Yiddish has a word for it

Yiddish has a word for it

Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath of Teaneck finishes her father’s Yiddish dictionary

Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath holds the new Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary published last month by Indiana University Press. At right, a page from the dictionary.
Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath holds the new Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary published last month by Indiana University Press. At right, a page from the dictionary.

Given its physical heft, it’s no surprise that the new Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary published last month by Indiana University Press is the work of generations.

Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath, its editor, worked on the 856-page, 4 1/2-pound volume for some 20 years in her Teaneck basement. At its core are words collected a generation earlier by her father Mordkhe Schaechter in the family’s house in the Bronx. For many of those years, when Gitl was a teenager, she helped her father as he cataloged Yiddish words at the dining room table.

But before that, the family legend goes, there was her grandfather, Khayem-Benyomen Shekhter, and his enthusiasm for the Yiddish language. The memory of his enthusiasm is tied to a date more than a century ago: 1908, the year he made sure to attend the great Yiddish language conference in his hometown of Czernowitz, at the time part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

In Czernowitz, Mordkhe Schaechter, with his arms crossed, stands in front of his parents.
In Czernowitz, Mordkhe Schaechter, with his arms crossed, stands in front of his parents.

Of course, all languages are the work of generations. It took time for Yiddish to evolve from the medieval German that was picked up by Jews living in the Rhineland, mixed with their inherently Jewish Hebrew and Aramaic vocabulary, and then given Slavic vocabulary (e.g. bubbe and zeide) and even touches of syntax. (That’s the most accepted, broad-brush origin story for Yiddish, notwithstanding recent clickbait headlines arguing for more exotic origins.)

And it took time for Yiddish to be seen as a language worthy in its own right, something worth cataloging and defining and even writing in. Where people speak two languages, those languages seldom are on equal footing; people always are inclined to value one more than the other. Jews may have loved the dialect they spoke among themselves more than the language of the neighbors, which they generally mastered as well, but in Jewish culture pride of place went to Hebrew, the language of the Torah and the rabbis. Popular demand led to the publication of the first Yiddish books in the 16th century, even though the rabbis objected to it. (The first Yiddish bestseller was “Bovo Bukh,” a rhymed retelling of an Italian poem about Bevis of Hampton; this knightly romance is the origin of the term bubbe meise; rather than the popular, and wrong, etymology linking it to bubbe, or grandmother.) And in the 19th century, with the spread of printing and newspapers, came the great Yiddish writers: Sholom Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, and Mendele Mocher Sforim.

Which brings us to the 1908 Czernowitz conference. The 20th century was young. Change was in the air. And Nathan Birnbaum, the 44-year-old Austrian Jew who had coined the word “Zionism” and advocated for Jews in Eastern Europe, championed Yiddish as the Jewish national language. Peoples throughout Europe were coming to understand themselves as separate nations, wearying of being under the rule of the grand European empires, and Mr. Birnbaum’s Yiddishism offered an equivalent national identity to Jews — without demanding that they leave for Palestine. (He later would abandon Jewish nationalism altogether and help found the Orthodox Agudath Israel movement.) He sent out a call for everyone interested in Yiddish to come to the Yiddish language conference.

Practical matters dominated its agenda, rising from the language’s existential dilemma: The younger generation was beginning to abandon its mamaloshen for either the vernacular or the newly reviving Hebrew. Perhaps inevitably, discussions of how to train Yiddish teachers and promote Yiddish publications were overshadowed by the political, or perhaps talmudic, question of the role of Yiddish for the Jewish people. Was Yiddish “the” language of the Jewish people? But what about Hebrew? In the end, the approved compromise was that Yiddish was “a” language of the Jewish people.

Perhaps that compromise with the realities of 3,000 years of Hebrew tradition, as well as swelling Zionism, was inevitable. But for Khayem-Benyomen Shekhter and most of the others at the conference, the reality was that even if there were other Jewish languages that had to be acknowledged, Yiddish was the most important. It was the living language of the people.

Over the next decades, Khayem-Benyomen Shekhter continued to advocate for Yiddish. He and his wife owned a dry goods store in Czernowitz, which after the Great War — World War I — became part of the new Kingdom of Romania. But he was an intellectual and writer as well — perhaps, his granddaughter would later aver, he was a better writer than shopkeeper.

