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The New Joys of Yiddish

The New Joys of Yiddish

4.0 5
by Leo Rosten, Lawrence Bush (Revised by)

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Enjoy the most comprehensive and hilariously entertaining lexicon of the colorful and deeply expressive language of Yiddish. With the recent renaissance of interest in Yiddish, and in keeping with a language that embodies the variety and vibrancy of life itself, The New Joys of Yiddish brings Leo Rosten’s masterful work up to date. Revised for the first time by


Enjoy the most comprehensive and hilariously entertaining lexicon of the colorful and deeply expressive language of Yiddish. With the recent renaissance of interest in Yiddish, and in keeping with a language that embodies the variety and vibrancy of life itself, The New Joys of Yiddish brings Leo Rosten’s masterful work up to date. Revised for the first time by Lawrence Bush, in close consultation with Rosten’s daughters, it retains the spirit of the original—with its wonderful jokes, tidbits of cultural history, Talmudic and biblical references—and is enhanced by hundreds of new entries and thoughtful commentary on how Yiddish has evolved over the years, as well as clever illustrations by R. O. Blechman.

Did you know that cockamamy, bluffer, maven, and aha! are all Yiddish words? If you did, you’re a gaon, possessing a lot of seykhl.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
For all the bubelehs in your life -- finally -- the completely updated New Joys of Yiddish. Not a moment too soon, all the wit and wisdom of American Jewish culture -- as comforting as a bowl of matzo ball soup and more fun than a game of dreidel -- you should buy it, live and be well!

When the world feels like its going to Gehenna (see page 118), I know of no better way to stop kvetching (see page 198) than to pick up Leo Rosten's witty and evocative classic. Newly revised, it reflects the changes wrought over the years, without losing one bit of the spirit, joy, or humanity of the original. Leo Rosten had seykhl (see page 317), and Lawrence Bush is a real mensch (see page 232) for doing such a good job of complementing Rosten's work and bringing it up to date for the 21st century. In his introduction, Bush confides that his grandmother used to say, "Oy, a lebn af dayn kop! ("Life on your head"), and I, for one, second that blessing. I would go further -- I'd say you'd have to have a lokh in kop (see page 209) not to love this book. It is a valentine to Jewish-American culture, with rib-tickling jokes that had me cackling on the bus, interspersed with folklore and stories dating back to the days of the eastern European shtetl (see page 366). Also included are helpful explanations of the symbolism and meaning of Jewish religious observances and illuminating tidbits of information. But whether explaining the difference between a shlemeil and a shlemazel (see page 344) or describing the magic of Klezmer music (see page 182), The New Joys of Yiddish is manna for a Jewish-American soul -- or for anyone interested in dipping into the delights of this fascinating language and culture. (Judith Estrine)

Library Journal
On the other hand, the revised edition of Rosten's 1968 The Joys of Yiddish, now the de facto standard reference on this topic, is designed as a lexicon of Yiddish words and phrases that have been, are becoming, or should be incorporated into the English language. The work explores the nuances and complexities of language, clarifying the interrelationship between Yiddish and English (Yinglish, according to Rosten). The lengthy alphabetical listing not only presents multiple spellings, pronunciation guides, definitions, and cross references but also illustrates usage with background information, anecdotes, and jokes, as well as breezy erudition in the form of tidbits of cultural history, Talmudic and biblical references, tips on pronunciation, and thoughtful commentary. These illustrations demonstrate Rosten's enthusiasm and love of the Yiddish language, qualities that distinguish his work as an ongoing, best-selling classic. In consultation with Rosten's daughters, Lawrence Bush, an editor, has updated the original, retaining its spirit and adding hundreds of new entries. The revision incorporates additional material on modern Yiddish literature and culture and updates on changes in American Jewish life and faith. Also included as an appendix is an English-Yiddish dictionary. Both reference works are highly recommended for language collections. Marilyn Rosenthal, Nassau Community Coll. Lib., Garden City, NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Read an Excerpt

Preface I wrote this book because there was no other way in which I could have it. For many years I had craved and sought and failed to find a lexicon of just this type.

What This Book Is Not

This is not a book about Yiddish. It is not a dictionary of Yiddish. It is not a guide to Yiddish. It is not written for experts in, or students of, Yiddish.

