
      • schlemiel and shlimazel: A Yiddish saying explains that “a schlemiel is somebody who often spills his soup and a schlimazel is the person it lands on”
      • schmatte: a rag; a ragged or shabby garment.
      • schmooze: talk with someone in a lively and friendly way, typically in order to impress or manipulate them
      • schmutz: dirt or a similar unpleasant substance
      • schmutzig: dirty
      • schnoz: nose
      • schtick: a gimmick, comic routine, style of performance, etc. associated with a particular person
      • schvitz: sweat
      • shaila: a question, usually looking for a Jewish law-based ruling
      • shayna maydeleh: pretty girl
      • shonda: shame; disgrace
      • shul: synagogue
      • tuches: bottom/backside
      • Vas zezzen dayn freygas?: What are your questions?
      • verklempt: overcome with emotion
      • Yiddishe kop: someone having the mental agility for traditional Jewish scholarship, or simple common sense
      • zaftig: having a full, rounded figure; plump
      • zey gezunt: an interjection used when departing. from the German expression “sei gesund” meaning “be healthy
  • Further reading:

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Transcript:

Elana
Gut morgen!

Robin
Um, hi. I don’t actually know what you just said. Are we doing this episode in German? 

Elana
No, that would be guten morgen. But you’re not too far off. It’s Yiddish for good morning. 

Robin
Really? Wouldn’t you just say boker tov

Elana
Sure, you could. You could. But boker tov is Hebrew.

Robin
Which I’m guessing has a lot of differences from Yiddish, right?

Elana
More than 4. 

Robin
Oh, you snuck that one in this time. Okay. Well, clearly there’s a lot to be talked about when it comes to Hebrew and Yiddish, so let’s get our introductions out of the way and then we can jump into today’s question. 

Elana
Great. I’m Jewish Learning Venture’s CEO Elana Rivel. 

Robin
And I’m Robin Matthews, Jewish Learning Venture’s graphic designer and Director of PJ Our 

Way Engagement and jkidpride.

Elana
And we are the hosts of More Than 4, a blogcast that answers some of the questions people have about Judaism. 

Robin
And today we’re answering the question, “What is the difference between Hebrew and Yiddish?” And I’m really looking forward to this one because I know there’s a difference, but I don’t really know what it is.

Elana
So, and you’re probably not alone because as the years go on, the fewer people there are that speak Yiddish as their first or home language.

Robin
Right. Like my grandmother knew it, spoke it, and understood it, but it definitely wasn’t her primary language. So, like, I picked up words here and there…

Elana
Then let’s jump right in.

Robin
For today’s episode, we’re gonna welcome a guest to help us answer our question. Julia Weeks is JLV’s Director of jkid4all and Director of the Education Innovation Lab. She’s also a self-proclaimed yiddishe kop and we’ll let her explain what that means. Hi, Julia. 

Julia
Oh, hi. So, yiddishe kop means “Jewish head.”

Robin
So our listener question today, Julia, is, “What is the difference between Hebrew and Yiddish?” What can you tell us about that? 

Julia
Okay, so if you looked at a written page of Hebrew and a written page of Yiddish, they may look close to identical or identical. They both use the 22-letter alef bet, or the alphabet, but they are distinctly different languages and they’re born from different times and places.

Robin
All right. So you ready to dig in?

Julia
I’m ready. Okay. So let’s start with Hebrew actually. So, Hebrew is far older and it’s more widely known. Hebrew is what’s called a “Semitic language,” which is a subgroup of Afro-Asiatic languages spoken in the Middle East. 

Robin
Wait. A what? 

Julia
Semitic language…

Robin
Well, no, don’t just say it again, but…

Julia
A subgroup of Afro-Asiatic languages spoken in the Middle East.

Robin
Okay. So languages that come from the Middle East. 

Julia
All right, you got it. So there are actually multiple iterations of Hebrew. I don’t know if you knew that.

Robin
I didn’t. 

Julia
So the oldest form of Hebrew is Biblical Hebrew, formed about 3000 years ago, and most of the Old Testament was written in biblical Hebrew. So then there’s something called Rabbinic Hebrew, which the mishnah is written in, which is the first major written collection of oral Torah and the first major work of rabbinic literature. And then there’s medieval Hebrew, which, I don’t think it actually lasted that long clearly. And it combined other languages, such as Greek, Spanish, and Arabic. So it kind of shows where Jews were at the time.

