The gifted and generous taz (check out her site for all manner of free backgrounds and tiles) has sent me a link to Michael Chabon‘s melancholy essay “Useful Expressions,” a meditation on a strange little book I’ve owned for years, Say It in Yiddish by Uriel and Beatrice Weinreich. (It’s still available from Dover for $4.95; I have the original 1958 paperback, priced at 75 cents.) It’s part of the “Say It” series, little phrasebooks that help you get by in countries where they speak languages other than English—Japanese, Spanish, Russian… The unavoidable question, of course, is: in what country do they speak Yiddish? I’ve often flipped through the book with an inchoate mix of feelings; Chabon has thought about it more systematically and written about it well:

What were they thinking, the Weinreichs? Was the original 1958 Dover edition simply the reprint of some earlier, less heartbreakingly implausible book? At what time in the history of the world was there a place of the kind that the Weinreichs imply, a place where not only the doctors and waiters and trolley conductors spoke Yiddish, but also the airline clerks, travel agents, ferry captains, and casino employees? A place where you could rent a summer home from Yiddish speakers, go to a Yiddish movie, get a finger wave from a Yiddish-speaking hairstylist, a shoeshine from a Yiddish-speaking shineboy, and then have your dental bridge repaired by a Yiddish-speaking dentist?…

He quotes the sentence “Can I go by boat/ferry to—-?” and continues:

The blank in the last of those phrases, impossible to fill in, tantalizes me. Whither could I sail on that boat/ferry, in the solicitous company of Uriel and Beatrice Weinreich, and from what shore?

I dream of two possible destinations. The first might be a modern independent state very closely analogous to the State of Israel—call it the State of Yisroel—a postwar Jewish homeland created during a time of moral emergency, located presumably, but not necessarily, in Palestine; it could be in Alaska, or on Madagascar. Here, perhaps, that minority faction of the Zionist movement who favored the establishment of Yiddish as the national language of the Jews were able to prevail over their more numerous Hebraist opponents. There is Yiddish on the money, of which the basic unit is the herzl, or the dollar, or even the zloty. There are Yiddish color commentators for soccer games, Yiddish-speaking cash machines, Yiddish tags on the collars of dogs. Public debate, private discourse, joking and lamentation, all are conducted not in a new-old, partly artificial language like Hebrew, a prefabricated skyscraper still under construction, with only the lowermost of its stories as yet inhabited by the generations, but in a tumbledown old palace capable in the smallest of its stones (the word nu) of expressing slyness, tenderness, derision, romance, disputation, hopefulness, skepticism, sorrow, a lascivious impulse, or the confirmation of one’s worst fears…

I can imagine another Yisroel, the youngest nation on the North American continent, founded in the former Alaska Territory during World War II as a resettlement zone for the Jews of Europe. (For a brief while, I once read, Franklin Roosevelt was nearly sold on such a plan.) Perhaps after the war, in this Yisroel, the millions of immigrant Polish, Rumanian, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Austrian, Czech and German Jews held a referendum, and chose independence over proferred statehood in the U.S. The resulting country is obviously a far different place than Israel. It is a cold, northern land of furs, paprika, samovars and one long, glorious day of summer. The portraits on those postage stamps we buy are of Walter Benjamin, Simon Dubnow, Janusz Korczak, and of a hundred Jews unknown to us, whose greatness was allowed to flower only here, in this world. It would be absurd to speak Hebrew, that tongue of spikenard and almonds, in such a place. This Yisroel—or maybe it would be called Alyeska—is a kind of Jewish Sweden, social-democratic, resource rich, prosperous, organizationally and temperamentally far more akin to its immediate neighbor, Canada, then to its more freewheeling benefactor far to the south. Perhaps, indeed, there has been some conflict, in the years since independence, between the United States and Alyeska. Perhaps oilfields have been seized, fishing vessels boarded. Perhaps not all of the native peoples were happy with the outcome of Roosevelt’s humanitarian policies and the treaty of 1948.” Lately there may have been a few problems assimilating the Jews of Quebec, in flight from the ongoing separatist battles there.

This country of the Weinreichs is in the nature of a wistful fantasyland, a toy theater with miniature sets and furnishings to arrange and rearrange, painted backdrops on which the gleaming lineaments of a snowy Jewish Onhava can be glimpsed, all its grief concealed behind the scrim, hidden in the machinery of the loft, sealed up beneath trap doors in the floorboards. But grief haunts every mile of that other destination to which the Weinreichs beckon, unwittingly perhaps but in all the awful detail that Dover’s “Say It” series requires. Grief hand-colors all the postcards, stamps the passports, sours the cooking, fills the luggage. It keens all night in the pipes of old hotels. The Weinreichs are taking us home, to the “old country.” To Europe…

Much food for thought and for fantasy. Read the whole thing. (And thanks, tazoula!)

