More of Ukraine’s Magic—Yiddish
William A. Gralnick
Like the Jewish people and Mark Twain, the demise of Yiddish has been overstated. Over a thousand years old, the “language of the people” or “mamaloshen” the language of the mothers, is a fascinating story. It clearly is a Brooklyn story since Brooklyn has by far the largest Jewish population in New York and undoubtably the largest Yiddish speaking population in the country. South Florida is not far behind. Jewish or not, it is unlikely that you’ve never heard anyone speak Yiddish. You may not realize it, but Jewish or Gentile you have spoken Yiddish, that’s how imbedded it has become in English, especially since Zero Mostel stormed Broadway as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. ‘ever use the “S” word for someone you thought was a dolt? Bet you have. Pure Yiddish. You eat Yiddish too. Bagels? Lox? Pastrami? Yup. Yiddish.
But this article is about more than Yiddish. I’m studying Yiddish to fulfill a deathbed promise I made to my grandma. The night before I sat down to write this I learned something incredibly relevant: about a third of the Yiddish language can find its roots in Ukrainian. So much for one of Putin’s big lies, that there is no Ukrainian language, nor a Ukraine people to speak it. This article is yet another reason to support the valor of the Ukrainian people, and if you are Jewish, to see another side of a people who once were our tormentors and who have ow turned Putin into a fool by having a Jewish president when he said it was a Nazi government.
Let’s have a look.
Yiddish is a language of languages. One scholar said, “I speak six languages, all of them Yiddish.” German, Polish, Russian, other Slavic languages, and yes Ukrainian.
Often referred to as the southeast dialect, Ukrainian Yiddish is profoundly marked by the influence of the Ukrainian language. In terms of grammar, for example, Yiddish aligns nicely with that of Ukrainian. It is much more like Ukrainian than Middle High German (German spoken in the Middle Ages, 1200-1500 CE).
Yiddish also has absorbed a multitude of Ukrainian conjunctions, prepositions, and adverbs, such as i … i, take, nu ‘both … and, indeed, well’. The rich variety of Ukrainian diminutives was adapted to Jewish names (eg, Moshenu, Khayimke, diminutive of Moyshe and Khayim), and Ukrainian names were sometimes given to Jewish children, particularly girls (eg, Badane, from Bohdana). The Yiddish vocabulary has also been enriched by countless Ukrainian words. Those attempting to catalogue Ukrainian Yiddish have found it to be so great a part of the language that it was impossible. The length and breadth goes from the profane to the sacred: from the profane (paskudne, from paskudnyj ‘loathsome’ a word that was a favorite of one of my uncles) to the sacred (praven, from pravyty ‘to perform [a religious ceremony]’) and a whole lot in between.
Here is a factoid you will probably be the only person to know at your next gathering: The flowering of Yiddish literature in Ukraine is exemplified by one of the greatest writers in this language, Sholom Aleichem (1859–1916). He legitimized the Ukrainian dialect by writing almost exclusively in that medium. The years he spent in the townlet of Voronkiv have been immortalized in his characters of the fictional Kasrilevke in Fiddler on the Roof.
With the loss of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian Jews in the Holocaust and the postwar harassment of Yiddish writers, Ukrainian Jewry turned increasingly to Ukrainian and Russian as vernacular languages. As a direct result of the most recent changes, a handbook of Yiddish (including an anthology of literary work, short biographies of famous authors, and a brief history of the Jews in Ukraine) was published in Kiev in 1991.
Let us not forget song. Moyshe Beregovsky, called in a documentary “the Song searcher” was a native Ukrainian. In the 1930s and ‘40s he traveled the land, the Jewish Telegraph Agency tells us. With primitive recording equipment, he recorded over a thousand rolls of Yiddish songs in. The Chabad organization has o Ukrainian Yiddish songs on U-Tube. And one I discovered on the net is unnervingly prophet. It’s title? “Goodbye Odessa.” Have a look for yourselves. What you’ll hear will touch your soul, Jewish or not.
There are many songs about the town of Belz. It is a small city in Chevrenerhd, in Oblast of Western Ukraine, near the border with Poland It is located between the Solokiya river (a tributary of the Bug River) and the Richytsia stream. Belz hosts the administration of the Belz Urban Hromada, one of the hromadas of Ukraine.] Its population is approximately 2,229 (2021 est.). It was also the home of the great Hassidic Belz dynasty, now reestablished in Israel with Brooklyn adherents as well.
And where do we hear song? Why the theatre. In the 1920’s the Ukraine was the seat of a flourishing Yiddish theatre that died in the Great Depression and world war to follow.
Thanks to Wikipeadia, the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, Rabbi Benjamin Blech author if the Idiot’s Guide to Yiddish, and the Jewish Book Center for helping to open this miraculous story for me—and you.
So, Mr. Putin, here’s a Snoopy raspberry for you, from Brooklyn—and hopefully from everyone everywhere. “BLECH”, which is also Yiddish.