Beatles in Yiddish! Ganz foygldik!

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Undzere Kinder

Was it a documentary? Was it a comedy? A drama? All of the three? I am not sure. What I did find out is that “Undzere Kinder” (Our Children) was the last Yiddish film to be made in Poland. Set in 1948 it had to be about the Holocaust, but it’s not a “traditional” Holocaust movie. Or documentary.

What have I not heard about the Holocaust. The most dreadful stories. The most shivering accounts. But what really got me in this film was this little girl telling the story to the other children of how she survived the war: She was sold by the Nazi commandant to an elderly Pole for a silver coin when the truck loaded with Jewish children drove through a Polish village. On the way to be executed, we obviously assume. A mind-blowing intersection of humanity and sadism.

“Our Children”. More info on the film here:

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From not-so-foygldik to very foygldik

I have implemented not-so-foygldik (see pre-previous post) into my active vocabular. Since I have not learnt yet what is the opposite, which is a thing that turns out better than expected, I use the term “foygldik” as a term of emergency. Even if there is no such thing, says my teacher. But since Yiddish is a language where words are being invented just like that, I am sure that I will be forgiven.

Today we were brought to a pre-screening of a film, a documentary, which I was wildly looking forward to. About the celebrated Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, who I have briefly mentioned earlier. Just to give you a number that shows his importance: When he died in New York in 1916 no less than the impressive number of 200.000 people showed up. Which is, believe it or not, the biggest public funeral in New York till this very day.

So let me explain myself: The film is probably very good. The problem was that we only got to see parts of it, nebech (too bad). Good parts though. I enjoyed in particular the part where it was explained why he was embraced by Communist Soviet. Conclusion: I was probably too gullible when I thought that we would see the whole film for free, and before it is screened in the movie theaters.

And believe it or not, I managed to bring back with me one little piece of the film in order to post it on this very blog:

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the darkness. Visit:

In the evening we were invited to admire a Yiddish theater group, the Folksbiene, in the Sholem Aleichem Center in Bronx. In a stuffed, hot and humid underground hall that reminded me of a neglected Oslo suburban youth club in the 60s (never been to a such, so I have no idea how I came up with this comparison), we witnessed a wonderful, riveting and wildly funny performance. Shkoyach (hats off)! Especially amusing was the last song about Rabbi Tam who receives a love letter from the Queen of Turkey brought to him by a peacock in an outrageous outfit. I truly regret that I did not bring with me my camera… Anyway, you can read more about the Folksbiene here (includes a photo that does not do justice to the peacock).

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Oyfn pripetshik – At the fireplace

One of the most well-known and popular Yiddish songs is “Oyfn pripetshik”, or “At the fireplace”,written by Mark Warshawsky (1848-1907). Certainly popular before the War, but also after. It was for instance included in Schindler’s List. The topic is learning. A rabbi is teaching his small students the Hebrew alphabeth – the alef-beys. I wrote the English translation below, and the Yiddish transcribation below that again.

At the fireplace a little fire burns, and in the room it’s warm. And the Rabbi teaches little children the aleph-bet.

See you small dear children, remember dear, what you’re learning here.
Say once again, and then once again, “Komets-alef: o!”

Children, learn with great desire, that’s what I am telling you. Who of you that knows best Hebrew will get a flag.

When you become older, children, will you understand on your own how many tears are lying in these letters and how much crying.

When you will carry the burden of the exile, children, you will be exhausted. Then you will derive power from these letters, look into them.

Oyfn pripetshik brent a fayerl, un in shtub is heys. Un der rebe lernt kleyne kinderlach
dem alef-beys.

Zet zhe kinderlach, gedenkt zhe, tayere, vos ir lernt do. Zogt zhe noch a mol un take noch a mol: “Komets-alef: o!”

Lernt kinder, mit groys cheyshek, azoy zog ich aych on. Ver s’vet gicher fun aych kenen ivri, der bekumt a fon.

Az ir vet, kinder, elter vern, vet ir aleyn farshteyn, vifl in di oysyes lign trern, un vi fil geveyn.

