William Granick. Photo courtesy of William Gralnick
Like the Jewish people and Mark Twain, the disappearance of Yiddish has been exaggerated. More than a thousand years old, the “language of the people” or “mamaloshen”, the language of mothers, is a fascinating story. This is clearly a Brooklyn story since Brooklyn has by far the largest Jewish population in New York and arguably the largest Yiddish-speaking population in the country. South Florida is not far behind. Jew or not, it’s unlikely you’ve ever heard anyone speak Yiddish. You might not realize it, but Jew or Gentile you spoke Yiddish, that’s how it’s become ingrained in English, especially since Zero Mostel took Broadway by storm as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. “Have you ever used the ‘S’ word for someone you thought was an idiot? I bet you have. Pure Yiddish. You eat Yiddish too. Bagel? Smoked salmon? Pastrami? Yeah. Yiddish.
But this article is not limited to Yiddish. I’m studying Yiddish to fulfill a deathbed promise I made to my grandmother. The night before I sat down to write this, I learned something incredibly relevant: about a third of the Yiddish language can trace its roots to Ukrainian. So much for one of Putin’s big lies, that there is no Ukrainian language, nor Ukrainian people to speak it. This article is one more reason to support the value of the Ukrainian people, and if you are Jewish, to see another side of a people who were once our executioners and who have now turned Putin into an idiot by having a Jewish president when he said it was a Nazi government.
Yiddish is a language of languages. A scholar said, “I speak six languages, all Yiddish. German, Polish, Russian, other Slavic languages and yes Ukrainian.
Often referred to as a dialect of the south-east, Ukrainian Yiddish is deeply marked by the influence of the Ukrainian language. In terms of grammar, for example, Yiddish aligns well with that of Ukrainian. It is much more like Ukrainian than Middle High German (German spoken in the Middle Ages, 1200-1500 CE).
Yiddish has also absorbed a multitude of Ukrainian conjunctions, prepositions and adverbs, such as i… i, take, naked ‘both…and, indeed, good’. The rich variety of Ukrainian diminutives have been adapted to Jewish names (for example, Moshenu, Khayimke, diminutive of Moyshe and Khayim), and Ukrainian names were sometimes given to Jewish children, especially girls (for example, Badana, from Bohdana). The Yiddish vocabulary has also been enriched with countless Ukrainian words. Those who have attempted to catalog Ukrainian Yiddish have found it to be so much a part of the language that it is impossible. Length and width range from profane to sacred: from profane (paskudne, from paskudnyj ‘disgusting’ a word that was a favorite of one of my uncles) to the sacred (prave, from pravyty ‘carry out [a religious ceremony]’) and many in between.
Here’s a fact you’ll probably be the only person to know at your next gathering: The flourishing of Yiddish literature in Ukraine is exemplified by one of the language’s greatest writers, Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916). He legitimized the Ukrainian dialect by writing almost exclusively in this medium. The years he spent in the small town of Voronkiv were immortalized in his fictional characters Kasrilevke in Violin on the roof.
With the loss of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian Jews in the Holocaust and the postwar harassment of Yiddish writers, Ukrainian Jewry increasingly turned to Ukrainian and Russian as vernacular languages. As a direct result of the most recent changes, a Yiddish textbook (including an anthology of literary works, short biographies of famous authors and a brief history of Jews in Ukraine) was published in Kyiv in 1991.
Let’s not forget the song. Moyshe Beregovsky, referred to in a documentary as “the Song Seeker,” was an ethnic Ukrainian. In the 1930s and 1940s he toured the country, the Jewish Telegraph Agency tells us. With primitive recording equipment, he recorded over a thousand rolls of Yiddish songs. The Chabad organization has Ukrainian Yiddish songs on YouTube. And the one I discovered on the net is incredibly prophetic. Is that the title? “Goodbye Odessa.” See for yourself. What you hear will touch your soul, Jewish or not.
There are many songs about the city of Belz. It is a small town of Chevrenerhd, in County western Ukraine, near the border with Poland It is located between the Solokiya River (a tributary of the insect river) and the Richytsia stream. Belz is home to the administration of Belz Urban Hromada, one of homadas from Ukraine.] Its population is approximately 2229 (2021 est.). It was also the home of the great Hasidic Belz dynasty, now reestablished in Israel with adherents from Brooklyn as well.
And where do we hear the song? Why theater. In the 1920s, Ukraine was home to a thriving Yiddish theater that died out in the Great Depression and the ensuing World War.
Thanks to Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, Rabbi Benjamin Blech, author of The Idiot’s Guide to Yiddish, and the Jewish Book Center for helping open up this miraculous story for me and for you.
So, Mr. Putin, here’s a Raspberry Snoopy for you, from Brooklyn and hopefully everyone everywhere. “Blech”, which is also Yiddish.