Bintel Blog

The Jewish-American Lexicon

By Elissa Strauss

American Jews speak their own language. This is the thesis that Professor Sarah Bunin Benor is working under as she gathers up phrases and words for her project “Jewish English: Distinctive Lexicon.”

I spoke with Benor recently and she explained that while it is not like Yiddish or Ladino, American Jews have a specific vocabulary and unique linguistic ticks that make it distinctive. She compared it to Judeo-Greek.

The lexicon, which complements the recent Survey of American Jewish Language and Identity that she recently conducted with sociologist Steven M. Cohen, features phrases that come from biblical Hebrew, Israeli Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Aramaic, biblical literature, and liturgy. It also includes English phrases such as “nice Jewish boy” and “matzah pizza.”

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McWhorter Questions Efforts To Save Dying Languages

By Elissa Strauss

In an essay in the recent issue of the World Affairs Journal, linguist and Columbia literature professor John McWhorter questions the effort to save dying languages:

What makes the potential death of a language all the more emotionally charged is the belief that if a language dies, a cultural worldview will die with it. But this idea is fragile. Certainly language is a key aspect of what distinguishes one group from another. However, a language itself does not correspond to the particulars of a culture but to a faceless process that creates new languages as the result of geographical separation.

At one point McWhorter discusses Yiddish directly:

At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together. Globalization means hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space. For them to do so and still maintain distinct languages across generations happens only amidst unusually tenacious self-isolation — such as that of the Amish — or brutal segregation. (Jews did not speak Yiddish in order to revel in their diversity, but because they lived in an apartheid society.)

At first, McWhorter’s column made me bristle. I don’t speak Yiddish fluently, but feel that the mamaloshen is a linchpin of my Jewish cultural identity, and rely on it daily to adequately express myself. What a shame it would be, I thought, to just accept its death.

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Jews are Clever, Make Different Movies

By Dan Friedman

Brazil is not only home to the Jules Rimet trophy, Copacabana beach, Carnaval and the frighteningly militarized favelas portrayed in “City of God,” it’s also the location of an old and respected Yiddish community. Now Jose de Abreu is making a Yiddish-speaking film — “Where Pigs Eat Oranges” — about Jewish immigration from Czarist Russia (Bessarabia) to Brazil, in 1904. Supported by the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA), Jewish immigrants founded the first organized agricultural colony in Brazil, called Philippson Colony (in the Brazilian pampa). The film takes its name from a phrase in a JCA pamphlet encouraging immigration.

It’s written by Marcos Bernstein who wrote the screenplay for “Central Station” — the poignant 1998 film nominated for an Oscar. At $10m, the budget is extensive by Brazilian standards, and includes building a shtetl in Paulinia-Sao Paulo State, and the Philippson Colony will be shot where things really happened, in a farm in Santa Maria, Rio Grande do Sul State. All he needs now are some Yiddish-speaking children to film next year!

Meanwhile, in Turkey, Selim Çiprut has already made his film “Süpürrr!” (”SweePPP!”) about, of all things, curling. You know, men with brushes skating very slowly down a strip of ice trying to encourage large chunks of stone to end up close to each other: aka Canada’s second national sport. The film will be released December 18 in Turkey and thereafter on DVD with English subtitles in February.

Selim did not refer to “Cool Runnings” — the film about a Jamaican bobsled team — but, until the DVD comes out I’m imagining that a Turkish film about curling may be going for that same counter-intuitive cute niche. When asked why on earth a Turkish Jewish filmmaker would make a film about curling, Selim replied: “Turkish Jews make curling movies, because we like to create something extraordinary, like curling. Jews are clever, make different movies.”

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Waxman to Weiner: ‘Speak English’

By Daniel Treiman

A little mameloshn came spilling out of the mouth of Rep. Anthony Weiner (aka the future Mr. Huma Abedin) during a discussion of health care reform. New York Daily News blogger Michael McAuliff reports:

“We’re not going to take hundreds of billions of dollars a year and give it to insurance companies who give us bupkis,” Weiner said, veins bulging.

That prompted a gavel from Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman and a joking rebuke.

“The gentleman will speak English,” Waxman said.

We’re still waiting for someone to tell that to New York City Councilman Hiram Monserrate, who drew the notice of The New York Times with his mastery of Yiddish put-downs and, more recently, proved his proficiency with Yiddish as a language of political praise.

For Weiner and Waxman’s mameloshn mash-up, fast forward the following video to 6:45:

Hat tip: Vos Iz Neias

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WikiHome for the Jews: Where To Go and Where Not to Go

By Dan Friedman

Visitors to the main page of the English language Wikipedia today were treated to a short history of New York’s Beth Hamedrash Hagadol synagogue.

Every day Wikipedia features a short article that they think might interest their readers which, on the English site, is always an article in English. There are however 267 different languages on Wikipedia, ranked by number of articles from English (with nearly three million articles and 300 million edits) down to Toki Pona (zero articles, but 1,710 edits!). Toki Pona, by the way, is a language with only 118 words invented by by Sonja Elen Kisa in 2001 to be “a minimal language that focuses on the good things in life.”