What This Book Is

This is a book about language -- more particularly, the English language. It shows how our marvelously resilient tongue has been influenced by another parlance: Yiddish. It illustrates how beautifully a language reflects the variety and vitality of life itself; and how the special culture of the Jews, their distinctive style of thought, their subtleties of feeling, are reflected in Yiddish; and how this in turn has enhanced and enriched the English we use today.

So, this book explores a fascinating aspect of English: those words and phrases from Yiddish (some I call "Yinglish," some "Ameridish") that we today encounter in English books, magazines, newspapers; or hear on television or radio, in movies or nightclubs; or may overhear on the street or in a bus in many a large city in the United States.

By "Yinglish" I mean Yiddish words that are used in colloquial English in both the United States and the United Kingdom: kibitzer, mish-mash, bagel, etc.

By "Ameridish" I mean words coined by, and indigenous to, Jews in the United States: kochalayn, utz, shmegegge, etc.

"Yiddish," "Hebrew," and "Jewish"

For the benefit of innocents, I hasten to add that Yiddish and Hebrew are entirely different languages. A knowledge of one willnot give you even a rudimentary understanding of the other. True, Yiddish uses the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, employs a great many Hebrew words, and is written, like Hebrew, from right to left, thusly:


-- which should delight any reader under fourteen. But Yiddish and Hebrew are as different from each other as are English and French, which also use a common alphabet, share many words, and together proceed from left to right.

Nor is "Yiddish" a synonym for "Jewish." "Yiddish" is the name of a language. Technically speaking, there is no language called "Jewish." Strictly speaking, Jews do not speak "Jewish" any more than Canadians speak Canadian, or Baptists read Baptist. But it would be foolish to deny that in popular English usage, "Jewish" is used as a synonym for "Yiddish." After all, "Yiddish" comes from the German Jüdisch, meaning "Jewish," and in the Yiddish ]angauge itself Yiddish means "Jewish." We may as well accept reality.

The Scope of This Wordbook

This book, accordingly, is a lexicon of certain foreign-born words that:

(I) are already part of everyday English (schmaltz, gonif, shlemiel);

(2) are rapidly becoming part of English (chutzpa, megillah, shlep, yenta);

(3) should be part of our noble language, in my opinion, because no English words so exactly, subtly, pungently, or picturesquely convey their meaning (shmoos, kvetch, shlimazl, tchotchke, etc.)

Were I writing all this in the style and with the impudent imagery so characteristic of Jewish humor, I would say: "This book is a collection of three kinds of simply delicious words: those which are naturalized citizens; those which have taken out their first papers; and those which should be drafted into our army just as soon as possible."

The Influence of Yiddish on English

It is a remarkable fact that never in its history has Yiddish been so influential -- among Gentiles. (Among Jews, alas, the tongue is running dry.) We are clearly witnessing a revolution in values when a Pentagon officer, describing the air-bombardment pattern used around Haiphong, informs the press: "You might call it the bagel strategy." Or when a Christmas (1966) issue of Better Homes and Gardens features: "The Season's Delightful Jewish Traditions and Foods." Or when the London Economist captions a fuss over mortgage rates: HOME LOAN HOO-HA. Or when the Wall Street Journal headlines a feature on student movements: "REVOLUTION, SHMEVOLUTION." Or when a wall in New York bears this eloquent legend, chalked there, I suppose, by some derisive English major:


Or when England's illustrious Times Literary Supplement, discussing the modern novel, interjects this startling sentence: "Should, schmould, shouldn't, schmouldn't." Or when a musical play about the Jews in the Polish shtetl of fifty years ago, Fiddler on the Roof, scores so phenomenal a success.

Yiddish phrasing and overtones are found in, say, the way an Irish whiskey advertises itself:

"Scotch is a fine beverage and deserves its popularity.
But enough is enough already."
Or in an advertisement for a satirical English movie, Agent 8 3/4:

"By Papa he's a spy,
By Mama he's a spy,
But from spies he's no spy!

I can cite dozens of similar uses of Yinglish idiom.

