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Yiddish Everywhere and Late Night TV Goes For the Jewish Triple Play

I’ve always maintained that if an alien from Outer Space arrived in the United States and spent just a short period of time here, he would conclude that Jews make up much more than the measly 2% of the population that we actually do. Jewish people are influential in many areas of society and somehow Jewish themes and words seem to always creep into pop culture.

Take the Yiddish language for instance, which has long been considered the dying language of the Jewish people. Many Yiddish words have crept into popular parlance as I blogged about this summer when presidential candidate Michele Bachmann mispronounced the word chutzpah. Just a few weeks ago another candidate for president, Mitt Romney, attempted to say the same Yiddish word in a televised debate. “I like your chutzpah on this, Herman,” Romney said to Herman Cain. Romney’s pronunciation was much better than Bachmann’s, though he still wasn’t able to get that throat-clearing hard “ch” sound.

And it’s not only Mormon politicians who are casually tossing out Yiddish words and expressions. I’ve begun to notice more Yiddish words being used by non-Jews recently. Last month I was playing a round of golf with an Indian businessman. On this rainy afternoon, he drove the ball into a patch of wet mud. When we arrived at his ball I heard him express his dissatisfaction as he exclaimed that his ball landed in the schmutz. I guess he plays golf with a lot of Jews.

And then earlier this week Canon Kevin George a pastor friend of mine from Windsor, Ontario emailed to ask if I could speak at his church on the Sunday following Thanksgiving in an interfaith service. I responded to his email explaining that I had already committed to officiating at a wedding that afternoon, to which he replied simply: “Oy vey!”

My new Greek friend Nick Raftis, the owner of The Inn Season Cafe (a delicious vegetarian restaurant in Royal Oak, Michigan certified by Kosher Michigan), is always asking me if I want to come in to his restaurant to have a nosh.

These Yiddish phrases have even found their way into social media. I received an email from the social media analytics website Klout informing me I had a new notification. When I logged into my Klout account, there was a message that said, “Mazel tov! You received 1 +K for doing something awesome.” Amazing.

And then of course there’s late night TV. Saturday Night Live is singularly responsible for bringing such Yiddish words as “verklempt” and “shpilkis” into the mainstream through Mike Myers’ “Coffee Talk with Linda Richman”. Last night, I noticed what I would call the Late Night Triple Play when it comes to Jewish references.

First, at the end of The Daily Show last night, Jon Stewart gave a very heartfelt tribute to the late Gil Cates, producer of the Academy Awards. Introducing the “Moment of Zen” dedicated to Gil Cates’ memory, Jon said that the man who produced the two Oscar shows that he hosted was “in layman terms, a mensch.” The next Jewish reference came on Tosh.0 when Daniel Tosh (who is not Jewish) encouraged his viewers to come to his stand-up tour taking place over the holidays and then said, “I mean the Jewish holidays”. The third Jewish reference came from the Irish Conan O’Brien who is hosting his late night show from New York City this week. Joking that he couldn’t see the small signs held by audience members in the back of the theater, Conan asked how he was supposed to be able to read these small signs that look like they’re written in Hebrew.

With all of these references to Jewish themes, from the political arena to late night television and in regular everyday conversation, it really is amazing that we Jews are such a minority in America. In fact, even that topic made it into The Daily Show episode last night. John Hodgman told Jon Stewart how surprised he was that Jews only made up 2-3% of the population because “You (Jews) seem to be everywhere!”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Celebrities Hebrew Humor Language Politics Yiddish

Michele Bachman’s Choot-spa Moment

While I am certainly no Yiddish maven, I know enough words and phrases to know that when someone mispronounces a Yiddish word it hurts my ears. For my maternal grandmother, who is fluent in Yiddish, when someone mangles the language of our eastern-European ancestors it really hurts her ears.

So, the other day when I heard Rep. Michele Bachman on Fox News attempt to pepper her kvetching about President Obama with a Yiddish word, I just figured that her botching of the Yiddish must have rendered my grandmother legally deaf.

Certain Yiddish words and phrases (Yiddishisms if you will) have entered the English language and should be treated as regular words. Maven, macher, kvetch, heimish, shtick, schlep, shpiel, klutz, nebish and kibbitz no longer require italics because they’re used routinely in English conversation. This means that they should be pronounced correctly. Now, I don’t expect non-Jews to be able to get out the guttural “ch” sound (as in Bach) when it comes to words like Chanukkah, l’chayim or tuchus. But at least pronounce them with the “h” sound rather than the “ch” sound as in Cheney or choo-choo.

Michele Bachman’s failing attempt to pronounce the word “chutzpah” correctly last week was nothing short of ignorant. The Think Progress blog summed up Michele Bachman’s “Yiddish fail” this way: “Like many of her GOP colleagues, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has positioned herself as a staunch defender of Israel and friend of Jews everywhere against President Obama’s supposed lack of Jewish support. But she ran into some trouble while trying to trying to show off her Yiddish skills on Fox News last night, pronouncing the word “Chutzpah” — meaning audacity — as “choot-spa.” As with “Chanukah,” the “ch” should be pronounced as an “h” sound, but apparenly Bachmann missed that lesson in pandering school.”

Jon Stewart obviously couldn’t let Bachman’s gaffe go by without making fun of her. The host of the Daily Show deadpanned: “Choot-spa… it sounds like she’s talking out of her Tu-tzis!”

Here’s the video of Bachman’s chutzpadik comment:

Yiddish really is a wonderful language. The  fusion of Hebrew and German yields many clever words and phrases, blessings and curses. While many Jews no longer speak Yiddish, it is no longer a dying language either. The Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts and dozens of Yiddish departments at universities around the world are ensuring that the Yiddish language continues. Throughout the country there exist Yiddish clubs made up of young and old Yiddish enthusiasts who enjoy speaking Yiddish. In fact, the 14th conference of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs is taking place at the end of this summer right here in the Metro Detroit area.

I love when old Jewish men ask me if I speak Yiddish. “Redstu Yiddish?” they ask and I respond, “A Bissel.” I then throw out the handful of Yiddish phrases my grandparents taught me that are mostly things grandparents tell kids when they complain of boredom (Like “Go knock your head against the wall!”).

I’m glad that so many Yiddish words are now a part of everyday English. I just hope politicians like Michele Bachman make sure they hear the word pronounced before attempting to use it. Oh well… zei gezundt!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |