New Year’s greetings

On the choice between “Gut yontiff” and “L’shanah tovah.”

Today (since sundown last night) is Rosh ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year. (But see previous post.)

The usual holiday greeting is “L’Shanah Tovah,” which is roughly “[May the] year [be] good,” or “[May you have] a good year.” But my sister points out in an email that, as kids growing up in Jewish Baltimore, we never heard that greeting, except perhaps from Hebrew-school teachers. We heard, and returned, greetings not in Hebrew but in Yiddish: “Gut yontiff,” (“A good holiday”) or “Gut yontiff und gut yahr.” (A good holiday and a good year.”)

[What did the rabbi say to the Pope? “Gut yontiff, pontiff.”]

Yontiff” is the Yiddish version of the Hebrew “yom tov,” literally “good day” but idiomatically “holiday.” Thus “Gut yontiff” is, read literally, a pleonasm: “Have a good good-day.”

My sister and I were part of the first generation of Jews of Eastern European ancestry to know approximately zero Yiddish. My father didn’t speak it, but he understood it well enough to get the Yiddish punchlines of the Borscht Belt jokes, and his mother’s Yiddish was better than her English to her dying day. By contrast, most of the Yiddish I know consists of Yiddish loan-words into English, and since I never learned German a conversation in Yiddish might as well be in Martian for all the sense I can make of it.

Assimilation is a fine thing, and I wouldn’t wish for a stronger set of ethnic identities in the United States, but something important was lost when Yiddish became a dead language. There are things that can be said in Yiddish that simply can’t be said in English, and I have to accept claims about the glories of Yiddish literature on faith, since most of it is lost in translation. (Klezmer music, on the other hand, you can have.)

Of course, most of my contemporaries don’t actually speak Hebrew, either, but most of us know a few words of it from prayers and synagogue services and perhaps remember some of the grammar from Hebrew school. Even for those who really speak Hebrew, it’s not a substitute for Yiddish. Before the foundation of Israel, Hebrew hadn’t been a language in everyday social (as opposed to liturgical) use for something more than 2000 years; Jews living in the Palestine of the Hellenistic and Roman periods spoke either Aramaic or Greek. So as a living language, its roots are terribly shallow compared to the roots of Yiddish, which go back a thousand years, more or less.

There’s a story from the 1950s about an Eastern European Jewish woman living in Tel Aviv who takes her young son to the park. He speaks to her in Hebrew, and she replies in Yiddish. A passerby asks her why she won’t speak to her son in the tongue he prefers, and she replies: “I don’t want him to forget he’s Jewish.” Yiddish was the language of the Ashkenazi diaspora (the Sephardim had Ladino), as Hebrew is the language of the State of Israel.

Personally, I identify as Ashkenazi. The Zionist project has much to be said for it, but it’s not especially my project. I don’t regard visiting Jerusalem as an ascent, and in my opinion the Holy One (blessed be He), desiring that there be a national home for the Jews, in His infinite wisdom and mercy created Long Island.

So Gut yontiff unt gut jahr to all of you.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

23 thoughts on “New Year’s greetings”

  1. There are things that can be said in Yiddish that simply can't be said in English,
    I've heard it said that King Lear is an even better play in Yiddish than in English.
    Shanah tovah to all.

  2. Shana Tova,
    Shakespeare was translated into Yiddish and said to be "fartichted und farbessered" or translated and improved.
    Quite a few Talmudic and biblical sayings have this "untranslatable" property, but Yiddish has a folksy color, sound and expressive power no other language I am familiar with has.

  3. I don't think assimilation as currently defined is such a great thing. I understand completely what you are saying about losing language and roots. And I think that kind of thing carves a hollow out of humans' souls. I enjoy seeing people celebrate their roots, no matter if I share them or not. I like this post.

  4. "A language without an army" — I.B. Singer.
    As for not getting those punch lines, Robert Klein, who as a kid, he worked kitchens at borscht-belt hotels and watched the comedians at night, has a similar comment, only funny.

  5. Yiddish isn't dying, really. All the haredim sprouting up in suburban New York speak it as their daily language. Among non-haredim it is dying, sure, but they're just doing what created Yiddish in the first place, inflecting the dominant language around them with Judaicisms.

  6. Mark
    You write some very clever things, but this was about the cleverest.
    The loss of Yiddish is truly one of the great tragedies of world history. Such a language for humour, such unsurpassed invective. Woody Allen, Saul Bellow….
    Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of A Man Who Rescued A Million Yiddish Books (Hardcover)
    by Aaron Lansky (Author)
    http://www.amazon.com/Outwitting-History-Amazing-
    As an uber-goy, I always envied the Jews for having access to such a rich and subversive cultural history. Terminal WASPism is like a medical condition– it doesn't kill you in the short run, but it doesn't make you any healthier or richer either.
    And in any case, I think God did create a new promised land for the Jews: Florida.