Robin
So this is like, when you think about old English or you know, medieval English or whatever, that’s sort of similar.

Julia
Exactly. Languages evolve. So then what we know is modern Hebrew, which is the language that is spoken in Israel and spoken by Hebrew speakers around the world, developed in the 19th century, really as a part of the Zionist movement. And it was a way to unite Jews from around the world. 

Robin
So it’s like conversational… 

Julia
It’s a conversational Hebrew. 

Elana
And it even continues to evolve, right? As you’re saying, right? As we develop new words. Mm-hmm. Right? With technology and social media…

Robin
There’s a whole conversation around gendered, modern Hebrew and gendered words and, right?

Julia
So just so you know, there are about 10 million modern Hebrew speakers today. So, just to give you some context when we start to talk about Yiddish. So, now Yiddish is a German dialect, which integrates many languages, including German, Hebrew, Aramaic, and various Slavic and romance languages. 

Robin
That’s why gut morgen sounds like guten morgen!

Julia
Yes. See, it’s all coming together. So Yiddish originated in Europe in what was called the Rhineland, which is loosely like the area around West Germany, in the Middle Ages and eventually spread to Eastern and central Europe. And Yiddish was spoken by the Ashkenazi Jews. So this is also why not all Jews…

Elana
…know Yiddish

Julia
…know Yiddish or have Yiddish in their culture, in their…

Elana
In their kishkes!

Robin
In their kishkes

Julia
In their kishkes! Those are your guts, people. 

Robin
It’s turned into a Saturday Night Live sketch. 

Julia
Always. Yeah. It’s always about your kishkes

Robin
Everything is.

Julia
So, um, 

Robin
Is there a Yiddish alternative for like, Sephardim, or like, is there… 

Julia
Well, there’s Ladino. There’s Ladino. I would say that’s the closest. 

Elana
Which is Hebrew in Spanish.

Julia
All right. So Yiddish distinguishes itself from Hebrew by calling itself the mamaloshen, which means mother tongue. 

Elana
Just to, if I can, it’s the mama, right? But lashon is “tongue.” Literally. The body part, and also “ a language.” So that’s where that Hebrew again comes in.

Julia
Yes. And actually it’s gonna be interesting when you can distinguish the slight differences in the way things are pronounced, which hopefully we can talk about. 

Robin
Well, I, being a Jew who grew up in Boston and then moved to Philadelphia, find that the endings of all the Yiddish words I know are different here than they were in Boston. Like, so we would say schmattEE instead of . 

Julia
It’s schmatte.

Robin
But, not in Boston! It’s shmattEE. We say latkEEs. Like all, all E. 

Elana
Oh, interesting. 

Julia
New York Jews of which, that’s my heritage, it’s schmatAH. 

Robin
I know. And when I came here…

Elana
and ShaynAH MadelAH.

Julia
Yeah. Shayna Madela.

Robin
We, what’s the one? Oh, we said tsatskEE instead of chachke.

Julia
No, we say chachkEE. But we don’t say “tsah” we say “chah.” Well, you’re seeing how, how even Yiddish evolves, where Yiddish sort of differentiates depending on where you are geographically at any time, because those folks came over, they spoke the same language, moved to different places, met other people. And their language evolved. All right, so Yiddish is the mamaloshen and Hebrew is the loshen koidesh.

Elana
Lashon kodesh.

Julia
Thank you. Right. Which is the holy tongue. So Yiddish was the day-to-day language. That’s what people spoke in their homes. That’s what they spoke when they were out in the shtetl, wherever they were. 

Robin
And was it because they came from different places and then they had this common…

Julia
Yeah, it was the language that developed in…

Robin
So my family, who were Russian, came with that language that the German Jews were speaking, that the Polish Jews were speaking.