Khayem-Benyomen did not survive World War II. In 1940, the Red Army occupied Czernowitz, and he was deported to Siberia, where he died. But his wife, Lifshe; their daughter, Beyle; their son, Mordkhe; and their son-in-law, Yoyne Gottesman, survived the war, moving from town to town, sometimes overnight. It helped that Yoyne was a doctor.

The family ended up in a postwar displaced persons camp in Vienna. There, Mordkhe worked for YIVO — the Yiddish Scientific Institute — and earned his doctorate in linguistics at the University of Vienna. The topic: Yiddish verbs.

The family — all four of them — came to America in 1951. In 1956, Mordkhe married Charne Saffian, who was born in the Bronx in a Yiddish-speaking home. They shared an unusual determination to raise their children as Yiddish speakers.

That was a rare choice in America.

“If only I had a penny for every time I heard someone say their parents spoke Yiddish so the children couldn’t understand,” Gitl said.

Instead, she and her siblings had to put a penny into a jar every time they slipped up and uttered an English word at home.

Gitl sits on her mother’s lap and Rukhl is on her father’s, in 1959.
Gitl sits on her mother’s lap and Rukhl is on her father’s, in 1959.

“If you know anything about raising children bilingually, you have to be consistent. and have to insist on it, or they only know it passively,” she said. “I know a lot of children of survivors who didn’t insist on it, and they couldn’t put a Yiddish sentence together.”

The penny jar was only part of the Schekhters’ plan to raise Yiddish-speaking kids — or as they called them, kinder — in America.

There were after-school classes five days a week in the Yiddish Sholem Aleichem School and summers at Yiddish-speaking Camp Hemshekh.

And there was “Beynbridzhifke” — what her parents called the corner of Bainbridge Avenue in the north Bronx, where they settled alongside Mordkhe’s sister Beyle, who published poems in Yiddish, and the family of Joshua Fishman, an American-born Yiddishist who became a dean at Yeshiva University, an expert in bilingualism and author of “Yiddish in America.” (He also wrote the article on YIVO’s website about the Czernowitz conference; the Yiddish world is not so large these days.) From the Yiddish perspective, it was a three-house shtetl.

Three Yiddish-speaking families may not seem like a lot — it would have been an unimaginably small galus half a century earlier — but it was enough for a satisfying Yiddish-speaking game of hide-and-seek. Gitl’s father created a children’s club that he dubbed Enga-Benga — the Yiddish equivalent of the nursery rhyme “eeny meeny miny mo.”

“He was the pied piper,” Gitl said, leading the children in games, lessons, and walks in Van Cortland Park.

The Yiddish-speaking Enge Benge club meets on Chanukah 1967.
The Yiddish-speaking Enge Benge club meets on Chanukah 1967.

“My father was very big on nature,” she continued. “He knew the names of all the trees in Yiddish and English.” (He later would publish a monograph, “Di Geviksn-Velt in Yidish — Plant Names in Yiddish: A Handbook of Botanical Terminology.”)

Primarily, he was a naturalist of the Yiddish language, collecting words and occasionally coining new ones. “He believed everything could be said in Yiddish,” his daughter said.

In the new world, where English was the undisputed lingua franca, even those determined to speak Yiddish mixed in English when they reached the limits of the childhood vocabulary.

Mordkhe demanded that that temptation be resisted.

Why say table when you can say tisch? And why say marshmallows if you could say shney-kishelekh — a portmanteau meaning snow pillow, which his daughter Rukhl invented?

By day, Mordkhe was able to make Yiddish his profession. He taught it at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University and YIVO, ending up as senior lecturer in Yiddish at Columbia University. Along the way he worked as a researcher for a project documenting Yiddish. “The language and cultural atlas of Ashkenazi Jewry” is one of several unfinished projects of Yiddish linguistics; it produced 5,755 hours of reel-to-reel tapes. Its goal was to chart the regional variations within the language. Galizianers and Litvaks pronounced words in different, easy-to-notice ways; the atlas aimed to track subtler local variations in the lost world of Eastern European Yiddishland.

“He would go out with this huge double-reel recorder,” Gitl said. “He would interview immigrants, shoemakers, tailors, musicians. He would ask, how do you say this in Yiddish? How do you say that in Yiddish? He collected dozens and dozens of terminologies. The sciences, music, the terminology for the military.”

All told, he filled 87 card catalogs and shoe boxes with his cards. The card catalogs lined the walls of his study and his basement, jostling for space with the overflowing shelves of Yiddish books. How many cards did he have? A million, he once guessed.

