Wednesday, March 26, 2014

How Well Do You Know Your Yiddish Dictionaries?

UPDATE UPDATE (second update)
According to a tweet from the Director of Digital Strategy at WNET/Channel 13, the Yiddish "quiz" is down because Survey Gizmo suffered a cyber attack yesterday, nebekh. I'll wish a refue shleyme to Survey Gizmo and still hold out hope that WNET/ Channel 13 will just take down the quiz, or redo it with real Yiddish words and definitions.

As they say on TV, stay tuned...

/UPDATE UPDATE (end second update)


UPDATE (first update)

It's come to my attention, even more recently, that PBS has removed the How Well Do You Know Your Yiddish quiz from their website! Now, who can say if it was due to the public shaming meted out by angry bloggers? But a little gentle shaming obviously can't hurt if you want to make the soi disant 'educational media' take responsibility for the quality of content they are putting out.

If you think I'm making a big deal out of nothing here, think about this: The act of writing history, especially one's own history, is a definitional, political act. The Story of the Jews is saying something about global Jewry today, both in its content, and in its choice of establishment, British but Jewish host, Simon Schama.

By using the How Well Do You Know Your Yiddish quiz to promote a seemingly serious work of history, PBS is also telling us something about which parts of Jewish history and culture to take seriously and which can be regarded as a joke. You can guess which is which.

But I'm not willing to consign a thousand years of history, literature, music, foodways and folk religion to a back-of-the-book novelty glossary. Yiddish culture belongs to me (and you) and shouldn't be peddled like plastic dog poo, especially not by people who should know better.

So yeah, I'm going to continue to speak up for the importance and integrity of Yiddish and Yiddish culture, whenever I see the need. I hope you will, too.

/UPDATE (end first update)

How Well Do You Know Your Yiddish Dictionaries?

It's recently come to my attention that the well intentioned, though poorly informed, folks at PBS don't know the difference between Yiddish and English. They seem to be under the same impression as many, many Americans: that is, if it feels Yiddish, it must be Yiddish. After all, Yiddish isn't a real language, right? And futz sounds like a Yiddish word, so it must be a Yiddish word, right?


All this confusion could be cleared up in the time it takes to open a standard Yiddish dictionary. It occurred to me, though, that perhaps people don't know the difference between, say, a Yiddish dictionary and a humorous reference book on Yinglish. One is a dictionary. One is not. Uhh... I'm not a linguist, people. Just a humorless scold, here to help.

And since people like learning in quiz form, I now present to you How Well Do You Know Your Yiddish Dictionaries? No prizes, no shareable Facebook badge, sorry. I don't have the slick graphics and know-how of the PBS team. Alls I got are a couple of dictionaries. And a couple not dictionaries. So... without further ado...

The challenge: Choose which of the following are Yiddish dictionaries and which are humorous books on Yinglish or other non-dictionary reference books

A. The Joys of Yiddish

B. Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary

C. If You Can't Say Anything Nice, Say It In Yiddish

D. Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary

E. English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary

F. Sex and the Single Hasid

G. Verterbukh fun loshn-koydesh shtamike verter in yiddish


B, D, E, G

A, C, F

Now that we all know where to find real Yiddish words and their definitions (in dictionaries), places with an educational mandate, like PBS, will never end up with embarrassing, error-ridden material on their website. 

Yay! We all win!!!! Now let's go watch Simon Schama in The Story of the Jews!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

me' khapt a nosh/ a homentash...

Purim sameakh/ a freylikhn purim, y'all. What are you doing reading this? Shouldn't you be pounding shots in a dark room in a terrible wig?

But, since you're here, and we're in a Purim mood, let's talk about hamentashen. What the heck is a hamentash (singular)? Is it from the Yiddish for Haman's (boo hiss) Pockets?

