The Vortsman

Readers of this column generally expect playful responses to inquiries about Yiddish words and sayings, usually (badly) recalled from childhood. This time, though, we’re going discuss a very serious matter. Well, maybe not too seriously, but, still…

It all relates to a Federal trial in New York, going back to 2014. A Republican State Senator, one Malcolm Smith, was indicted for trying to bribe Democratic Party bigwigs into letting him run as a Democrat in the primaries for mayor of New York City.

Neither The Vortsman nor most fellow Los Angelenos had any knowledge of that case. Then, in December, 2014 his e-mail inbox suddenly lit up with messages from several translation agencies—including one in Israel and one in England. All wanted to know if he was available to translate into English all or part of 27 hours of recorded Yiddish conversations! One agency even offered to double his usual hourly fee if he would undertake the assignment.

It turned out that the defense of Sen. Smith in the NY trial had learned that the Feds had recruited a felon in another corruption case to inform on Smith and his confederates, including placing a tap on the informant’s phone. All those involved were khareydim and khsidim.

(That’s how they’re properly spelled under the YIVO Standard; in the media, it’sHaredim and Hasidim — the ultra-Orthodox and followers of khsidish sects, respectively.)

The defense demanded that the 27 hours of wiretapped conversation be made available—in English—within two or three weeks, or that a mistrial be declared. The judge granted their request.

So that’s why the flurry of searching for Yiddish/English translators. There was a problem though. Actually, two problems.

First, a 30-second sample of the wiretaps revealed that the recording quality was very poor. In addition, those conversing were speaking not modern Yiddish, but what is known as khsidish or yeshivish: the argot of those in the Orthodox world, pronounced in the Southern (Polish) dialect. Its vocabulary is replete with Hebrew and Aramaic phrases from the Bible and Talmud, interwoven withYinglish: badly-pronounced words derived from street English.

The Vortsman could make out no more than a handful of words. He informed all the agencies of the problem and declined the assignment.

But the inquiries and entreaties kept coming. Cost was no object (of course, the Feds would foot the bill). The Vortsman concluded that other translators of Modern Yiddish had encountered similar problems.

But what about other kharedim and khsidim? Surely, they would understand what was being said on the wiretaps, right? Ah, but their command of English—though they were native-born in the U.S.—would be insufficient.

The second problem was overriding and it kept even those who might know English well enough (women, for example) to be of assistance. Rabbinic law forbids mesires — informing on fellow Jews to the civil authorities. (That same prohibition is what has allowed domestic violence and sexual abuse to be kept hidden in those communities—except for a few cases.)

The Vortsman hasn’t been able to determine how the “Yiddish” problem was resolved—but last July 1,  Associated Press reported that Sen. Smith had been sentenced to seven years in prison. End of involved story.

Those very curious about The Vortsman’s introduction to Southern Yiddish might listen in on this link, if they have the time to waste: