Language, even in the broadest sense of the term, is very limiting – one can speak only what the letters allow, play only what the instruments note, portray only what the brushes paint – and, when speaking of the more common definition of language – a systematic body of words – its limitations stick out like a misspelled, front-page HEDLYNE (!).
The power of language is also its weakness. Because language defines things so explicitly – a “shoe” is not a “smile,” a “groan” is not a “moon” – it is handicapped (“handicap,” albeit handy, is a word with a cap to its use) by its very own definition. Never mind the restrictions separating one language from another – imagine a stuttering Chinaman trying to converse with a toothless Arab – but even within one language itself, much gets lost in the cracks of definition.
Nevertheless, as the poets of yore, of ere, have demonstrated, there are times in language when its limits are well disguised within brilliantly manipulated words and exquisitely crafted sentences. And, in those moments, one can forgive language all its shortcomings for giving us the ability to understand our minds and feel our hearts.
In the deep sea of global communication, there floats one lonely language that is unique in its mind, body and soul. That language is Yiddish.
Most other languages have (or once had) a geographic location to call home. Yiddish never has. Most other languages do not have texts so sacred on one shelf and books so blasphemous on the other. Yiddish does. Most other languages haven’t had so many of their speakers, readers and writers killed. Yiddish has. Most other languages have never had to fight for their lives. Yiddish still does.
Yiddish, as its name shows, reflects the Jewish people, the Yidden. It has cried with its people and it has laughed with its people. It has hungered with its people and it has flourished with its people. It has gone to hell with its people and it has been to heaven with its people.
Because of its homelessness, because of its pain and suffering, because of its dreams of a better world, and because it is born of – and represents – a transcendent people, Yiddish transcends the rules of communication and, therefore, is unparalleled in its ability to cohere the incoherent, express the inexpressible, and speak the unspeakable.
As the Talmud states – and as anyone who has ever been to a falafel shop in the Holy Land can attest – a hand motion, a shake of the head, or even the wink of an eye can convey much more than entire chapters of expertly constructed paragraphs. Yiddish is made of many such shrugged shoulders, twitched eyebrows and wrinkled foreheads. More than the face of a language, Yiddish is the face of humanity – it is the mirror of the human condition. And, like any good mirror, it takes absolutely nothing for granted – not even ahn oysgeklapte hoshayne.
(Have you ever seen a person that looks as if life has just beaten them down? Maybe on the subway you’ve come across a face that looks totally resigned? That is ahn oysgeklapte hoshayne, literally, “a beaten-out willow branch”. Towards the end of the holiday of Succos, Jews have the custom of slapping a willow branch against the floor. Where other languages would hardly notice a threadbare willow branch lying in neglect, Yiddish picks this “beaten willow” off the ground and uses it to describe the unfortunate person who has been beaten by life.)
Because it is nothing more (or less) than a mirror, Yiddish has no problem leaping the language barrier (it takes from other languages just as it gives back), knows no dyslexic readers and has a zero illiteracy-rate. One can be a chochom fun der ma nishtana (the faux-wise-guy who asks the same questions everyone else asks) and still appreciate the difference between a schlemiel, schlimazel and nudnik. In one word, Yiddish captures the character of a person by reflecting in its letters the person’s being. (The best English definition of the three I’ve heard to date is in the context of each other: the schlemiel clumsily spills the soup on the schlimazel and the nudnik keeps on asking what kind of soup it was. Or, a schlimazel himself is one who falls on his back and breaks his nose.) Of course one could only hope that the nudnik doesn’t stick to you like a naseh shmateh (a wet cloth).
If something sticks out, if someone is out of place, Yiddish won’t just say, “Hey, you are sticking out, you are out of place.” No, that would not capture the essence of the situation. “You belong here vi ah yovon in succah,” Yiddish screams. “What the hell are you doing here? You are like a Greek in a Succah – a Greek belongs in the story of Chanukah, not in middle of a Succah!”
When Yiddish wants to make a statement, it doesn’t do it with a headline or even with bold letters; it does it with kiddush levana osiyos. Once a month, Jews go out into the night to bless the new moon. But it’s very dark outside (especially in the shtetl, where there were probably no streetlamps) and the words of the prayer are hard to read. So, what do they do? They have kiddush levana osiyos – blessing-of-the-moon-letters – letters so distinguished that they can be read even in the darkness of night. That is how Yiddish makes a statement, with kiddush levana osiyos.
Of course, the more explicit (and, inevitably, more entertaining) words of the Yiddish language cannot be printed here in a family newspaper. Still, the chutzpah that the Yiddish language has for reality – where even a whistling kettle can portray one who talks nonsense – cannot be lost even if ah kup ken men nisht arufshtelen (a head cannot be imposed upon another).
If I was a yente (chatterbox), I would go on kvetching (a cross between grumbling, nagging and griping); but I better stop hacken in tchaynik (that nonsensical, whistling kettle of the paragraph before) lest this piece end up being lang vi di golus (long like the exile).
Nu, moshiach ken shoyn kumen!
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