All in the mishpoche
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All in the mishpoche

As Yiddish dictionary goes online, local scholar kvells

Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath, left, and Meena Viswanath
Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath, left, and Meena Viswanath

Good news for whoever is at work on the next hit Yiddish translation of a Broadway musical: The 88,000 words of the three-year-old Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary are now online and searchable at englishyiddishdictionary.com.

As we reported in 2016, the dictionary was largely a labor of love by Teaneck’s Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath, who completed the lexicographical task begun by her father, Mordkhe Schaechter.

At 856 pages and 4 1/2 pounds, the volume from Indiana University Press was comprehensive but not necessarily convenient.

But online, a would-be translator of a Lin-Manuel Miranda lyric can quickly look up the word shot and find that the Yiddish is “shos.” (Yiddish, like English, is a member of the Germanic family of languages, and many words are cognates.)

You need to register to use the dictionary, and after a few free lookups you have to pay: $4 a month, $25 a year, less if you’re a student, more if you’re an institution. Already, several universities have bought licenses for their students, Ms. Schaechter-Viswanath said.

Her daughter, Meena Viswanath, has had access to the online dictionary before the recent public launch. Meena and her siblings were raised speaking Yiddish with their mother and Tamil with their father, Meylekh Viswanath, a native of India (and an occasional writer for this newspaper).

Now, Meena and her husband, James Conway, are raising their two children in Yiddish — and they are finding the online dictionary invaluable.

“I use it multiple times a day,” Meena said. “Raising children makes you realize gaps in your language. I have to refresh my memory for words I may have used when I was 3 or 4. When you have a 4-year-old child, they ask you how to say dump truck.” (Oysshit-oyto, according to the dictionary. Google Translate shows its Yiddish weakness by failing to translate the phrase.)

As a parent, Meena also feels more responsibility for speaking Yiddish correctly than she had before. “When I’m talking with my friends, I may not be correct with gender. When I talk with my son, I try to be more careful,” she said.

Why is she raising her children speaking Yiddish?

“That’s what we do,” she said. “That’s what our family does. It’s how I was raised and I cannot imagine raising my kids any other way.

“So many American Jews, if you ask them what’s their connection to Yiddish, they will say my grandparents spoke it but didn’t pass it on to me. My family has that unbroken chain. My mother spoke Yiddish. Her parents spoke Yiddish. Being one of the few families that has that unbroken chain outside the ultra-Orthodox community gives us this responsibility,” she said.

Meena has played an active role in her family’s promotion of Yiddish. A civil engineer, she helped her mother when it came to including words from that field in the dictionary. Her husband, a mathematician, helped with mathematical words.

Meena explained that one of the resources for the dictionary was a Yiddish thesaurus that provided lists of thematically related words. Understanding of the subject matter meant that, to take a mathematical example, the phrase that is translated literally as “flat geometry” should be more accurately translated as “plane geometry.”

More recently, Meena created a dozen Yiddish crossword puzzles for the Yiddish Forverts, which her aunt Rukhl Schaechter edits. “They’re straightforward, New York Times-style crosswords, with a Monday or Tuesday level of difficulty,” she said. “The clues are a little easy, but a lot of the people who read the Forverts, maybe their Yiddish isn’t incredibly strong.”

More informally, she has begun fielding Yiddish questions from the team that has taken over the on-again off-again project of creating a Yiddish track in the DuoLingo language-learning app.

The new team members largely come from chassidic backgrounds. They’re native Yiddish speakers, but they lack Meena’s knowledge of grammar.

“They IM me questions, like, what gender is this word, and does this sentence sound grammatically correct, and how do you say this word?” she said.

Watching from the sidelines, her mother is excited by the enthusiasm that has greeted the new team working on the DuoLingo app — and the large response the got when they put up a poll asking which of three possible pronunciations should be used for the audio recordings of the course.

Should it be the standardized dialect promoted by YIVO and taught in American universities and used by the Folksbiene in its production of “Fiddler on the Roof” and other works?

Should it be the chassidic dialect that most of today’s native Yiddish speakers use?

Or should it be Southeastern Yiddish, which is somewhere between the two extremes and is what you hear in most pre-war Yiddish films?

“There were many, many comments on Twitter of people participating in this conversation,” Gitl said. “It was very inspiring. It was a lively, leibedik conversation, which shows that Yiddish is never going away.”

The completion of the dictionary did not end Gitl’s involvement with the League for Yiddish, the organization founded by her father. She is language editor of Afn Shvel, its magazine. She cleans up “articles that are either not written in 100 percent grammatical Yiddish or lack diacritical marks,” she said. “Sometimes the writers are Yiddish students who can benefit from an additional boost of idiomatic language.”

She also posts a weekly word list of Yiddish words, which can on occasion be both timely and pointed. In early October, she sent a list that included such phrases as koruptsye (corruption), oysdertseyler (whistle-blower), and aynshuldik-paragraf (article of impeachment). “More and more people are responding,” she said. Her son, Arun, posts the lists to social media.

Arun also has been involved in a translation project that has yet to be formally announced, but that makes his mother kvell.

“He decided to just do it in his spare time, like I spent hours every evening working on the dictionary,” she said.

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