Yiddish Words and Phrases in English

Every so often I run across the statement that Webster's Unabridged Dictionary contains 500 Yiddish words. I do not know if this is true, and I certainly doubt that anyone actually counted them. For my part, I am surprised by the number of Yiddish words, thriving beautifully in everyday English, that are not in Webster's, nor in other dictionaries of the English language -- including the incomparable thirteen-volume Oxford English Dictionary. You will find many of these lamentably unrecognized words in the volume you now hold in your hands.

Many a scholar has commented on the growing number of Yiddish words and idioms that "invade" English. But English, far from being a supine language, has zestfully borrowed a marvelous gallimaufry of foreign locutions, including many from Yiddish; and who will deny that such brigandage has vastly enriched our cherished tongue?

Take the popular usage of the suffix, -nik, to convert a word into a label for an ardent practitioner or devotee of something: How could we manage without such priceless coinages as beatnik and peacenik? The New York Times recently dubbed Johann Sebastian's acolytes "Bachniks"; some homosexuals dismiss nonhomosexuals as straightniks; the comic strip Mary Worth has employed no-goodnik; and a newspaper advertisement even employed Yiddish-in-tandem to get: "NOSHNIKS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!"

Many a student of contemporary mores has discovered the degree to which novelists, playwrights, joke writers, comedians, have poured Jewish wit and humor into the great, flowing river of English. This is also an indication of the extraordinary role of Jewish intellectuals, and their remarkable increase during the past forty years, in the United States and England.

Who has not heard or used phrases such as the following, which, whatever their origin, probably owe their presence in English to Jewish influence?

Get lost.
You should live so long.
My son, the physicist.
I need it like a hole in the head.
Who needs it?
So why do you?
Alright already.
It shouldn't happen to a dog.
O.K. by me. He knows from nothing.
From that he makes a living?
How come only five?
Do him something.
This I need yet?
A person could bust.
He's a regular genius.
Go hit your head against the wall.
You want it should sing, too?
Plain talk: He's crazy.
Excuse the expression.
With sense, he's loaded.
Go fight City Hall.
I should have such luck.
It's a nothing of a dress.
You should live to a hundred and twenty.
On him it looks good.
It's time, it's time.
Wear it in good health.
Listen, bubele...?

What other language is fraught with such exuberant fraughtage?

Colloquial Uses in English of Yiddish Linguistic Devices

But words and phrases are not the chief "invasionary" forces Yiddish has sent into the hallowed terrain of English. Much more significant, I think, is the adoption by English of linguistic detdces, Yiddish in origin, to convey nuances of affection, compassion, displeasure, emphasis, disbelief, skepticism, ridicule, sarcasm, scorn. Examples abound:

1. Blithe dismissal via repetition with an sh play-on-the-first-sound: "Fat-shmat, as long as she's happy."

2. Mordant syntax: "Smart, he isn't."

3. Sarcasm via innocuous diction: "He only tried to shoot himself."

4. Scorn through reversed word order: "Already you're discouraged?"

5. Contempt via affirmation: "My son-in-law he wants to be."

6. Fearful curses sanctioned by nominal cancellation: "A fire should burn in his heart, God forbid!"

7. Politeness expedited by truncated verbs and eliminated prepositions: "You want a cup coffee?"

8. Derisive dismissal disguised as innocent interrogation: "I should pay him for such devoted service?"

9. The use of a question to answer a question to which the answer is so self-evident that the use of the first question (by you) constitutes an affront (to me) best erased either by (a) repeating the original question or (b) retorting with a question of comparably asinine self-answeringness. Thus:

[ A ]

Q. "Did you write your mother?"

A. "Did I write my mother!" (Scornful, for "Of course I did!")

[ B ]

Q. "Have you visited your father in the hospital?"

A. "Have I visited my father in the hospital?" (Indignant, for "What kind of a monster do you think I am?")

[ C ]

Q. "Would You like some chicken soup?"

A. "Would I like some chicken soup?" (Emphatically concurring., for "What a stupid thing to ask.")

[ D ]

Q. "Will a hundred dollars be enough?"

A. "Will a hundred dollars be enough?" (Incredulously offended, for "Do you think I'm crazy to accept so ridiculous a sum?")