Update (2014): The link to the essay is now dead, but it is available (under a different title) here — thanks, John!


  1. I remember, that back in 1997 when I tested at the Learning Centre at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home base of the 101st Airborne Division, I saw among the tests which were filed for possible use, one for Yiddish. Successful completion of the test would give the soldier a two letter suffix to the MOS, indicating that the soldier could write, read, and comprehend Yiddish.
    Of the few Jewish soldiers whom I met either inn Campbell or Stewart, I never met one who spoke Yiddish.
    It’s still a dream of mine to put in the paperwork to take the test, and get that suffix for Yiddish on my records.

  2. I nearly got an apartment in NYC thirty years ago on the strength of my (very limited) ability to speak Yiddish. But the ancient landlady clearly was the type who would expect a lot of daily interaction, and I decided against moving anyway. Still, the thought of a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side haunts my dreams today…

  3. Arne Adolfsen says

    When I studied Yiddish with Janet Hadda at UCLA around 20+ years ago, she made fun of this book as “Fun in Yiddishland.”

  4. As I understand it, Hotzeplotz is now a novel-in-progress by Chabon.

  5. Aha! I look forward to reading it. Thanks for the heads-up.

  6. Is it too much to imagine that U. and B. wrote it both for the money and for fun. Say It in X books are so very surreal as you and others have already pointed out. It’s like sitting in a theater and asking aloud “What’s all this light being shone on the white sheet?” “Hey, those aren’t people and cars. It’s all an illusion.” Nevertheless and needlesstosay, I enjoyed the Chabon article and look forward to Hotzeplotz.

  7. At the risk of sounding like a Yiddish pedant, one might want to talk to those who speak/read/write/use/study Yiddish about whether they’ve found the book useful, rather than asking the opinion of those who don’t.
    Janet Hadda, besides being a biographer and a literary critic, has quite a tidy sideline making fun of creative and/or present-day work in Yiddish, so her comments should be taken with a trough-load of kosher salt.
    However, Hadda does know Yiddish, which is more than Michael Chabon. Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure Chabon is a terrific writer (I still haven’t gotten around to reading Kavalier and Klay, but I mean to!), it’s just that his gauzy sentimentalizations of Yiddish are also to be massively qualified, and (by those who don’t mind being accused of humorlessness) quarreled with.
    For the fact of the matter is that the little book is awfully useful, admittedly a lot less now than it used to be, both here in the U.S. and abroad. I can testify to its usefulness on a number of trips where I did not then know the local vernaculars.
    Seen in this light — that is, once one is provided with the crucial added information of the book’s usefulness, and the fact that there are Yiddish speakers making use of such terms as are found in the book — Chabon’s whimsy seems more than a little patronizing.
    And I’m surprised, Hat, that you quote (state?) without comment the observation, What country is Yiddish spoken in?
    The answer is two-fold: Why, none. And many. Surely you must know the riposte: how many languages are there? How many countries? The difference must be ten-fold at least! The idea that only a lexicon of a national vernacular has any extra-sentimental value is certainly something any linguistically educated person should be warned against, no?
    Admittedly, the Weinreich’s book can be read as tragic, both because of the murder of millions of Yiddish-speaking Jews, and because their standardizing campaign has (mostly) failed. But these emotions (sentimentality, pity, tragedy) are at the very least to be mixed with a linguistically more basic realization: that Yiddish is also a language. Not just a screen for the projection of one’s literary fantasia.
    It’s worth mentioning, too, that Chabon (and Hadda) are Jewish, and so (one might psychoanalyze a la the latter) might think that their racial memory grants them some sort of “knowledge” of the present-day state of Yiddish, without them having to acquire said knowledge by more conventional means…

  8. The world could use more people sounding like Yiddish pedants, and right away.

  9. Um, Zackary, methinks you’re taking this a little too literally (and too hard). The point is not that Yiddish is not spoken anywhere (which would be an absurd statement), but that there is no country where Yiddish has the kind of official status that would make such a book useful in the way it pretends to be useful—the way a Spanish phrasebook is useful is Spain, or a Japanese one in Japan. Yes, of course it’s a useful source of phrases if one is conversing with a Yiddish-speaker; the point is that it’s not a generalized “useful phrases in Yiddish” book but specifically a book for getting around in a Yiddish-language official environment. There is no country in the world where one needs to be able to say “What is the flight number?” or “Here is my identification” in Yiddish, nor was there such a country when the book was written, nor has there ever been such a country. Chabon is being neither whimsical nor patronizing, he is seriously responding to the ontological void that gapes behind the format of this book.
    None of this has anything to do with the idea that “only a lexicon of a national vernacular has any extra-sentimental value,” which no one who has spent five minutes reading Languagehat could possibly imagine I believed.

