Oh, the irony.
On the heels of presidential candidate Michele Bachmann famously mispronouncing "chutzpah" during an interview with Fox's Greta van Susteren comes "Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular and The New Land" (Abrams), a new book that traces the influence of Yiddish in modern culture.
"Yiddish may be the most onomatopoeic language ever created," writes Neal Gabler in the introduction. "Everything sounds exactly the way it should."
(Unless, of course, you say something like, "The president doesn't want to have to be confronted with priorities in spending, because he has a lot of choot-spa." But we digress.)
"Macher for a self-appointed big shot," Gabler writes. "Shlmeil for the fellow who spills the soup and shlmazel for the poor guy who gets the soup spilled on him, putz for an active louse, shmuck for a hapless one."
Ethnic phrases and their origins and influences are fascinating territory for word lovers, and "Yiddishkeit" delivers, in both its content and voice. Its prose is at once elegant and writerly, even as it extols Yiddish for being "raw, egalitarian, vernacular."
"These are words that flay the varnish off a language and lay it bare," Gabler writes.
And later, "We need Yiddish, with all its silly guttural power, to rip through the formalities, the prevarications, the pretensions and the dishonesty. In a world that fetishizes money and status, Yiddishkeit shrugs at both."
Intrigued? We were.
Written by the late Harvey Pekar ("American Splendor") and Paul Buhle, the book is largely an anthology of comics, with original stories and insights from a host of writers mixed in. In "The Essence: A Yiddish Theatre Dim Sum," by Allen Lewis Rickman, we read the following obviously satirical exchange among three characters, Steve, Yelena and Allen:
Allen: You know, you can tell a lot about a language — and about what's important to its speakers — by picking apart the vocabulary. For example, the Eskimos have dozens of words for snow.
Steve: French is full of words for romance.
Yelena: And Yiddish has literally hundreds of ways to say —
(All three): Imbecile.
We are then treated to a few: nar, tam, shmendrik, krimer kop.
The point is, a lot of people trot out this particular inspirational rhetorical device — which may or may not be true — because it's supposed to inform us about Chinese culture. (That bit about Eskimos and snow has been similarly debunked.)
Meanwhile, "Yiddishkeit," is a book that truly informs about Jewish culture and, in the process, challenges readers to pick apart their own vocabulary.