[ E ]

Q. "Will a thousand dollars be enough?"

A. "Will a thousand dollars be enough? " (Incredulously delighted, for "Man, will it!")

[ F ]

Q. "Will you marry me?"

A. "Will I marry you?" (On a note of overdue triumph, for "Yes, yes, right away!")

Or consider the growing effect on English of those exquisite shadings of meaning, and those priceless nuances of Contempt, that are achieved in Yiddish simply by shifting the stress in a sentence from one word to another. "Him you trust?" is entirely different, and worlds removed, from "Him you trust?" The first merely questions your judgment; the second vilipends the character of the scoundrel anyone must be an idiot to repose faith in.

Or consider the Ashkenazic panoply in which insult and innuendo may be arrayed. Problem: Whether to attend a concert to be given by a neighbor, niece, or friend of your wife. The same sentence may be put through maneuvers of matchless versatility:

(1) "Two tickets for her concert I should buy?" (Meaning: "I'm having enough trouble deciding if it's worth one.")

(2) "Two tickets for her concert I should buy?" ("You mean to say she isn't distributing free passes? The hall will be empty!")

(3) "Two tickets for her concert I should buy?" ("Did she buy tickets to my daughter's recital?")

(4) "Two tickets for her concert I should buy?" ("You mean to say they call what she does a 'concert'?!")

(5) "Two tickets for her concert I should buy?" ("After what she did to me?")

(6) "Two tickets for her concert I should buy? " ("Are you giving me lessons in ethics?")

(7) "Two tickets for her concert I should buy?" ("I wouldn't go even if she gave me a complimentary!")

Each of the above formulations suggests a different prior history, offers the speaker a different catharsis, and lets fly different arrows of contumely. And if all emphasis is removed from the sentence, which is then uttered with mock neutrality, the very unstressedness becomes sardonic, and -- if accompanied by a sigh, snort, cluck, or frown -- lethal.

On the Yiddish Language

A word about Yiddish itself. It is older than the English we speak, although it did not fully come into its own, building a literature of its own, until the mid-nineteenth century -- since which recent time it has produced an impressive body of stories, poems, novels, essays, and social criticism.

Yiddish is the Robin Hood of languages. It steals from the linguistically rich to give to the fledgling poor. It shows not the slightest hesitation in taking in house guests -- to whom it gives free room and board regardless of genealogy, faith, or exoticism. A memorable remark by a journalist, Charles Rappaport, runs: "I speak ten languages -- all of them in Yiddish."

I think Yiddish a language of exceptional charm. Like any street gamin who has survived unnamable adversities, it is bright, audacious, mischievous. It has displayed immense resourcefulness, immenser resilience, and immensest determination-not-to-die -- properties whose absence has proved fatal to more genteel and languid languages. I think it a tongue that never takes its tongue out of its cheek.

Yiddish lends itself to an extraordinary range of observational nuances and psychological subtleties. Steeped in sentiment, it is sluiced with sarcasm. It loves the ruminative, because it rests on a rueful past; favors paradox, because it knows that only paradox can do justice to the injustices of fife; adores irony, because the only way the Jews could retain their sanity was to view a dreadful world with sardonic, astringent eyes. In its innermost heart, Yiddish swings between shmaltz and derision.

I have always marveled at how fertile this lingua franca is in what may be called the vocabulary of insight. The Jews were forced to become self-conscious from the day Moses warned them to invest every act with piety in preparation for a strict heavenly accounting. Knowledge, among Jews, came to compensate for worldly rewards. Insight, I think, became a substitute for weapons: one way to block the bully's wrath is to know him better than he knows himself.

Jews had to become psychologists, and their preoccupation with human, no less than divine, behavior made Yiddish remarkably rich in names for the delineation of character types. Little miracles of discriminatory precision are contained in the distinctions between such simpletons as a nebech, a shlemiel, a shmendrick, a shnook; or between such dolts as a klutz, a yold, a Kuni Lemmel, a shlep, a Chaim Yankel. All of them inhabit the kingdom of the ineffectual, but each is assigned a separate place in the roll call. The sense of differentiation is so acute in Yiddish that a word like, say, paskudnyak has no peer in any language I know for the vocal delineation of a nasty character. And Yiddish coins new names with ease for new personality types: A nudnik is a pest; a phudnik is a nudnik with a Ph.D.

