Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Yiddish Resurfaces as a Political Language in NYC

In 1897, Isaac Fromme, an office-seeker from the largely Jewish Lower East Side, punctuated his campaign palaver with Yiddishisms to refute insinuations that he was Irish. In 1922, Fiorello H. La Guardia was re-elected to Congress from East Harlem after he rebutted charges of anti-Semitism by challenging a rival to debate in Yiddish. La Guardia, a son of Jewish and Italian parents, was fluent in Yiddish. His Jewish rival was not.

That Yiddish remains the second language of New York politics was demonstrated yet again over the weekend in the disembodied debate between Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the State Senate.

On Friday, Mr. Bloomberg said that for the Senate to adjourn for the summer without voting to extend his control over New York City’s school system was “meshugeneh.”

To which State Senator Hiram Monserrate replied on Sunday: “We believe it would be meshugeneh not to include parents in the education of our children. As opposed to loosely using the word ‘meshugeneh,’ we would also say we don’t need a yenta on the other side of this argument and this debate.”

Neither Mr. Monserrate, who is Hispanic, nor Mr. Bloomberg, who is Jewish, was surgically precise with his Yiddishism.

But their casual embrace of an onomatopoetic language is a reminder of how universal Yiddish has become. Not only in New York, where Jews now constitute fewer than one in five mayoral election voters, but even beyond. Meshuga and yenta both appear in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The last Jewish mayor, Edward I. Koch, suggested as much on Monday when he offered an obvious reason why New York politicians drift into Yiddish. “They all want to sound like citizens of the world,” Mr. Koch said.

“I think that Mayor Bloomberg probably used Yiddish as a way of having his kugel and eating it, too,” said Michael Wex, the author of “Born to Kvetch” and “Just Say Nu.”

“His use of meshugeneh — a not uncommon solecism, incidentally; the adverb should be meshuga — seems intended to strengthen his point at the same time as it gives his expression of it a heartfelt, rather than denunciatory, feel,” Mr. Wex said. “The idea that ‘this is crazy, pure and simple’ comes across all the more strongly by implying that English simply lacks the words to describe what he’s feeling — that in his guts, as they used to say, he knows it’s nuts." (NYTimes)
Click here to read the rest of the article. For more information about efforts to preserve and celebrate the culture of Yiddish, be sure to visit the National Yiddish Book Center by clicking here.

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