Yiddish 101, Oy Vey Zmir!


It was a long shot but I needed to take an elective in college one semester to round out my credits.  So there I was deciding between The Basics of Yiddish and Applications of Computer Science (or something random like that) and I decided to go for Yiddish.

Why? Well, I had one set of grandparents who were fluent and I often recalled thinking, man, I wish I knew what they were saying. My grandmother taught me how to count to 10. In elementary school I was in the choir and I learned a song in Yiddish and would sing it to my grandmother, upon request. So I thought I had some fighting chance since I already knew some words and some numbers.

As small private colleges go, some of the more random courses offered don’t always make it. In order for a class to survive there needed to be at least three students willing to commit to the course – which was coincidentally the amount of students that signed up.

I remember one other girl but not the other. The one I did remember? I giggled every time I thought of her name. It was Marina Shore.  She was a sweet girl, I think with Russian parents, and her name was all water based, though I never asked her I always wondered if it was done on purpose! In any event there we three sat on the first day.

Estelle Getty - Transformation - Beauty

The oldest woman on the planet came in to ‘teach’ us. She was as old lady as you can get. Watery eyes,  a soft wrinkled face covered in base that was a touch too orange and a powdering of blush applied in a straight, yet diagonal line across her cheekbone. She wore a very stiff wig (in Yiddish – called a sheitel) and had not such even penciled-in really thick eyebrows.

(She reminded me of the character Estelle Getty played on the television show, The Golden Girls). She wore her polyester vests over blouses with a bow tied at the neck. She had ‘bubby‘ shoes that looked like black sneakers for nurses with extra wide feet and the sandy brown hose that are not really nude and meant for supporting varicose veins.

To be completely honest, I can’t remember learning a single thing, or if the class continued after the 2 week trial period. However, there is once specific incident I recall vividly. There we three sat, waiting for the “professor” to begin. She looked over her coke-bottled bifocals into the book, she began in her heavy accented English to give us the assignment. She stopped mid sentence and her head bent lower and lower and even lower still, until it came to rest with her chin tucked away in her billowy blouse-y bow tie in the nose, in her chest. At first we thought she had been scanning the page. Then after a few minutes of eery silence we started to get nervous. I looked at Marina, she looked at me. Eyebrows raised in worry I whispered to her, “call her name”. She shook her head no and pointed at me to do it. So I called out. Nothing. I called a little louder, no response. Marina whispered that I should see if she was breathing. Suffice it to say I was a shtickle (a bit) nervous. So I slid out of those desks that are shaped in an ‘L’ and started to creep towards her. At first I tried to see if her body was  shifting the way it would if a person were breathing. I couldn’t tell. I looked at Marina and mouthed: WHAT IF SHE’S DEAD? Marina mouthed back, NOOOOOooooo, with a look in her eyes that really were saying, MAYBE? I gently placed my hand on her arm. Nothing. I called out ever so gently as I sort of rubbed the blouse-y arm. Sure enough the head began to rise. I jumped, retracted my hand, ran back to my seat and was back before she raised her head all the way up. Those watery eyes looked at Marina and then her coral lips said, “Nu? Vas is das?” Which translates as, “Hey, What is this?” basically asking us what was going on, what were we up to, why are we not doing what she probably thought she had told us to do. Yiddish is like that, one word means the gansa megillah (which means loosely translated as the whole story).  Like, I said, I can’t even recall if the class continued on and the only Yiddish I remember is probably what I grew up knowing. You shmear (smear) a bagel with cream cheese. You must act like a mentsch (proper person) and not a vilda chaya (wild animal).  I was always referred to as a shaina maidel and people were always pinching my cheeks while saying oy, what a punim!

Yiddish recipe for Passover Rolls

Now that the holiday of Passover is approaching the only Yiddish in our house that is being heard is the repetition of the 4 questions, which one daughter is trying to learn to impress my in-laws (who are of the same generation as my grandma).  Even though they won’t be at our Seder they promised an afikomen gift to her if she gets it. Practice makes perfect.  The one thing I know for a fact we’ll get right? My grandmother would make Passover Rolls dense as could be, but if you can read Yiddish, here’s a recipe you may enjoy. L’chaim!



  1. The description of your teacher is classic and I cannot believe this class really existed! I graduated from a Jesuit U.–shoot. Have you noticed how we use Yiddish for words that just don’t seem to exist in English? I’m just a word speaker (can’t say any real sentences), but I drop Yiddish words all the time and people give me this odd look since they don’t understand anything in these parts of the US. I sure miss the old generation, but my step-family is Sephardic, so I had Ladino-speakers too, which was much easier as I speak Spanish. Oh what fun when the Yiddish had to be translated for the Sephardim! A 90-something Yiddish-speaker would make a joke and my 90-something, Sephardic uncle would scream, “WHAT?” Ha ha.

    I found you in the reader as I tagged something Yiddish and then wondered if there was anything on WP–and found this (and you)! So exciting you live in Israel now. If I didn’t have so many health issues, I’d make Aliyah and be in a better place (with better healthcare).

    Happy (early) Passover, 🙂
    Alisa (who is from the same caste as you, but never reveal my surname)

      1. Thanks! I have you bookmarked as I have an eye disease and low vision (1 thing I blog about) and get overwhelmed by my inbox. I’m very good at revisiting, though. 🙂 I meant to like this post (always forget), so off to do that. Thanks for the follow and good to know you! Be back soon…

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