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Doing some schmoozing

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2007-07-12

Julian Sinclair

Julian Sinclair

Having written about Jewish and Yiddish words in the Jewish Chronicle for nearly five years, Rabbi Julian Sinclair has now written a book on the very same subject. Let's Schmooze, based on his newspaper column, explains the origins and meanings of some of the best known Jewish and Yiddish words.

As the Jerusalem-based Rabbi visits Britain to coincide with the book's publication, SJ's Caroline Westbrook talks to him about Yiddish words, Yiddish phrases and Yiddish insults.

How did your interest in Yiddish come about?
When I met my wife 11 years ago,. She's from Brooklyn, and one of the amazing things is that although she's fully American and her family's been there for three generations, she speaks fluent Yiddish. Nobody in my family knows hardly a word of Yiddish, and what drives my wife crazy is that they misuse the few words of Yiddish they do know.. At some point in the British Jewish experience we lost track of the words and people deserve to know more about them.

Has your wife been a help in writing the book?
Very much so. The book's based on my weekly columns in the Jewish Chronicle which I've been writing for the past four and a half years, my wife was and is an invaluable source of extremely obscure Yiddish words which I wouldn't have written about if it hadn't been for her. She occasionally writes the column for me from beginning to end so I should give her credit for that.

Why do you think Yiddish has had such an influence on modern Jewish language?
Well the thing to remember is that the book deals with a lot of Jewish words that are not Yiddish as well as Jewish insults and spirituality. Yiddish is just one of the sources that flows into Jewish language today and what I find interesting about it is the very rich and distinctive Jewish life that you can imagine from Jewish words. For instance, everybody knows that Yiddish has far more words for insults and for general unfortunate human beings and distinguishes different kinds of misery and misfortune in a way no other language can.

Do you find yourself using Yiddish in your everyday speech now?
To be honest I don't, I'm a bit of a pedant when it comes to language. I live mostly in Jerusalem now with my family, and immigrants from England and America often mix Hebrew words into their English. Hebrew is a great language and English is a great language,  but I don't tend to mix foreign words.

Why do you think Yiddish became less popular as a language?
Well it died out in England for the simple reason that the British Jewish establishment 100 years ago made a conscious and deliberate attempt to stamp out Yiddish among the immigrants. They were faced by masses of Eastern European immigrants and the Western Jewish establishments cultured them to England. I mentioned this at one of my talks this week, that Yiddish did almost die out amongst British Jews because the Jewish establishment was worried about what these foreigners would do to their standing in society. Yiddish has made a revival in the past 20 years or so, you can now get a pHd in Yiddish at Oxford University, and the revival is to do with nostalgia and trying to reconnect with the world of East European Judaism. It's now much more acceptable now to take pride in Jewish culture.

Are you now fluent in Yiddish yourself and is it a difficult language to learn?
To be honest I don't really speak Yiddish, I research a word at a time. My total Yiddish vocabulary is somewhere between 50 and 100 words. I'm not exactly fluent yet but I'd like to be one day, and I hear that it's not so hard. Yiddish has bits of German in it, it's got Hebrew in it, if you know either of those it's not so hard to learn.

What's your favourite Yiddish word?
Aufzuluchis, means something you do just to annoy someone else. That's another one my wife taught me and I just love the sound of it. It sounds so funny and I love the idea that language has a word for this kind of person who will do something just to get on everybody's nerves. I just love the fact that Yiddish has a word for that.

Why do so many Yiddish insults begin with the letter 's'?
I don't know! I could make something up about s or sch sounds but I really don't know. I think there's some linguistic reason for it in German. I tried to call my wife to find out just before the interview but she didn't get back to me in time with an answer.

And what do you do when you're not researching Yiddish and writing about it?
I'm an Orthodox rabbi, I would identify myself as modern Orthodox if you had to put a label on me. I was the campus Rabbi at Cambridge University until 2003, then we made Aaliya and moved to Jerusalem. yYou don't have community rabbis in Jerusalem the way you do here, so I can sit anonymously at the back of the synagogue – but I work as a writer and for a women's Yeshiva called Nishmat, and also as a tour guide.

Let's Schmooze is available now, published by Continuum Books.