This post is in response to “Yenta’s Dirty Roots,” which ran on The Sisterhood on February 10, 2013.
One of the many interesting things about Yiddish is that no one is entirely sure how it started. Though it originated in Medieval Europe, its exact roots are the subject of competing hypotheses among scholars.
What isn’t in doubt, however, is the origin of the term “yente,” which connotes a gossipy woman. In a February 10 blog post on The Sisterhood, Rachel Rosmarin speculated that it might have something to with the American Yiddish slang term “yentsn,” which means “to f–k.”
In fact, the word “yente” goes back to the very beginning of Yiddish, when there was a strong influence from Romance languages like Old Italian and Old French. It is derived from the name Yentl, which comes from the Old Italian word “gentile” meaning noble, or refined. In English we have words like “gentle,” “genteel” and even “gentile,” that come from the same source. In his book “Dictionary Of Jewish Usage: A Guide To The Use Of Jewish Terms,” the linguist Sol Steinmetz points out a number of Yiddish words that come from these languages, including “bentshn,” to bless, and tsholnt (or cholent), everyone’s favorite Shabbos lunch.
The language of soap operas is universal: vexing vixens, meddling matriachs and busy men with even busier zippers. When All My Children joined numerous cancelled soaps with its final episode on September 23, it prompted me to reflect on how the voices gone silent did more than entertain; they helped teach me Yiddish.
Like monarchies before a revolution, the kingdoms of daytime television ruled when coffee klatches and occasional babysitters had yet to be overthrown by power lunches and 24/7 nannies.
The demise of soaps draws the curtain on not just a fading era of pre-feminist entertainment, but what women now consider appropriate to do with their days, or at least their afternoons. Which brings me to my maternal grandmother, a woman who survived an immigrant’s ocean trek, a working mother who raised three sets of twins in the Depression.
Fordham anthropology professor Ayala Fader is the author of “Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn” (Princeton University Press, 2009), which has just been named the winner of the Jewish Book Council’s 2009 Barbara Dobkin Award in Women’s Studies. The Sisterhood’s Rebecca Honig Friedman recently interviewed Fader about her fieldwork in the wilds of Borough Park, Brooklyn, what “fitting in” means among haredi women, and how her research changed her perspective on how the ultra-Orthodox live.
Rebecca Honig Friedman:“Mitzvah Girls” began as your doctoral thesis. How did you choose the topic?
Ayala Fader: Growing up on the Upper West Side as a Reform Jew, I had always been fascinated by Hasidic Jews — they had been presented to me as a remnant of a lost past. I think there was some nostalgia I had which was pretty quickly cured by fieldwork. When I began reading some of the literature on Hasidic Jews, I found out that there had not been much research done on [Hasidim’s use of Yiddish], and even less on childrearing. So for both personal and professional reasons, I chose this topic.
In the book you talk about the importance for Hasidic females of “fitting in” and being “with it.” Do you see the desire for conformity and what we might call “hipness” as being different from the similar desires of women outside the Hasidic world?
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