Julia
Absolutely. Because essentially it was the same area, just expanding. And you know that, first of all, borders were changing all the time. So before the Holocaust, there were up to 13 million Yiddish speakers, and nowadays there are about 3 million. So you can see, compared to the 10 million Hebrew speakers, it’s pretty significant. And yet before, 13 million Yiddish speakers, and I think that was out of 17 million Jews at the time. So it was a primary language, but the Holocaust, you know, obviously, it had a tremendous negative effect on Yiddish language and Yiddish culture. So nowadays, there are people that use Yiddish as their primary language, like Hasidic Jews speak Yiddish and Hebrew is the loshen koidesh for them. So I grew up in a household of Ashkenazi Jews and I grew up hearing a lot of Yiddish. I had grandparents who, you know, it was very typical, if they didn’t want you to know what was being said, they spoke in Yiddish. My parents could do the same, but it was such a part of my vocabulary growing up that even one of my first words was a Yiddish word. 

Elana
Which one? 

Julia
Uh, nu? And you have to say it like that. So apparently my mother and my grandmother were in a room. I just started to walk and I toddled in the room and I looked at ‘em and I’m like, nu? And my grandmother almost plotzed. So, Yiddish has always been, like, very, very close to my heart and it’s one of the ways that I connect with my own Jewish identity. And I would love to share some of my favorite Yiddish words and phrases. Well, it’s a long list. Stop me at any time. We’re just..ok. alter 

kaker

Robin
Yeah, I know that one. 

Elana
An old person. Old person. 

Julia
This one I identify with, which is balabusta. I come from a long line of…

Robin
I don’t know that one. 

Julia
Oh, it’s like an amazing housekeeper. 

Elana
It comes from, like, bayit?

Julia
Yep. Balagola.

Robin
Don’t know that one. 

Julia
Like a, like a big gorilla.

Elana
Is that like an insult to somebody, or is it…? 

Julia
Essentially, so many of these names are slightly…

Robin
Offensive!

Julia
One of the things that I love about Yiddish is that I think the words sound more like what they mean than the English translation of them. I think that they get to the heart of like…

Elana
A little bit more like an onomatopoeia. 

Julia
Exactly. Big macher, which I like that one. Like a big shot. “Aah, he thinks he’s a big macher, right?” Bubeleh

Robin
That one I know. Of course everyone knows bubeleh

Julia
Okay. One of my favorites is bopkes

Robin
I didn’t even know that was a Yiddish word!

Julia
Yeah, “nothing!” Well, it’s funny, I have a list of words that have made it into English language. 

Robin
Yeah, that’s one of them, I think. 

Julia
Yeah. Chazer and chazerai.

Robin
That one. I know. 

Julia
Chazerai is like junk food. Yeah. Like…

Elana
Or It’s just junk. 

Robin
Yeah, like, “a bunch of chazerai.”

Julia
Yeah Junk. Which also goes with drek. It’s like, ugh. Another favorite, which is feh. Feh.

Elana
That’s not like a word — feh. It’s like sound. 

Julia
That’s a word!

Elana
It is?

Julia
Sure. You just said it; it comes out your mouth. 

Robin
Is the English equivalent “meh?”

Elana
No!

Robin
It’s different? 

Elana
Yes! 

Robin
Oh, feh’s like gross, right?

Julia
No, feh is like, it’s like, “ugh.”

Elana
Right, but that’s not a word!

Julia
But it, but it’s also like…

Robin
Yes! Ugh is a word! 

Julia
But it’s also like, get away. It has a lot of like, it, very much like so many Yiddish words, it encompasses a lot of things. It stops somebody, it pushes them away. 

Robin
Sometimes there are words that I only know the Yiddish word for.

Julia
Yes. Because that’s very common! Um, verklempt.

Robin
Sure. 

Julia
I put in gut shabbos and gut yontif because if you meet some older, Ashkenazi Jewish people and you see them at shul, they might still wish you gut shabbos and gut yontif

Elana
Not only that but shul.

Julia
At shul, right. 

Elana
For synagogue.” And gut yontif means to have a good holiday. 

Julia
Have a good holiday. Just a general good holiday. Um, kvell, kvetch. So kvell like is just all that good feeling. Like, we are just filled with the good feeling that’s coming out. And then when you’re filled with that bad feeling and you wanna complain about it, you’re kvetching. Right? Megillah. Like the, like the whole thing, right? So obviously it comes from the Megillah… 

Elana
Right. Which we read on Purim and is a long scroll. So when someone says, “It’s the whole megillah, it’s like, it’s every detail that’s in there. 