Gitl was 12 when her father asked if she wanted to earn some money helping him. He would read through his huge pile of Yiddish newspapers, noting the interesting words, the unusual phrases, the neologism. She would clip them and label them and file them.

“That was my entree into being my father’s colleague,” Gitl said. “That continued for many, many years. It’s was father-daughter time, connecting time. I connected with my father ideologically, linguistically.”

She has a newspaper clipping, from an Israeli Yiddish newspaper, labeled in her handwriting with the date, August 29, 1976. A phrase is underlined: luft luft roket — air-to-air missile.

That’s not a word that Sholem Aleichem ever used.

But now, thanks to Mordkhe and Gitl, you can find “luft luft roket” (you should never know from one) in a Yiddish dictionary.

A Yiddish word for a missile underlined in a Yiddish newspaper by Mordkhe Schaechter and cataloged by his daughter Gitl.
A Yiddish word for a missile underlined in a Yiddish newspaper by Mordkhe Schaechter and cataloged by his daughter Gitl.

Gitl went to Barnard, majoring in Russian. Clearly growing up as a linguist’s assistant had an impact. She also studied Yiddish at the Jewish Teachers Seminary/Herzliah, an institution founded to provide teachers to secular Yiddish schools..Then she went to nursing school and became a nurse — a profession she still practices.

Her older sister, Rukhl, also studied at both Barnard and the Jewish Teachers Seminary. Rukhl went on to get a masters in education. She taught Yiddish at the Kinneret Day School in Riverdale before being recruited as a writer for the Yiddish-language Forverts newspaper. In March she became the paper’s editor — the first American-born chief of the 119-year-old publication.

As a teenager, Rukhl picketed the Forverts with her siblings, parents, and other members of Yungtruf – Youth for Yiddish, an organization her father helped start. Their beef with the Yiddish newspaper was that it was published in the traditional Yiddish spelling, rather than the modernized, systematized spelling that Mordkhe and YIVO had fought for. It took a generation, but the Forverts changed its spelling. Now, Rukhl has overseen a partial retreat from YIVO style, as she welcomes in chasidic writers without insisting on a spelling makeover.

The Yiddish blood runs thick in the other Schaechter siblings too.

The youngest sister, Eydel, became an artist. She also became charedi, moved to Tzfat in Israel, and has raised her seven children speaking Yiddish. She also teaches Yiddish to new mothers who have married into her Yiddish-speaking community.

Binyumen, their brother, entered the world of musical theater. His work has been performed in Yiddish and non-Yiddish theater (including the off-Broadway musical “Naked Boys Singing”) and he is conductor of the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus.

One more thing they share: A commitment to raising their own children as Yiddish-speakers.

For Gitl’s three children, it wasn’t enough just to be fluent in Yiddish. They also had to speak Tamil with their father, Meylekh Viswanath, a native of India (and an occasional writer for this paper). Gitl and Meylekh met at a Yiddish retreat. Where else?

Their youngest, Mallika, was late in learning to speak. They brought her to a speech therapist.

Mordkhe and Charne Schaechter are surrounded by their children and grandchildren, all of whom speak Yiddish.
Mordkhe and Charne Schaechter are surrounded by their children and grandchildren, all of whom speak Yiddish.

“The speech therapist told my parents to stop speaking two languages to me,” Mallika said. “Both my parents refused, because they both loved their languages so much. I’m very glad they made that decision.”

Back in 1908, Yiddish advocates at the Czernowitz conference insisted that promoting Yiddish would also help Hebrew. Among them was Matisyohu Mieses, who went on to publish several books on the Yiddish language.

Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath and Meylekh Viswanath raised their children speaking Yiddish and Tamil.
Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath and Meylekh Viswanath raised their children speaking Yiddish and Tamil.

He told the conference: “Yiddish and Loshn-koydesh” — Hebrew — “will be able to be good neighbors.” This didn’t stop some Hebracists from crying by the end of his speech, and coming near to blows with Yiddishists.

Mallika Viswanath, however, found that the two languages indeed were good neighbors when she and her siblings began studying Hebrew at the Yavneh Academy and later at the Frisch School.

“We finished high school and were pretty comfortable speaking Hebrew,” she said. “Whereas our classmates had put in less effort and cared a little less about being able to speak in Hebrew. Being exposed to different types of language and sentence structure helped me. I am just more familiar with linguistic jargon.”

In high school and college, she also studied French. Last year, she studied Hindi.

“The values our parents instilled in us translated into learning different languages and being exposed to different types of culture,” she said.

