Cover of a British edition of The Joys of Yiddish, published by Penguin Books.

The Joys of Yiddish is a book by Leo Rosten, first published in 1968. It takes a light-hearted look at the influence that Yiddish has had on the English language. It is notable for its use of jokes and anecdotes to help explain the meaning of the words it contains and  has consequently become popular with Jewish humor enthusiasts.

Contents of the book

At the beginning of the book, Rosten states that The Joys of Yiddish is not a text book for learners of Yiddish or a scholarly study of the language. He further states that it is not, in fact, a book about the Yiddish language, but about Yiddish words that have been used in English.

The book's introduction gives a brief outline of the Yiddish language, explains that there is no such language as "Jewish" and that not all Jews understand Yiddish. It also states that Yiddish speakers have influenced the English language to the extent that many native-speakers of English can understand such non-standard forms as ""I should live so long!" "Smart, he isn't", "By Momma, he's a spy. By Poppa, he's a spy. But by spies, he's no spy" and "Who said that? Charlie? Charlie shmarlie! What does he know?"   and also detect a Jewish influence in those phrases.

The bulk of the book consists of an alphabetical listing of Yiddish words that have entered the English language. Rosten categorizes these words as either "Yinglish", words used in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other English speaking countries, or "Ameriddish", words derived from Yiddish that were invented in the United States, such as "shnook" and "shmo", that are unknown outside of North America. The list includes many words connected to the practice of Judaism, such as Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah, Hanukkah, Pesach, Purim, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Some of the words and phrases that Rosten lists, such as "bagel", "nosh", "shm-" to negate the meaning of a word ("Oedipus shmoedipus! So long as he loves his mother!)  are familiar to many people in English-speaking countries. Others are more obscure.

Each word is transliterated following the conventions of English spelling rather than German, from which many of the words are ultimately derived. For example, Rosten writes, "shlep" and "shlemiel" rather than "schlep" and "schlemiel". The reason that Rosten gives for this is because most English words that begin with "sch" are pronounced with a /sk/ sound, as in "scholar" and "school". The Hebrew alphabet is not used in the book. Each word also has a guide to pronunciation giving English words that rhyme with it, for example, Rosten says that Yom Kippur rhymes with "hum dipper", Etymologies are given for the words, when they are known, speculative etymologies are discussed when they are not. Rosten explains the meaning of each word, advises the reader on how and when to use the word, avoiding any possible double meanings. In a few cases the reader is advised not to use the word because it is offensive.

A distinguishing feature of The Joys of Yiddish is that the majority of the definitions are accompanied by at least one proverb, quote from a famous Jewish person or joke. Often several jokes are used to demonstrate the meaning of a word. For this reason The Joys of Yiddish has become a valued treasury of Jewish humor.

Appendices at the back of the book discuss the relationship between Yiddish and Hebrew and between Yiddish and German and provide introductions to various topics related to Jewish culture and Judaism, including the Tanakh, religious holidays, Sephardic Jews and the Ladino language and the Jewish communities of Ethiopia and India.

Cultural impact

In 1998, Charles Schumer and Al D'Amato were competing to be elected as United States senator for New York. During the election campaign, D'Amato called Schumer a "putzhead", which he claimed was Yiddish for fool.

The New York Times cited The Joys of Yiddish to inform its readers that "putz" was, in fact, a Yiddish word for "penis" and could by extension be used as an obscene insult.

Some commentators said it was this incident that cost D'Amato the election.

Uses in popular culture

The Joys of Yiddish provided the basis for a British radio comedy show broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 1997. Performers read the words' definitions, with some interpolations of their own, and then performed the jokes in the form of sketches.  

The Jewish-American writer Harlan Ellison's 1974 science fiction story, I'm Looking for Kardak features a Yiddish speaking alien from the planet Zsouchmuhn. Ellison provides a glossary of the Yiddish words used in the story, saying, "some of the definitions have been adapted and based on those in Leo Rosten's marvelous and utterly indispensable sourcebook, The Joys of Yiddish, ... which I urge you to rush out and buy, simply as good reading."

A section from The Joys of Yiddish is reproduced in John Updike's 1990 novel, Rabbit at Rest.

In the 1993 British comedy movie Leon, the Pig Farmer, the book, The Joys of Yiddish is used by the non-Jewish biological father and other family members of the main character, Leon Geller, (who has been raised as a Jew), as a guide to Jewish culture.

The 2005 American/British fantasy movie MirrorMask makes use of what Leo Rosten describes in The Joys of Yiddish as the, "first riddle I ever heard, one familiar to almost every Jewish child." The riddle is "What is it that hangs on the wall, is green, wet and whistles?" The answer is "a herring" because you can nail it to the wall, you can paint it green and, if you have just painted it, it is still wet. It does not whistle, that is just added to make the riddle more difficult.

Translations and new edition

The book was translated into French as Les Joies du Yiddish (ISBN 2-7021-2262-0) and into German as Jiddisch. Eine kleine Enzyklopaedie (ISBN 3-423-24327-9).

In 2001, the book was reissued as The New Joys of Yiddish (ISBN 0609806920) with some of the material rearranged, illustrations added and copious footnotes by Lawrence Bush, intended to explain some cultural references that had become dated. Some reviewers on Amazon.com feel that Bush's serious footnotes detract from the humor of Rosten's original text.

External links