Julia
So mensch, we know. A really good person.

Elana
Like Asher.

Robin
Because we’ve all met my child.

Julia
Oh, your child is a mensch. The ultimate mensch. Absolutely. A nudnik, which I’m sure, I mean, I got called a nudnik a lot, which is like, you’re being annoying.

Robin
Like a nudge

Julia
The phrases oy gevalt and oy vey, or in my family, oy vey iz mir, right? Like, oh, woe is me, and like “oy gevalt” Oh, God, like it’s, you know… Punim, which is your face. And when I was little, all the great aunts would come up and they would squish my punim and they would go, “Oh shayna punim!” Um, a shonda, that’s bad. 

Robin
Oh, yeah. That is.

Elana
It’s an embarrassment.

Julia
But it’s worse than an embarrassment. 

Robin
It’s a bad shame. 

Julia
It’s a bad shame. It is. It is Shonda-level shame. Right? Uh, the classic schlemiel and schlimazel.

Robin
Oh, from Laverne and Shirley!

Julia
Yes! But they go together. So the schlemiel, if I’m correct, does the clumsy, oafy thing and it happens to the schlimazel. Oh, so like Three Stooges, right? Yeah. So like Curly is the, is the schlemiel, and Mo is the schlimazel.

Robin
Uh-huh.

Julia
You got that? 

Robin
I got it. 

Julia
Okay. Schmatte, right? 

Robin
Sure. Or schmattEE

Julia
SchmattEE, the way you say it.

Robin
The Bostonians; not just me!

Julia
So it’s like, so a schmatte, it’s like rags, but it’s like, you know, in my house, like my mother would wear her schmatte around the house. You know, her bathrobe. Um, my favorite is schmutz. If I had an epitaph,it would say, “Don’t step in my schmutz pile,” because I’m always cleaning up the schmutz and my world seems full of it. And then if something is dirty, it’s schmutzig. So you add the I-G. The schmutzig. Oh, schnoz. You know what a schnoz is, right? It’s your nose. Yeah. Um, schvitz

Robin
Sweating.

Julia
You’re sweating, right. Uh, tuches.

Robin
Sure, we know tuches.

Julia
Which is your bottom. Zaftig. So zaftig is like plump, but in a very pleasing way.

Robin
Pleasing, like robust. 

Julia
Okay, but now let’s get to some Yiddish words that have made it into the English language that folks might not even know. So, bagel, chutzpah

Robin
Sure. 

Julia
Yeah. I think, you know…

Robin
A lot of people know that one. 

Julia
Yep. A glitch actually. 

Robin
No, sir!

Julia
Yeah. Glitch is a Yiddish word! 

Robin
No, like “glitch in the matrix?” Like, glitch, the word we know?

Julia
Yes. Glitch. To schmooze. Like I think people schmooze. Schtick. Like people who have their schtick, you know, their thing. Oh, and maven, actually. 

Robin
Really? 

Julia
Yeah. 

Elana
Yeah.

Julia
Yeah. 

Robin
Huh. All right.

Robin
Well, that was great. I’m definitely putting some of these words into my regular rotation.

Elana
What are you gonna start with?

Robin
I’m gonna start with mamaloshen

Elana
There you go! 

Robin
Because It sounds like “mama lotion.” That’s how I’m gonna remember. 

Julia
Not the loshen koidesh? You’re not coming with that? 

Robin
I’m not. Probably not, but we’ll see. Some kind of loshen.

Elana
Mechayeh keeps sticking out in my head.

Robin
All right. Well, how do you say, “What are your questions?” in Yiddish? 

Julia
Uh, “Vas zezzen dayn freyges?” So freyges is just like a basic question, but if you’re talking about like an ethical question, then it’s a shaila. And then if we’re talking the next level, like The Four Questions, questions — philosophical — those are called kashe. But, if it is a stupid or obvious question, it’s a klotzkashe

Elana
All right. Well, we know that none of our questions will be klotzkashes