Were I asked to characterize Yiddish -- its style, its life story, its ambience -- in one word, I would not hesitate: irrepressible.

Isaac Bashevis Singer reminds us that Yiddish may be the only language on earth that has never been spoken by men in power. Few instruments of human speech have led so parlous a life, amidst such inhospitable neighbors, against such fierce opposition. And I know of no tongue so beset by schisms and fevers and ambivalences from within the community that had given it birth: Jews themselves.

Purists derided Yiddish for its "bastard" origins, its "vulgar" idioms, its "hybrid" vocabulary. Hebraicists called it "uncivilized cant." Germans called it a "barbarous argrot," a "piggish jargon." But English, French, Italian, German, all began as "vulgar" tongues, as jargon, as the vernacular of uneducated masses: The priests and intellectuals and noblemen (if educated) used Latin and Greek. And not too long ago, in Russia, Poland, Scandinavia, the Balkans, the nabobs learned French, a "refined" language, but remained ignorant of the national, "the servants'," language.

English Words in Yiddish

Many English words are part of today's Yiddish. In the American households of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, the parents spoke Yiddish to each other -- and to the children. But the passionately eager-to-be-American children customarily replied in English. (Hence the witticism, as true for other immigrants as for Jews, "In America, it is the children who raise the parents.")

The vigorous Yiddish press, striving to make life in the boom and bewilderment of the New World easier for its readers, taught them many useful English words. Since these words were spelled in Yiddish, their pronunciation was necessarily determined by the pronunciational aspects of Yiddishand by the habituated reflexes of the Jewish tongue and larynx. And so proud new patriots swiftly enlarged their vocabularies with such useful, everyday words as:

vindaw (window)
stritt cah (street car)
sobvay (subway)
tex (tax)
sax (sex)

Let me point out that one reason for these aural transformations lay in the way many Jews pronounced any language -- German, French, or Yiddish itself.

If I may quote from an earlier work of mine:

Some say "ship" when they mean the source of wool, or "sheep" when they mean a vessel. Others throw "bet" around with abandon to mean either "bat," "bet," "bad," or "bed."

Mr. Kaplan may say "fond mine fife fit don," which suggests a devoted shaft of flutes fit for an Oxford tutor. But [the phrase means] that Mr. Kaplan, having lost something, found it five feet down.

Or take Mrs. Moskowitz [who says] "I hate the brat." That is not at all what she means....If I had her say, instead, I ate the brat," which is closer to her message, Mrs. Moskowitz would be tainted with cannibalism, which is absurd. (There are certain animals Mrs. Moskowitz would not dream of digesting.) I would have to violate truth, in the service of truth, and write Mrs. Moskowitz's perfectly innocent thought as "I ate the brad."

[Or] take Mr. Kaplan's name. Anyone in the class can spell it correctly. But notice: Mr. Kaplan refers to himself as "Keplen," Mr. Blattberg calls him "Kaplen," Mr. Plonsky always bellows "Keplan," Mr. Matsoukas mutters "Koplen," and Olga Tarnova, who could wring lurid overtones from a telephone number, moans "Koplan."

Any reader who feels superior to such quaint, broken English might ponder the words written in Harper's back in 1915 by William Dean Howells:

"With us [Americans] the popular taste is so bad, so ignorant, so vulgar, that it suggests the painful doubt whether literacy is a true test of intelligence and a rightful proof of citizenship....The literary taste of the Russian Jews on the East Side is superior to that of the average native American...

And we might remember that when the overwhelming majority of mankind was illiterate, it was hard to find a Jewish lad over six who could not read and write (Hebrew). Most adult male Jews could handle at least three languages: They used Hebrew in the synagogues and houses of study (see Bes Midrash), Yiddish in the home, and -- to Gentiles -- the language of the land in which they lived. My father, a workingman denied the equivalent of a highschool education in Poland, handled Yiddish, English, Hebrew, Polish. Jews were linguists of necessity.

Brief Note: The History of Yiddish

For the picaresque history of this spirited and gallant tongue see the entry Yiddish and the Appendix. Here I need only say briefly: Around the tenth century, Jews from what is now northern France, who spoke Old French and, of course, Hebrew, migrated to towns along the Rhine, where they began to use the local German dialect. Hebrew remained untouched as the "sacred," the liturgical, language -- for reading Torah and Talmud, for use in prayer and in scholarly or theological discourse.