When Mordkhe retired from Columbia University in 1993, he began thinking about his vast collection of Yiddish words. Gitl began to spend her spare time entering his word lists on her computer.

“Starting around 2000, he finally decided, we’re going to do it. We’re going to start this dictionary,” she said.

At first, he didn’t want it to be comprehensive. His colleague Uriel Weinreich had compiled a Yiddish-English and English-Yiddish dictionary. The dictionary was published shortly after Mr. Weinreich died in 1967, at 40.

“My father was a very close colleague of Weinreich’s,” Gitl said. “There was an aura about Weinreich; no one wanted to touch it. It was almost like a helige zach” — a holy thing.

But Weinreich’s dictionary included only 20,000 terms. It was deliberately incomplete, a first draft. “He had wanted to work on another edition but it wasn’t bashert,” Gitl said. “It was an amazing achievement. It was the first modern Yiddish dictionary. But there were so many words missing.

“How do you say high heel in Yiddish? It’s not in Weinreich. How do you say knit one, purl two when you’re knitting? It’s not in Weinreich.”

The idea was to be a supplement — to add the words that weren’t in Weinreich’s dictionary — instead of combining them into one work. “I thought from the beginning, that’s a weird dictionary. I was able to convince him,” she said.

Mordkhe had a stroke in 2002 and died in 2007.

“Somewhere along the way I vowed I was going to finish this book,” Gitl said.

Her father had collected the uncommon words. Now it was time to assemble the basic words.

“I took a random Hebrew-English pocket dictionary,” she said. “I went from A to Z to see what was missing.”

She knew the Yiddish translations for many of the missing words. For others, she looked to Weinreich’s dictionary. Another linguist, Alexander Harkavy, had published a similar work in the 1920s, and she used it for reference too. And her college Russian proved useful when she discovered a Russian Yiddish dictionary published in the Soviet Union in 1984.

Then she brought in Dr. Chava Lapin of Queens College, who reviewed the entries and added synonyms, and Dr. Paul Glasser, a former student of her father’s who lived with her aunt and uncle on Bainbridge Avenue for three years.

“I couldn’t have done it without these two people,” she said.

And she brought in a broader network of people knowledgeable in subfields of Yiddish. One had Yiddish math textbooks from Europe; he helped with words like binomial and repeating decimal. Another friend is a chemist. “He doesn’t know Yiddish from home, but he learned Yiddish and has chemistry textbooks from Eastern Europe,” Gitl said.

In the end, the dictionary included nearly 50,000 entries.

All of this was a labor of love. She took no money — not that Indiana University Press or the League for Yiddish offered any. (Her father led the league; now she does. It owns the copyright to the work.)

Work on the dictionary accelerated three years ago when the youngest of her three children went off to college. “I would come home, have a cup of coffee and work until my eyes closed — sometimes until two or three in the morning.”

At a key moment, the dictionary received a key assist from the next generation. Over the years of work, operating systems advanced. Software was upgraded. And one day Gitl discovered that the files she had labored over for years were stuck in a word processor that was no longer compatible with her new computer.

“All that work could not be transferred to the new system,” she said. “I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown. Really, I didn’t know if I would live to see this dictionary. My father didn’t. I just said, I’m forging ahead, somehow we’ll figure it out.

“Five years ago, my daughter Meena-Lifshe marries a young man who is a math Ph.D., James Conway. He happens to have some computer skills. The first Mother’s Day he was in her life, my daughter gave me a gift and then handed me something. It’s five pages. I’m looking at it. It looks like pages from the dictionary but it’s different.

“My daughter gave him the files. He was able to convert them into another language and then into a PDF. He literally from a technological standpoint saved the dictionary,” she said.

Dr. Conway has taught himself Yiddish; he and Meena are speaking Yiddish to their year-old son.

“To say I have naches is the understatement of the year,” Gitl said.

Throw in the joy of finally holding a copy in her hand — and it’s a lot of naches.

Rukhl already has a copy at her desk. “We’re using it all the time,” she said.

Like all Yiddish projects, the dictionary acknowledges the past Golden Age of Yiddish. A stylized map of Czernowitz and environs is on its cover. But, Gitl said, even more than that, the dictionary is an investment in the future of the Yiddish language.

“There are those of us who want to continue it and remain optimistic in the face of odds that are probably amazing,” she said. “I’m hoping this dictionary will play an important role.”

You can order the English-Yiddish dictionary from the League for Yiddish

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