My Grandma Rose, may she rest in peace, loved to tell stories, especially stories about the old days in Romania. She'd begin in English—a broken English with a thick Eastern European accent—but then she'd switch to her first language, which was Yiddish, and jump back and forth between the two. For my sisters and me, whose knowledge of Yiddish was limited, being a member of her audience could be very frustrating.
"English, Grandma. Speak in English." we were always saying to her, because in the middle of some fascinating story she'd leave us in the caboose, as it were, stranded on the tracks, while she, in the main engine car, sped on to her final destination. Her stories tended to be dramatic, especially the endings.
"What?! What happened?" we'd say, when the grownups listening responded not so much with noise but with "Oy!"s to her story.
"He loved her—oy, how he loved her!—but he couldn't have her," my grandmother would add, for she still had a lot to say. "He loved her so much he wanted to throw himself into the river!"
"What river?" we'd ask. "Why did he want to throw himself into the river? Why couldn't he have her?"
Someone would begin to explain but then my grandmother, suddenly recalling another detail from the past, would be off and running again, taking the others along.
"English, Grandma! Speak in English! Please!" we'd cry, trying to catch up.
Eventually, my grandmother's story would come to an end. And how did we know when it was truly over? She'd let out a sigh, one almost as dramatic as her story, and then she'd utter the words which she said in response to any bad situation, a question and answer that beautifully summed up everything about the nature of life:
"Vot can you do? Nuttin'."
As a tribute to my Grandmother, and to the rich and beautiful language she spoke, here are three generous helpings of Yiddish, courtesy of the Yiddish Radio Project. Ess gezunterhait! (Eat in good health!)
1. The Yiddish Crooner: the story of Seymour Rexite.
(Trust me, you haven't really lived until you hear Surrey with the Fringe on Top and Oh, What a Beautiful Morning in Yiddish. Look for it in the Audio Extras section.)
Before Dr. Laura, before Dr. Ruth, there was C. Israel Lutsky, the Jewish Philosopher. From 1931 to the mid-'60s, Lutsky took to the air daily with letters from listeners seeking advice. He replied with spoonfuls of folk wisdom and dollops of abuse.
Charlatan or sage, Lutsky was one of the most beloved and listened-to figures from the golden age of Yiddish radio. No other radio personality delved so deeply into the personal lives of his listeners. From men lamenting overextended family business to women bemoaning no-good children, Yiddish-speakers of all stripes solicited Lutsky's counsel on issues too sensitive for the ears of friends and relatives. His pronouncements on their fate veered in tenor from the singsong melody of Torah study to the gravity of an Old Testament patriarch in no way averse to sputtering rage.
3. A selection of curses from Nahum Stuchkoff's Yiddish Thesaurus:
Stutchkoff read virtually everything ever published in Yiddish—from religious treatises to literary works to daily newspapers, which he cataloged on 3-1/2 x 5-inch index cards his children can recall jutting from every pocket...
Published in 1950, the 933-page Der Oytser Fun Der Yiddisher Sprakh (Thesaurus of the Yiddish Language) inventoried the culture's every expression, from its most ethereal allusions to its juiciest vulgarities. The tome contained 392 synonyms for the word "hit," more than 100 words and expressions for "chutzpah," and seven pages of curses — inverted blessings, mostly, since cursing is forbidden in Judaism.
Here are some curses which may or may not have passed my grandmother's lips:
Khasene hobn zol er mit di malekh hamoves tokhter.
He should marry the daughter of the Angel of Death.
Shteyner zol zi hobn, nit kayn kinder.
She should have stones and not children.
Oyskrenkn zol er dus mame’s milakh.
He should get so sick as to cough up his mother’s milk.
Trinkn zoln im piavkes.
Leeches should drink him dry.
A hiltsener tsung zol er bakumn.
He should grow a wooden tongue.
Tsen shifn mit gold zol er farmorgn, un dos gantse gelt zol er farkrenkn.
Ten ships of gold should be his and the money should only make him sick.
A groys gesheft zol er hobn mit shroyre: vus er hot, zol men bay im nit fregn, un vos men fregt zol er nisht hobn.
He should have a large store, and whatever people ask for he shouldn’t have, and what he does have shouldn’t be requested.
Hindert hayzer zol er hobn, in yeder hoyz a hindert tsimern, in yeder tsimer tsvonsik betn un kadukhes zol im varfn fin eyn bet in der tsveyter.
A hundred houses shall he have, in every house a hundred rooms and in every room twenty beds, and a delirious fever should drive him from bed to bed.
Migulgl zol er vern in a henglayhter, by tog zol er hengen, un bay nakht zol er brenen.
He should be transformed into a chandelier, to hang by day and to burn by night.
Er zol hobn paroys makes bashotn mit oybes krets.
He should have Pharaoh’s plagues sprinkled with Job’s scabies.