No matter who you are, you have probably come across people saying words or phrases like “Oy vey,” “tchotchke,” “chutzpah,” “mazel tov,” “shtick,” “shmuck,” “kvetch” and many more. These are all Yiddish words, dating back to the 9th century in Central Europe as a uniquely diasporic language. Yiddish is a German-based language combined with Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic languages. Ashkenazi Jews, e.g. Jews of European descent, spoke Yiddish back in the day, and many Jews today still speak it. Before the Holocaust, around 12 million Jews out of the worldwide total of 17 million spoke Yiddish. About 85%, or five million of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, spoke Yiddish. So why do we hear goyim (Yiddish word for non-Jews) throwing around Yiddish words all the time? Is it because they value our culture, or are interested in our heritage and how Yiddish is a part of it? Maybe they are working on their language skills and rekindling a once dominant language across Europe? No, I do not believe this to be the case at all. The truth is that goyim use Yiddish words because they sound “funny” to their ears. Words like “bupkis” and “klutz” have worked their way into gentile society because non-Jews think they add a comedic touch to their vernacular, not because of the rich and important role that Yiddish has played in our collective Jewish history.
The fact that peppering Yiddish words into speech has become more and more popularized is unsettling to me as a Jew, because it is those same gentiles using our language for fun that massacred us and forced us to assimilate to their culture. When people use Yiddish in this way, they are (whether intentional or not) stereotyping and mocking Jews and our expressions of religion. Even more disgusting is that when non-Jews pick and choose a Yiddish word because it sounds “funny”, they are stripping the word from its inherent Jewish background and re-appropriating it to then mock us. The true message non-Jews are sending is, “We love Jewish things, but not actual Jewish people.” To make matters worse, Yiddish as a language is dying out. While gentiles continue to thoughtlessly use “popular” Yiddish words on the regular, they forget to inquire about the entire actual language behind those words, which is complete with a rich history and fascinating culture.
So maybe now you are thinking that you should learn Yiddish to be more respectful and to educate yourself on the words so you can continue to use them. But how do you do this without managing to appropriate Jewish culture even more? There is a right way and a wrong way to do anything, and the wrong way to learn Yiddish is to learn it and then think it gives you an authority on all things Jewish, or an authority to talk on and over Jews. The right way to learn Yiddish would be in an academic setting, or because you are genuinely interested in Yiddish theater, culture and Judaism and its incredibly dense history. If you are learning it to be able to communicate with your Orthodox neighbors in New York? Go for it! If you are learning it to help with translations of old Yiddish literature and texts? Amazing! There are plenty of ways to not only appreciate Jewish culture, but to revive it further and to help spread the word on appropriate ways to use Yiddish!
Now that you are learning Yiddish for the right reasons, you might come across some words that you had no clue were so imbedded into American culture and the English language. For example, “bagel.” Yes, Jews invented the bagel and it is a Yiddish word. “Blintz,” “lox,” and even the word “glitch” are all of Yiddish origin! Now do not for one second think I am trying to say that goyim cannot say “glitch” or “bagel.” That is absurd. A lot of Yiddish words became a part of the English language when Yiddish speaking people came to America and continued to make their traditional foods that there was not a word for in English. “A bagel and lox with some shmear” is an inherently Yiddish phrase, because it had never been created by anyone else. Of course you can say these words without worry, and plus now you know that they are of Jewish origin! There are some other words that may surprise you, like “schmooze”, “spiel”, “spritz”, and “nosh.” I will not tell you not to use these if you are a gentile, but just be aware of the Jewish background these words are entrenched in, and be careful to not use them just to spice up a sentence or to “sound funny” or to seem more cultured than you are. Then there are words that goyim use for the sole reason that they sound funny, like “tchotchke” when you could say knick-knack, “kvetch” when you could say complain, “mazel tov” when you could say congratulations, “schlong” when you could say penis, “shvitz” when you could say sweat, “tukhus/tush” when you could say butt, and so many more. These words do not exist for goyim to use as fun sounding words. They do not exist for goyim to make fun of Jewish culture, intentionally or not. They do not exist for you to use as something that is “shiny” and “neat” while simultaneously ignoring its importance. Most of all, do not act as if you are “discovering” something oppressed people have had for centuries and then claiming it as yours or making fun of it.