The Vortsman Has Some Words For You


…And…we bet you thought The Vortsman had taken off to pleasanter climes. As a matter of true fact, he considered it, but it seems our Northern Neighbor looks askance at a purist who isn’t enthused about the recent Yiddish version of its national anthem. Ah, well…

First, some quickie responses to words and phrases recently submitted to The Vortsman; then, some more of his kvetsheray (whining) about arcane stuff.

Alan P. asked about the word his mother used in the 1960s to describe the tv remote control: mekherayke. Both Alan and the 2016 Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary prefer “contraption.” Yes, indeed, a fine English word — but one that foregoes the devil-may-care spirit inherent in the Yiddish.

For that feeling The Vortsman prefers “thingamajig.”

Elliott C. recalled his mother saying something about “olim-golim.” Asked if it might have been oylem-goylem, Elliott agreed. The Vortsman’s sound-bite response: the phrase means “the crowd (oylem) is stupid (goylem).” Looking a bit more deeply, however, it’s useful to note:

A) Both words are of Hebrew origin and have many meanings. Oylem can mean the world, the universe, metaphysical spheres…and the list goes on. Jewish Americans are familiar with the Sefardic-Israeli pronounciation, olam. Similarly, goylem can mean — in addition to “dummy” or “stupid” — a haunting spirit that brings to life a clay giant intended to protect Jews, as was the folk-legend about the goylem of Prague. This version is featured in the 1920 epic poem by H. Leyvik (Leivick), the basis of subsequent theater and film dramas in Yiddish, Hebrew and English. Here, too, the Sefardic-Israeli variant, Golem, is better known. And it’s the name of a computer app!

B) The basic meaning of the Yiddish folk-saying was perhaps best expressed in the recent presidential campaign (oy!) as “a basket of deplorables.” Better if Hillary had said it in Yiddish…

Now for that kvetsheray:

Isn’t it time for the Jewish population in these still-United States to join every single other ethnicity in its self-designation? Shouldn’t it be “Jewish American,” with or without a hyphen, rather than “American Jewish?” After all, it’s Native American, African American, or, as Paul Robeson famously sang in Earl Robinson’s and John Latouche’s Ballad for Americans: “I’m just an Irish, Negro, Jewish, Italian, French and English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Polish, Scotch Hungarian, Litvak, Swedish, Finnish, Canadian, Greek and Turk, and Czech and double Czech American!”

The ethnicity is the adjective; “American” is the noun. Except for the dogged, exclusive and indefensible insistence on “American Jewish.” Nevertheless, the famous Pew report of 2013 was titled, properly, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”

But, some will argue when confronted, “Hasn’t it always been that way? Why change it now?”

No, it hasn’t always been that way. From the time Jews first settled in America in 1654, they called themselves “Hebrews.” Their synagogues, newspapers and social expressions used “Hebrew” and the usage persisted into the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thus, we have George Washington’s famous address to the “Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I.” The Reform Movement was the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. In later decades, the Jewish organization that helped Jews during the mass migration from Eastern Europe was the “Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society” (now simply called HIAS, a leader in the fight for immigrant and refugee rights).

And, of course, there’s still to this day in the 21st century: Hebrew National salami and hot dogs.

(The name, established in 1905, made clear to its market that it supported Jewish nationalism — Zionism.)

So, when and why did “Hebrew” lose its kosher stamp and “American Jewish” take over? It’s traceable to the formation, in 1906, of the American Jewish Committee. This was a gathering of the Jewish American elite: 81 mostly bankers, judges and merchants, all male. They were concerned with both the anti-Semitic oppression in the Czarist Empire and the negative impression its victims made as they flooded into the U.S. The latter were poor, Yiddish-speaking, some revolutionaries, others rabbinic law-dominated (Orthodox). As Wikipedia puts it:

“AJC did not want the American public to envision American Jewry as a foreign culture transplanted artificially to American shores. The Committee saw itself as the natural ‘steward’ of the community and took on the mission of educating the new arrivals in proper Americanism.”

AJC then founded the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to aid Jews in Eastern Europe. To the recipients of that aid it was known simply as the “Joint (dzhoynt).”

In 1918, led by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the American Jewish Congress was formed as “a populist counterbalance to the American Jewish Committee, which was dominated by the wealthy and conservative German-Jewish establishment,” as the Jewish Forward wrote in recent years. It is now essentially defunct.

So…there’s the “tradition” that needs upholding: “Hebrew” lasted for over 250 years; “American Jewish” has been with us for all of 111 years. What earthquake might result if we were to further the evolution and join all other ethnic groups as “Jewish Americans?”