HomeJuly 2012The Joy of Oy

The Joy of Oy

“Oy vey,” “mazel tov,” “such a mensch” – these are but a few phrases that are part of a language known as “Yiddish.”  These expressions and many more similar to them have crept their way into the common usages of everyday speech.  But where did they come from?  How old is this language known as Yiddish?  How and why was it created?
Professor Israel Bartal, Avraham Harman Professor of Jewish History and former dean of the faculty of humanities at the Hebrew University (HU) in Jerusalem, recently talked about the subject to a couple of Orange County audiences.  One talk was presented at the Jewish Culture Club in Laguna Woods Village on Sunday afternoon, June 10.  The second was held later that same evening at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach.
Vivian Ronkin, president of the Jewish Culture Club, said that when Caron Berkeley, director of the American Friends of the Hebrew University/Orange County, called and told her that Bartal would be on the West Coast and would love to speak to the group on “The History of Yiddish and the Jews of Eastern Europe,” she was thrilled.
“So many of our members have either come from Eastern Europe – or their families have – that they have a real thirst for learning and knowing more about the area and Yiddish.  We’re so happy to have such a renowned speaker come and give us a lesson!  Most of us aren’t acquainted with the HU and all it has to offer.   This is a great chance to learn about all three subjects,” said Ronkin.
Here on a year-long sabbatical from HU and teaching at Rutgers University, Bartal said the most important part of speaking to Jewish groups here in California is to talk about the culture in Poland and what was then the USSR.  “I want to spread the messages and remember the old country and how it took to the New World,” he said.  “I try to give a much abbreviated lesson like the one I teach over the course of a year in Israel.  It’s essentially a 45-minute class following more than 1,000 years of history from Northern France through Eastern Europe.  I love the interactive part where we can all discuss selected Yiddish words and idioms that tell the story of “mame-loshen” (the mother tongue).”
Speaking to a sizeable crowd in Laguna Woods, Bartal explained that “I was very surprised to learn during my sabbatical here that people were more interested in hearing about the origins of Yiddish and the history behind it than in Israel.  I’m hoping that everyone will see that the idea of this old language is part of one’s very self and when people analyze the words, they will be able to have a better understanding of their past.  Once they have this knowledge, they need to use it to continue to make it a living and growing history to pass on to their children, grandchildren and if possible, their great-grandchildren.”
Bartal went on to explain that most of us have no idea how far back Yiddish goes, the depth and longevity of a language that is so valuable.  “We have three ways to research the timeline.  We look at tombstones in the area, we look at any forms of writing that have the words included in the works and then there is the interesting use of looking at the coins of the various times.  We have one-sided pieces at HU that show information with the use of Hebrew lettering.  It goes back to Roman times!”
Lillian Covelman, Jewish Culture Club member and Laguna Woods resident, said she was extremely interested in coming to hear Dr. Bartal speak on a subject that is so near to her heart.  “Our family is from Eastern Europe,” she explained.  “We’re from Pennsylvania originally.  I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and now my granddaughter has as well.  She found a book there with stories in it about Jews in Eastern Europe and bought it for me. I’ve become so obsessed with the subject. The book starts in the 1800s.  It’s like re-living my youth.  I have this need to learn as much as I can.  When I heard that this month’s meeting was on this subject, I had to come.  I wanted to see if the professor would be confirming everything that I’ve been reading — if there were any differences.”
It’s also been a learning experience for Bartal, whose sabbatical has come to an end, and he has returned to Israel.  “Academically, the US and Israel are very different,” he said.  “It’s like two different worlds.  Back home we tend to be more European in our teaching methods.  What I hope is that my talks give people the idea to go back and learn Yiddish and to use it more often.  It will enrich their lives.”

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