In the Rhineland, Jews wrote German phonetically, using the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, just as Jewish sages in Spain wrote Spanish (and Arabic) with Hebrew letters.

Yiddish really took root and flowered, as a vernacular, in the ghettos -- which began in walled juderías in Spain in the thirteenth century. (The Lateran Councils of 1179 and 1215 forbade Jews to live close to Christians, and in 1555 Paul IV ordered segregated quarters for Jews in the Papal States.) This new parlance was a mélange of Middle High German, some Old German, remnants of Old French and Old Italian, Hebrew names and phrases, and local dialects.

But Yiddish did not really settle down and raise its own young until after the fifteenth century, when the Jews went to eastern Europe -- Poland, Galicia, Hungary, Rumania, Russia. There the buoyant tongue picked up new locutions, adapting itself to the street and the marketplace. Yiddish became the Jews' tongue via the Jewish mother, who, not being male, was denied a Hebrew education.

Professor Max Weinreich has given us an exhilarating epigram: "A language is a dialect that has an army and a navy." Yiddish, unlike Hebrew, the official language of Israel, has neither army, navy, police, nor governmental mandate. It has only ardent practitioners and sentimental protectors. In Israel, Yiddish was accorded short shrift by officials and populace alike, until quite recently. The official disfavor and unofficial scorn account for the joke I heard in Jerusalem:

On a bus in Tel Aviv, a mother was talking animatedly, in Yiddish, to her little boy -- who kept answering her in Hebrew. And each time the mother said, "No, no, talk Yiddish!"

An impatient Israeli, overhearing this, exclaimed, "Lady, why do you insist the boy talk Yiddish instead of Hebrew?"

Replied the mother, "I don't want him to forget he's a Jew."

That mother knew what Israel Zangwill meant when he said: "Yiddish incorporates the essence of a life which is distinctive and unlike any other."

Perhaps the most eloquent statement of the case for Yiddish as the special language of Jews was penned by the writer I. L. Peretz:

Yiddish, the language which will ever bear witness to the violence and murder inflicted on us, bears the marks of our expulsions from land to land, the language which absorbed the wails of the fathers, the laments of the generations, the poison and bitterness of history, the language whose precious jewels are undried, uncongealed Jewish tears.

Do All Jews Understand Yiddish?

No. Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer makes the point vividly:

If an international conference were called today, bringing together Jews of a dozen different countries, no single language would be understood by all. This fact is a source of wonder to many Jews and non-Jews alike....In Italy, France and North Africa, I frequently saw a look of amazement on the faces of American Jewish soldiers who addressed the elders of a synagogue in Yiddish and found no response. In Dijon, most Jews were at home only with their native French; in Algiers, Arabic and French were the languages in most Jewish homes; and in Naples, only a rare soul had ever heard a word of Yiddish.

Hebrew, the language of prayer and the Bible, is spoken only by Israelis and a handful of scholars....Yiddish...is today unintelligible to Jews of Italy, Turkey, Spain, North Africa, a goodly number of Americans, and many nativeborn Israelis....Jews throughout the world today have as their first, and most often their only, language the tongue of the land in which they live.

The Use of Stories, Humor, and Anecdotes

I have used a story, joke, or anecdote in the main body of this lexicon to illustrate the meaning of a word, wherever possible. Since this is highly unorthodox in lexicography, a brief for the defense may be in order.

I consider the story, the anecdote, the joke, a teaching instrument of unique efficacy. A joke is a structured, compact narrative that makes a point with power, generally by surprise. A good story is exceedingly hard for anyone to forget. It is therefore an excellent pedagogic peg on which to hang a point. Those who do not use stories when they try to explain or communicate arc either inept at telling them or blindly forfeit a tool of great utility.

The Jewish anecdote possesses a bouquet all its own. Since almost every Jew is raised to reverence learning, and encouraged to be a bit of a teacher, the Jewish story (myseh) is at its best when it points a moral or moralizes a problem.

