Writer Leo Rosten dies; popularized Yiddish in U.S.

NEW YORK, Feb. 23 (JTA) — Leo Rosten, who translated his mamaloshen into English and helped make words like `shlep’ and `nosh’ part of the American vernacular, has died. He was 88. Perhaps best known for “The Joys of Yiddish,” which was published in 1968, Rosten also authored dozens of books of fiction, including mysteries, and non-fiction, as an amateur sociologist. His first book, “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N” published in 1937, which grew out of short stories he printed in The New Yorker magazine, revealed his deep affection for the struggles of people steeped in Yiddish culture and language who were trying to acclimate to life in America. Rosten used the pseudonym Leonard Q. Ross. He was apparently trying — like many Jews transplanted to the new country — to go by a name that sounded to his immigrant ears more glamorous and American. Rosten was born on April 11, 1908, in Lodz, Poland, to Samuel and Ida Freundlich Rosten and immigrated with his family to the United States when he was 3. He was raised in Chicago in a working-class environment filled with other Jewish new Americans, which formed the setting for his later writing. His best-known character, Hyman Kaplan, was based on one of Rosten’s students from night school. The warmth and humor with which Rosten wrote about his indomitable Hyman Kaplan struck a familiar chord with many people who were striving at the time to blend into the melting pot. Kaplan reappeared in two sequels, “The Return of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N,” in 1959, and “O K*A*P*L*A*N! My K*A*P*L*A*N!” in 1976. Rosten possessed the same ear for humor and the same affection for his characters that Sholom Aleichem and Mark Twain had for theirs, said Sol Steinmetz, an authority on the impact of Yiddish on the English language. Steinmetz was most recently quoted by New York Times language columnist William Safire as differing with Rosten over the origins of the Yiddish word “shmuck.” Hyman Kaplan’s “is a loving story, and throughout his life Mr. Rosten tried to convey this tremendous love of the language and culture,” said Steinmetz, author of “Yiddish and English: A Century of Yiddish in America” and editorial director of the reference division at Random House. Rosten “has made a lasting contribution to American culture and even Jewish culture. Jews who in the 1930s were ashamed of Yiddish, and throughout World War II felt funny about recognizing their Jewishness, learned through people like Rosten to feel proud of their Yiddishness without fear or shame,” he said. Decades later, Rosten wrote “The Joys of Yiddish” and helped bring to America’s farthest reaches a familiarity with Yiddish patois. Rosten “helped popularize the usefulness and interest and humor of Yiddish as it influenced American English, so people were not embarrassed, after his contributions, to use such words,” said Steinmetz. Today, even Dunkin Donuts urges customers to try its new bagels through the use of billboards that say, “It’s Worth the Schlep.” Words such as “mensch” and “chutzpah,” which with their multiple nuances have no precise English equivalent, and uniquely Yiddish sentence constructs — such as “Shakespeare it’s not” and “Enjoy, enjoy!” — are now used by Americans totally removed from any connection to the culture from which this language sprang. The impact of Rosten and others has reached so far that today “you can live in Minnesota and pick up a yiddishism and not even be aware of what it is,” Steinmetz said.

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