  10. I’m sorry if I overreacted – I tend to do so with things Yiddish. I certainly didn’t mean to insult you or your blog, which I have (at great detriment to my thesis) spent much, much more than five minutes reading!
    Your points are mostly correct, and well taken. (A small correction: you probably know of the one place in the world that had a “Yiddish-speaking official environment,” the Soviet autonomous republic of Birobizhan. However, since the creation of that region was a historical farce of tragic proportions, you’re right not to mention it.)
    Chabon is being neither whimsical nor patronizing, he is seriously responding to the ontological void that gapes behind the format of this book.
    I think you’re giving him too much credit. My impression (again, perhaps viewed too much through Yiddishist glasses) is that he is waxing astonished at the very thought of a country (not official environment) where Yiddish could be of daily use.

  11. Having just started “The Drowned and the Saved”, I’m certainly aware of the poignancy of Chabon’s article (have to go read the whole thing….) but the book was, as you mentioned, written in the early fifties. There were still Yiddish radio stations in NY at the time, as far as I know, and a few Yiddish theaters on the Lower East Side. Perhaps the book was, to some extent, intended as a sort of guide to things that existed in “translation”. For example, a radio play having to do with transatlantic travel (at the time an expensive luxury) would require such locutions, even though quite possibly neither the performers nor the audience could use the the phrases in their daily lives.

  12. I’ve seen a few other books in the “Say it in …” series, and it would seem that the publishers simply gave a template to various authors to translate. Chabon merely amplifies the irony implicit in the Yiddish version.
    Yiddish is far from dead, although it is changing. It is still learned by thousands of children as a first language, but the vast majority of these come from Hasidic families, which makes Yiddish seem to have a low profile. Prior to the Holocaust Yiddish had a broader speaker base within the Ashkenazic community – Hasidim were only a small percentage of the language’s speakers.
    Today there are Yiddish nursery schools in New York that cater to non-Hasidic families. Montreal has a secular Yiddish High School, as does Mexico City. That doesn’t sound like much but you would be amazed at how influential graduates of those two schools are in the revival/maintainence of ‘secular’ Yiddish.
    In Europe, Antwerp and the eastern side of Paris still maintain ‘secular’ yiddish speaking communities as well as Hasidic. I got a bit of a surprise last year when I stayed at an small hotel near Place de Republic. the co-owners were a Gay couple, one Algerian Arab and one Yiddish speaking Jew both in their mid 30s. It was a bit of a novelty to see a guy named Rashid slapping his head and moaning “Oy gevald!”

  13. I figured you’d be weighing in on this. That’s great about the Yiddish schools in Montreal and Mexico City, and I love the image of Rashid!

  14. Michael Farris says

    I’ve never been there, but I’ve been told (by a linguistics professor who has been there) that there are still Yiddish speakers (have no idea how many) in Vilnius, Lithuania. At least he reported hearing what appeared to be local residents using Yiddish on more than one occasion.

  15. Yes, there are still Yiddish speakers in Lithuania. Prof. Dov Katz (Oxford Yiddish Program) does a Yiddish course there as well. There are Yiddish speakers almost everywhere there are surviving Jewish communities: Cracow, Warsaw, Bratislava, Budapest, Bucharest, Iasi. Republic of Moldova has a pretty large community, andsome areas of the Ukraine still maintain the language. The numbers are smaller, though, and children speaking Yiddish is rare.
    Was speaking Yiddish last night with a guy from Strasbourg, France. Got a phone call from him this morning: I was “ibergehengt”.

  16. Michael Farris says

    “There are Yiddish speakers almost everywhere there are surviving Jewish communities: Cracow, Warsaw… Budapest”
    I think they must be well hidden in those three cities. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Warsaw and Budapest and have heard many languages spoken on the street from residents and tourists (though I don’t spend that much time in tourist areas), but I don’t ever recall hearing Yiddish, more’s the pity. There is a single bilingual Polish Yiddish publication (Dos Jidische Wort (formerly Folksztyme), but I don’t know what kind of circulation/readership it has. I’m glad that it’s still viable in some areas and would love for there to be a revival of Yiddish in Poland, but somehow can’t imagine how it would happen …

  17. Huh, I read and enjoyed that book but apparently never mentioned it at LH. Weird.

  18. David Marjanović says

    the thought of a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side


    …Speaking of [h]: it turns out that Hotzenplotz is a real place, today Osoblaha in Czech Silesia. Who’d’a’ thunk it.

  19. marie-lucie says

    Too bad that the appearance of this thread predates my acquaintance with LH.

    In my first year as a graduate student in the US (in Vermont), I rented a room from a very old Jewish lady and heard plenty of Yiddish as that was the language she spoke with her younger daughter, who understood it all but only spoke English (the older daughter spoke Yiddish with her mother, but she lived in Florida so I never met her). I could pick out some German words here and there, but I could have used the little book!

    I think that rather than tourists, the little book could have been aimed at second or third generation people who were acquainted with the language from hearing it from older relatives but did not really speak it and wanted to learn more.

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