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New dictionary updates Yiddish for era of transgender, tablets and tweets

Need a new pair of ‘fingershikh’? Building on her Yiddish linguist father’s corpus, Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath publishes the first English-Yiddish resource guide in four decades

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath holding her 'Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary.' (The Jewish Standard)
Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath holding her 'Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary.' (The Jewish Standard)

The last time an English-Yiddish dictionary was published was in 1968. The “Modern English-Yiddish/Yiddish-English Dictionary” by the late Yiddish linguist Uriel Weinreich, has since then been the go-to resource for anyone wanting to translate a word or phrase.

The only problem is that in the course of the past 50 years, an immense number of new words and terminologies have entered the global English discourse. You are not going to find “email,” “texting,” “transgender,” “designated driver,” “binge watch,” “food coma,” “butt dialing,” and “like” (in the Facebook context) in Weinreich’s dictionary.

They are, however, among the 50,000 entries and 33,000 subentries in the newly published “Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary” edited by Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath and Dr. Paul (Hershl) Glasser.

A decades-long labor of love published this past June by Indiana University Press with a copyright owned by the League for Yiddish, it brings the ancient Yiddish language completely up-to-date in its 826 pages. The dictionary (two and a half times larger than Weinreich’s) represents the work not only of its editors, but also of many of Schaechter-Viswanath and Glasser’s colleagues within the Yiddish world who lent their expertise by way of thousands emails, phone calls and in-person consultations.

Paul Glasser (Courtesy)
Paul Glasser (Courtesy)

The dictionary, however, would not exist were it not for the vast collection of Yiddish terminologies compiled by Schaechter-Viswanath’s father, the late Yiddish professor and researcher Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter. A World War II European refugee, Schaechter felt an immense sense of responsibility to preserve and promote the lingua franca of European Jewry, two-thirds of which had been wiped out by the Holocaust.

As a girl, Schaechter-Viswanath, who grew up in a tight-knit, tiny Yiddish-speaking world, would help her father organize the index cards on which he kept his collection. Years later, she used the collection as the basis for her dictionary, which she had originally hoped to edit together with her father before he died.

According to an article in the Jewish Standard, Schaechter once estimated that he had a million cards stored away in the 87 card catalogues and shoe boxes that lined his study and basement at home.

“Gitl was 12 when her father asked if she wanted to earn some money helping him. He would read through his huge pile of Yiddish newspapers, noting the interesting words, the unusual phrases, the neologism. She would clip them and label them and file them,” the Standard reported.

‘I connected with my father ideologically, linguistically’

“That was my entree into being my father’s colleague,” Schaechter-Viswanath told the Standard. “That continued for many, many years. It’s was father-daughter time, connecting time. I connected with my father ideologically, linguistically.”

As fun as it may seem to invent new words, Schaechter-Viswanath, a nursing home consultant, and Glasser, former dean of the Max Weinreich Center at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, told The Times of Israel in a phone interview from their homes in New Jersey that they only coined words on their own (by recombining existing Yiddish words into compound words) when all else failed.

In addition to consulting with colleagues from the Yiddish-speaking community, they also combed through several existing reference books, such as a Yiddish thesaurus published in 1950, a Russian-Yiddish dictionary from 1984, and a Yiddish-French dictionary from 2013.

Equally important was their perusal of modern European-language dictionaries to see how they handled the translation of ubiquitous English words and terminologies.

Detail from a page from the 'Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary' (The Jewish Standard)
Detail from a page from the ‘Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary’ (The Jewish Standard)

“If we saw that a word from one of the European languages was being commonly used in many European countries instead of the English one, then we went with that,” Glasser said.

“And if it seemed that the English had won out and was being used in Europe, then we went with the English,” Schaechter-Viswanath added.

The Yiddish word for 'flip-flops' was coined by Rukhl Schaechter, editor of the Yiddish Forverts, who as a child called them 'fingershikh.' (Melanie Fidler/Flash90)
The Yiddish word for ‘flip-flops’ was coined by Rukhl Schaechter, editor of the Yiddish Forverts, who as a child called them ‘fingershikh.’ (Melanie Fidler/Flash90)

But the editors didn’t search dictionaries for how to say “flip-flops.” Schaechter-Viswanath’s sister Rukhl Schaechter, now the editor of the Yiddish Forverts (the Yiddish edition of The Forward), coined the term as a child when she spontaneously called them “fingershikh,” which means finger-shoes. The word came into use among Yiddish speakers, but only now is it official — thanks to its inclusion in the dictionary.