Hebrew is ranked number 28 in the article rankings with just under a 100,000 articles and Yiddish is ranked a disappointing 101 with fewer than 7,000 articles. However, making up for quantity through quality, some of the Yiddish entries are surprisingly graphic. For educational reasons, we suppose, the entry for prostitutes — should you ever need to avoid them — has a picture. Annabel, the German prostitute pictured (steer clear of Germans and prostitutes?), is blond and (barely) wearing red, so should be easy to spot in most Yiddish-speaking enclaves.

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Offbeat Israel: The Great-Great Grandfather of Jewish Law

By Nathan Jeffay

A broad alliance of people, from politicians to market traders, are worried for the heath of Israel’s less well-off, as reported in today’s edition of the Forward. Just as that row brews, we learn that the health of a staggering number of Israelis is suffering due to financial factors.

According to research released by the Israel Medical Association, 21% of people who live in the north of the country and 17% of those in areas of economic disadvantage said they forewent buying medications because of their cost.

Some 21% of Northern residents — and 15% of Israelis living in a low socioeconomic locality — passed on some form of medical care for their children for financial reasons. One in two people who forewent medical care due to financial factors said that their health had declined in the past year.


Yiddish was once the nemesis of the Zionist enterprise, but this week it entered its inner sanctum. The Knesset held its first ever Yiddish Culture Day on Tuesday, during which lawmakers were given Yiddish phrase books, treated to a Yiddish concert, and asked to take part in discussions about how to preserve the language. Ironic though, that it took longer for the Knesset to give a platform to Yiddish than to German — just over a year ago German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the chamber in German.


When Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, the most influential authority on Jewish law in Israel (if not the world) is in the news, it’s usually because of a new prohibition he is instituting or because of the political power he wields as the mentor of religious lawmakers. But now he is the subject of a cutesy human-interest fascination. He has just become a great-great grandfather. Hug Sameach!

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Print Journalism Just Read its Own Obit and Got Angry – In Yiddish

By Dan Friedman

Ever longer grows the list of newspapers whose print editions are closed, closing or in imminent danger. But while the chances of getting newsprint on your fingers from any of the Rocky Mountain News, New Haven Register, Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Daily News, Minneapolis Star Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Post Intelligencer, Tucson Citizen, the Miami Herald and the Christian Science Monitor may be fading, that’s not true of all newspapers.

And, most surprisingly, not true of a Yiddish newspaper. Started in January 2006 as a sister newspaper to the Forward and the Forverts, the monthly Vayter appeals to those who want to learn the language at an adult level. Whereas “Forverts” is a Yiddishization of a German word for “forward” that seemed avant-garde in 1897, Vayter is the real thing — a Yiddish word for “further.”

Originally with a circulation of 1500 it has almost doubled its run numerically and has broadened its reach to such far-flung enclaves of Yiddish speakers and would-be Yiddish speakers as Australia and Finland. It also can be read – and heard! – on the internet. Although not large in absolute figures, the numbers buck the trend. This is testament to the burgeoning of Yiddish as a university language, a fact also reflected in Vayter’s nine-month publication schedule.

It is the monthly creation of Boris Sandler (editor of the Forverts) and Gennady Estraikh (professor of Yiddish studies at NYU) who have seen it spread to most countries that ever had a Yiddish population and to some that never did, until now. Estraikh told us that the success came as no surprise to him: “As a student of history of the Forverts I know that the newspaper used to publish additional periodicals, such as Tsayt-gayst and Veker, targeting various groups of its potential readership. Like them Vayter has found its niche — as an interface between language textbooks and ‘real’ books.”

Of course his interest is not impartial: “We hope that this nursery will also train new Forverts readers. Apart from fluency in Yiddish, Forverts readers have to know at least some basics of Yiddish-related history. So we combine two things: develop our readers’ language skills and, at the same, educate them.” In that vein the next issue talks about Yiddish in New York and on the early history of the NY Yiddish daily Der Tog (Day), 1914-1973.

Long may it continue or, as the Vayter might say “lomir geyn vayter”— “let’s go further ahead!”

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Yid Vid: If Amy Winehouse Were a Yiddish-Speaking, Bearded, Orthodox Guy Who Had a Little Too Much Manischewitz…

By Daniel Treiman

…she still wouldn’t want to go to rehab:

There’s something quite appropriate about doing an Amy Winehouse cover while a bit shikered. Here’s Winehouse herself performing a Michael Jackson cover while in a bit of state.

Hat tip: Commentary’s John Podhoretz

UPDATE: The mysterious, bearded, Yiddish-speaking Orthodox guy has been identified! Bintel Blog reader Ralph Kostant helpfully notes in a comment that the fellow in the video “is Marvin Silbermintz of North Hollywood, California, formerly a writer for Jay Leno at the Tonight Show, and a very funny guy.” Indeed, it turns out that this isn’t Silbermintz’s first appearance on the Bintel Blog. We previously showcased his genius back in February.



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