Az ir vet, kinder, dem goles shlepn, oysgemutshet zayn. Zolt ir fun de oysyes koyach shepn, kukt in zey arayn!

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Not so Hollywoodik

Today after conversation class (which we call schmoozen-klass) we watched this Polish movie from 1937 called “Der Purimshpiler” (The Jester). There were English subtitles, but the actors spoke Yiddish all through. I did understand quite a bit, and it was quite interesting (zeyr interessant) to note the differences in the Yiddish dialect from the standard version that we learn (where they say “git” we learn “gut” (good), they “pirem” we “purem” (the holiday Purim), they “shister” we “shuster” (shoemaker).

The film is described as a romantic comedy taking place in the setting of a traditional Jewish town, a shtetl. The highlight of the movie is the fantastic dancing of Dick, one of three main figures in the movie, which he performs in a far-too-tight suit with fabulously speedy small steps without moving his upper body. Is it because of the tight suit? The film doesn’t provide any answer. The ending doesn’t much resemble a typical Hollywood-movie. Did I say too much? Anyway, for more trivia about the newly restored film, look here.

The Heroine Ester and dancing Dick-in-the-tight-suit

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A proper Yiddish course is stuffed with proverbs!

There are lots of great proverbs in Yiddish. I will obviously, as far as I manage to keep this blog alive, present a representative selection of them. Since we today spoke about pets – here are a few over this theme:

“A hunt bleybt a hunt”: a dog remains a dog (here the dog has the same issue as the leopard that can not change his spots)

“Fer a katz ken men zich nit bahalten”: you can’t hide from a cat (because the cat supposedly finds everything)

“Nit azoy foygldik”: not so birdlike (if you have high expectations that in the end turns out less great, this is a phrase to use – as it basically means “not so great” – don’t know what the bird has to do with it though)

Not so birdlike.

“In taych zaynen farsheydene fish”: there are all kinds of fish in the river.

“Fartik di fish”: the fish is finished (It’s all over. Game over. Is this what pops up on your screen if you play a Yiddish computer game and you fail?)

Definitely game over.

“Lachn mit yashtsherkes”: to laugh with lizards (means to laugh bitterly and regretfully – falls into same category as “crocodile tears” – you laugh, but without joy)

The eyes may smile, the mouth laugh, but the sorrow in the heart no one can see (loosely translated from a Norwegian verse).

“Vi kumt di katz ibern vaser?”: how does the cat get over the water? (which is quite a descriptive proverb when standing in this NYC megastore full of sale posters, thinking – how will I get through it all….)

“Veinen vi a biber”: to cry like a beaver (well, the Yiddish version of crocodile tears)

A crying biber (illustration)

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On beavers and other pets

So today we had a class on pets. We got a list of the most common pets. This may be America, but all were still puzzled by the fact that Beaver was included in the list. I’ll come back to that.

The most cute phenomenon in Yiddish in my opinion is the diminutive – to make a thing smaller by adding suffixes to it. I thought to write a whole post about it, and I may still, but since this is about pets it just have to be included.

Let’s take “dog”: Dog singular is “der hunt”. “Dogs” is “di hint”. Here comes the cute part: “A little dog” = “hintl”, “small dogs” = “hintlech”. An even smaller dog will be “hintele”, and if there comes another very small dog they will make up a couple of “hintelech”.

Hintelech. Awwww….

Cat! Katz. Small cat! Ketzel. Very small cat! Ketzele.

Bird is “foygl”. Small bird “feygl”. Tiny birdie “feigele”. Two tiny birds in a tree: “zvey feigelech in a …..” (didn’t learn tree yet).

Fish follows the same pattern: Fish, fishl, fishele. Many fishelech.


But here are some tricky ones, where the Slavic component is Yiddish is entering and making the word almost unreadable. Look here: יאשטשערקע – a “yashtsherke” is a lizard. And טשערעפאכע – which of course reads “tsherepache” is a turtle. Many very small lizards should be something like “yashtsherkelech”, and a swarm of tiny cute turtles would be “tsherepachelech”.

Tshere… whatever.

By the way, beaver in Yiddish is “biber”. Which we found somewhat amusing.

A Biber (illustration).

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