A very large part of Jewish humor is cerebral. It is, like Sholom. Aleichem's, reason made mischievous, or, like Groucho Marx's, reason gone mad. Jewish jokes drape their laughter on logic-in despair.

In nothing is Jewish psychology so vividly revealed as in Jewish jokes. The style and stance of its humor reflect a culture, I think, no less than its patterns of shame, guilt, hostility, and approval.

The first riddle I ever heard, one familiar to almost every Jewish child, was propounded to me by my father:

"What is it that hangs on the wall, is green, wet -- and whistles?"

I knit my brow and thought and thought, and in final perplexity gave up.

"A herring," said my father.

"A herring?!" I echoed. "A herring doesn't hang on a wall!

"So hang it there."

"But a herring isn't green!" I protested.

"Paint it."

"But a herring isn't wet."

"If it's just painted, it's still wet."

"But -- " I sputtered, summoning all my outrage, " -- a herring doesn't whistle!"

"Right," smiled my father. "I just put that in to make it hard."

We need not be surprised to find countless Jewish jokes mocking the Jews themselves. Selfawareness, pushed into self-analysis, turns into self-criticism.

I once defined humor as "the affectionate communication of insight." Humor also serves the afflicted as compensation for suffering, a token victory of brain over fear. A Jewish aphorism goes: "When you're hungry, sing; when you're hurt, laugh." The barbed joke about the strong, the rich, the heartless powers-that-be is the final citadel in which human pride can live. "All sorrows can be borne," said the Danish writer Isak Dinesen, "if you put them into a story."

But writing jokes proved far, far more difficult than I ever anticipated. (Think how much you are aided, in telling a joke, by tonal variations and strategic gestures; by artful pauses and inflections; by the deliberate camouflage of chuckles, dismay, smiles, murmurs.) And certain stories, gorgeous in the telling, just cannot be put into print without suffering more than a sea change. As good an example as I know is this classic:

During a gigantic celebration in Red Square, after Trotsky had been sent into exile, Stalin, on Lenin's great tomb, suddenly and excitedly raised his hand to still the acclamations: "Comrades, comrades! A most historic event! A cablegram -- of congratulations -- from Trotsky!"

The hordes cheered and chortled and cheered again, and Stalin read the historic cable aloud:



You can imagine what a roar, what an explosion of astonishment and triumph erupted in Red Square now!

But in the front row, below the podium, a little tailor called, "Pst! Pst! Comrade Stalin."

Stalin leaned down.

The tailor said, "Such a message, Comrade Stalin. For the ages! But you read it without the right feeling!"

Whereupon Stalin raised his hand and stilled the throng once more. "Comrades! Here is a simple worker, a loyal Communist, who says I haven't read the message from Trotsky with enough feeling! Come, Comrade Worker! Up here! You read this historic communication!"

So the little tailor went up to the reviewing stand and took the cablegram from Stalin and read:


Then he cleared his throat, and sang out:




I am happy to acknowledge below the many kind people who helped me during the years it took to finish this opus.

As for the errors and lapses and shameless omissions that will be brought to my attention by irate grammarians, dissenting rabbis, philologists, historians, fervent Yiddishists, inflexible Hebraicists, or readers simply devoted, as am 1, to their beloved mama-loshen, I shall try to console myself with the words of Samuel Johnson, who sent his great dictionary out into the world with this marvelous admonition:

...a few wild blunders and risible absurdities, from which no work of such multiplicity was ever free, may for a time furnish folly with laughter. No dictionary of a living tongue can ever be perfect...a whole life cannot be spent upon syntax and etymology...What is obvious is not always known, and what is -known is not always present. In this work, when it shall be found that much is omitted, let it not be forgotten that much likewise is performed.

Leo Rosten

New York

Copyright renewed © 1996 by Leo Rosten

Meet the Author

The late LEO ROSTEN was the author of The Return of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, Captain Newman, M.D., and countless other books, articles, and screenplays.

LAWRENCE BUSH is the author of several books about American Judaism and is the editor of Reconstructionism Today. He lives in Accord, New York.

R.O. BLECHMAN’s illustrations have appeared on nineteen covers of The New Yorker and have been exhibited in New York, Paris, Berlin, and Munich. The author/artist of seven books, he lives in New York City.

From the Hardcover edition.

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