Not so fast, smarty pants. According to best-selling Canadian author Michael Wex:

Hamantaschen–pronounced homon-tashn in Yiddish–were originally mon-tashn, poppy seed pockets, that were eaten on Purim. The similarity between mon, Yiddish for poppy seeds, andHomon led to the name change, and with it a raft of after-the-fact attempts to explain what the pastry had to do with Haman, the villain of the Purim story. Variously said to represent Haman's ears and nose, his hat, and even his pockets, hamantaschen are more convincingly explained–if there is any explanation beyond homophony–by a pun on the various biblical verses in which the Children of Israel are said to have eaten ha-mon, the manna, which would also help to explain the popularity of the poppy seed filling.

Sorry, poppy seed h8ers. Go argue with tradition. And before you diss this tricorner classic, keep in mind its important place in Yiddish sexual euphemism:
The general appearance of  the hamantasch and its cousins in geometry, the knish and the pirogi, has given all three a special place in colloquial Yiddish as slightly coy vulgarisms for the human vulva, roughly equivalent to "pussy" or "beaver," neither of which is even vaguely kosher. Pireg–pirogi–is the most vulgar, hamantasch the cutest. Its triangular shape and varicolored stuffings make it a natural. Knish occupies the sort of middle ground that allows it to be used informally between consenting adults of either sex.

 esen a trois, anyone?

One last Wex related Yiddish factoid: Many years ago Wex taught me that in Yiddish, a nun is a monaskhe. Surely there's some interesting resonances there, or at least puns to be made, given the wonderful symbolic depth of the humble 'montash. Which brings me to our next hamantash related destination...

Over at Lilith magazine, there's an exploration of the hamantash as a symbol of ancient feminine fertility and power.

If Judy Chicago has never made a branded hamantash she really should

A must read is Susan Schnur's classic reclamation of the hamantash as the Womantash. As a feminist, it made me rethink my distaste for mon. After all, the little classic seed represents the fertile potency of Spring and is a powerful symbol of the feminine within the springtime stories of peril, triumph and rebirth. Can your apricot jam do all that?

Now go get drunk, seriously!!!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

PBS or Heeb? Take This Quiz!!!

Dear PBS,

When your website content is almost indistinguishable from that of Heeb, it's probably time to stop farming out your website work to the unpaid interns.

PBS is promoting its new documentary The Story of the Jews, narrated by Simon Schama. So far, so good. It's the kind of thing my dad would TiVO so we could watch together and I would secretly roll my eyes at how they get everything wrong about Eastern Europe.

In any case, I haven't seen it. And if they want to make it appealing to snobs like me, this is probably not the best way. It's a quiz called How Well Do You Know Your Yiddish. It has 15 questions, testing your knowledge of well known 'Yiddish' words. Unsurprisingly, many of the Yiddish words are actually Yinglish, the 'translations' are mostly appalling, and the whole thing is mainly a quiz of how hard you can cringe through 15 mouse clicks.

The worst part is, it's not much better than Heeb's 2010 Test Your Jew IQ game. Remember that gem of American-Jewish cultural pride?
Know the lyrics to If I Were a Rich Man? Can you distinguish between actual Yiddish words and plain mumbo-jumbo? Heard of any Israeli cities besides Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv? If you’re not feeling nauseous by now, then this is probably the game for you!
Yes, because what self-respecting Jew doesn't feel nauseated by knowing common Yiddish words and Israeli cities??? 

PBS doesn't quite articulate it so clearly, but How Well Do You Know Yiddish quiz has the same self-hating minstrel vibe. Its mish mosh of Yiddish, Yinglish and fake definitions reeks of the same peculiar American Jewish shame.

A little side by side comparison of the games:


Futz is not a real Yiddish word. It is Yinglish.



The actual expression is 'hak mir nisht keyn tshaynik' and roughly translates to 'stop banging on about it.'



Shtik means piece. 

And it just goes on and on...

Honestly, if PBS can't do any better than Heeb, I don't have a lot of hope for mainstream Jewish pop culture. As the well known Yiddish saying goes, 'We're fucked on both ends.'


PBS has removed the Quiz from its website.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Love Lays Low

From my friend Daniel Kahn, a dark and funny new video for Love Lays Low, off his newest CD with the Painted Bird, Bad Old Songs.


Constructed and directed by Polish artist Izabela Pia Szumen.