  7. Nicely put in general, Mark, and happy new year. My mother understood Yiddish because her grandparents spoke it most of the time (and her parents some of the time) and I've got about the same relation to the language that you do.
    Another wrinkle: I'm old enough that when I learned liturgical Hebrew I learned the Ashkenazi (or Yiddish) pronunciation. Today all the synagogues and temples I've ever heard of have shifted to Sephardic Hebrew– the reform ones most thoroughly of all, which I find ironic in the extreme.
    When I need to recite something I still use the Yiddish pronunciation. I could shift, but I don't want to. It's a political and cultural decision.
    I also think it should be added, in all fairness to whatever forces have been at work out there, that a lot of people were involved over the years in the collective decision not to use Yiddish. Immigrants and their children often wanted to stop as soon as they could; a common story for other immigrant languages as well at the time. And of course Israel also spurned Yiddish, and many of the people who went there after the war had every inclination to stop using it.
    Sorry if anyone thinks this is inappropriate.

  8. "L'shanah tovah" means "for a good year." It's a shortened version of ""L'shanah tovah tikatev," "may you be written for a good year." The greeting reflects the belief that God determines our fate – metaphorically, writes it down – at the New Year.

  9. This is a very random question, but–this group might know the answer. How close is Yiddish to Plattdeutsch (still spoken by Hutterites and Old Colony ("Russian") Mennonites)?

  10. SamChevre, I believe Yiddish is descended from Middle High German rather than from Low German– indeed I've heard that there are some key MHG texts that are preserved only in Yiddish. (If I've got that wrong I'm sure someone will correct me.) But Yiddish has a lot of its vocabulary from Hebrew (pre-Israel Hebrew), Aramaic, and Slavic languages and even a little from Greek, I think. Syntactically it might be relatively close to Pennsylvania Dutch German, at a guess, though I think the latter is probably much closer to modern German dialects than Yiddish is.

  11. Lear in Yiddish? I never thought about it, but it sounds like a perfect fit: all that kvetching about ungrateful children and meshugge parents would be perfect in Yiddish.
    On the other hand, Macbeth is probably irredeemably goyish, and Henry V should be translated into Hebrew.

  12. Thanks Altoid!
    I already know that Pennsylvania Dutch and Yiddish are somewhat related (but probably no closer to each other than each is to German); I'm lucky enough to know someone who knows both.
    I wondered if Plattdeutsch/Plautdietsch (I've seen it written both ways) would be closer to Yiddish, as it, like Yiddish and unlike Pennsylvania Dutch, has a strong Slavic influence.

  13. Lear in Yiddish? I never thought about it, but it sounds like a perfect fit: all that kvetching about ungrateful children and meshugge parents would be perfect in Yiddish.
    On the other hand, Macbeth is probably irredeemably goyish, and Henry V should be translated into Hebrew.

  14. "The Yiddish King Lear" is not a translation of Lear. It's a play loosely based on Lear by Jacob Michailovitch Gordin, an American Jewish playwright of the early 20th century. A better translation of the title would be "The Jewish King Lear," the idea being that the protagonist is a Jewish Lear-like character.
    There is also a version of Hamlet called "Der Yeshiva Bocher" (The Yeshiva Student), in which the Hamlet character is a rabbinical student, son of a prominent Hasidic rabbi.

  15. I love Klezmir music.
    And my 7 and 9 year old daughters know that we are a mishigas mishpocha, and to be careful because they might get a zetz in their pupik.
    And it cannot go unsaid, Shakespeare is much better in the original Klingon.

  16. To SamChevre — a friend who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking house was in the Netherlands on an extended business trip (quite a few years ago) and found himself in an "off-the-beaten path" place where no one spoke English. He spoke Yiddish to the Dutch speakers and was understood, though they told him he sounded like he had time-travelled from the past.

  17. a friend who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking house was in the Netherlands on an extended business trip (quite a few years ago) and found himself in an "off-the-beaten path" place where no one spoke English. He spoke Yiddish to the Dutch speakers and was understood, though they told him he sounded like he had time-travelled from the past.
    My father used to claim that knowing Yiddish would enable me to travel anywhere. Guess he had a point.

  18. Ted Barlow
    Thank you for the pointer to that wonderful piece.
    History has many tragedies. Yiddish is up there with Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar amongst them.
    V.

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