The notion of canonizing Yiddish common contemporary words and phrases, including slang, is welcomed by young Yiddish speakers. Interestingly, while Hebrew speakers in Israel often prefer English words, for instance “mail” for e-mail, Yiddish speakers have not defaulted to English.

“We really do us “blitspost” [literally lightning-mail] and not “email,” explained Yiddish-speaking Ezra Glinter, the Forward’s former deputy culture editor and current critic-at-large.

An original newspaper clipping and index card catalogued by Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter (The Jewish Standard)
An original newspaper clipping and index card catalogued by Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter (The Jewish Standard)

Glinter emphasized in a conversation with The Times of Israel that since there has been no comprehensive, up-to-date English-Yiddish dictionary until now, Yiddish word usage has been bottom-up, rather than top-down.

The difficulty, however, has been that to hear and learn these new coinages, one has to be in a Yiddish-speaking environment, such as Yiddish courses, cultural events, meetings and conferences.

‘The Yiddish community is an intentional community’

“The Yiddish community is an intentional community. You have to seek it out, but it is not always possible to be there at events. This dictionary gives vocabulary and usage to people who may not be able to access the community in person. It brings the language to you,” said Glinter, who has edited the forthcoming “Have I Got a Story For You,” a collection (in English translation) of the best stories published during the Yiddish Forverts’ 120-year history.

Schaechter-Viswanath and Glasser are fully aware that the popular appeal of their dictionary is its inclusion of the most contemporary words and terminologies, especially the ones related to digital technology, like “tselke” (cell phone), “tekstl” (text message), “shoys-komputer” (laptop), “shlisldisk” (flash drive) and “shteln a layk” (to like something on Facebook).

“But people shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is a serious dictionary that encompasses the existing language in addition to all that is new,” Schaechter-Viswanath said.

The market for an English-Yiddish dictionary is not large, considering that according to the 2010 census, only 154,433 Americans speak Yiddish at home, most of whom are New York Hasidic Jews. And the editors are not optimistic that many Hasidim will buy or use this dictionary, as it is a secular book that includes anatomy and physiology terminology.

Detail from a page from the 'Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary' (The Jewish Standard)
Detail from a page from the ‘Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary’ (The Jewish Standard)

Glinter is more hopeful that the dictionary will penetrate the Hasidic communities, at least to some extent.

“There is not a lot of social interchange between the secular-cultural Yiddish community and the Hasidic community, but there are Hasidic Yiddishists that I hope will use the dictionary. The Hasidim may not sell it in their own bookstores, but it shouldn’t necessarily be a taboo,” Glinter said.

“There is a theological imperative for Hasidim to keep Yiddish going, and this is a tool they can use to that end,” he added.

The dictionary could indeed by helpful to Hasidim, whose Yiddish is peppered with English words far more frequently than is the Yiddish of more secular Jews.

“If your only source for new Yiddish words is borrowing from English, you will eventually end up switching to English,” Glasser noted.

Ruth Kohn at work on her computer in her home office full of dictionaries. (Lior Elgavi)
Ruth Kohn at work on her computer in her home office full of dictionaries. (Lior Elgavi)

Ruth Kohn, who translates Yiddish for the court system, is certain the new dictionary will come in handy in her work. It could prove to be especially helpful when it comes to idioms. “It’s especially hard to come up with a good analogy to an idiom between languages,” she said.

Kohn is curious to see which of the new coinages will catch on.

“A word like ‘blitspost‘ for email may easily become common, while ‘shoys-computer‘ for laptop, in my opinion, will probably not. The word ‘tselke‘ for cell phone is in usage already; each time a Yiddish play goes on, the audience it told ‘leysht oys die tselkes,’ (turn off your cell phones),” she said.

Schaechter-Viswanath and Glasser are thrilled that the initial publication run of 1,200 copies of the dictionary has sold out and that a new run of 1,000 is currently being printed. The countless unpaid hours they and others spent on putting the four-and-a-half pound tome together are paying off.

Even if the dictionary sold only a small number of copies, Schaechter-Viswanath, who speaks in Yiddish with her children as her parents did with her, would still have made the enormous effort.

“I did it for my children, my grandson, my colleagues in the Yiddish world, and myself. Most of all, I did it for my father,” she said.

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