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Arts & Culture Translation of ‘joys of Yiddish’ Making Its Debut in Germany

November 1, 2002
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Germans who want to learn Yiddish now have an additional resource.

Leo Rosten’s “The Joys of Yiddish” is hitting bookstands in Germany, 35 years after it first appeared in English and five years after the author’s death.

And though the book’s title in German — “Yiddish. A Small Encyclopedia” — does not include the word “joy,” its launch here on Monday included both humor and sadness — emotions that many agreed are essential to the appreciation of the mama loshen, or mother tongue.

“There is no richer language in all the world,” said Alexander Brenner, head of the Jewish community of Berlin and a native speaker of Yiddish. He related several flavorful Yiddish curses during the launch at the Jewish bookstore Literaturhandlung.

“You should grow like an onion, with your head in the ground, and you should be like a light, hanging during the day and burning at night,” were among the pronouncements that drew appreciative laughter from the small crowd.

“This is our most important title this fall,” said Wolfgang Balk of the publishing house Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag. “It is very appropriate that a company that calls itself German should show that German and Jewish culture belong together.”

The closest linguistic kin to Yiddish is Middle High German; Yiddish and German appear side by side on the “language tree” at the immigration museum on New York’s Ellis Island, said Lutz Wolff, who worked for 18 months on the translation of Rosten’s book.

Before the Holocaust, there were some 11 million Yiddish speakers in Europe. Today, there is a steady stream of non-Jewish Germans seeking to learn the language.

Most Judaic, Hebrew and Yiddish studies programs in Germany are populated by non-Jewish students, and Yiddish music and other cultural events draw non-Jewish crowds — facts that Brenner called “paradoxical.”

“I have mixed feelings about it,” Brenner told JTA. “It is partly due to a bad conscience.”

Paradoxical or not, there is much genuine Yiddish scholarship in Germany. There are two graduate programs in Yiddish in Germany — at the universities of Trier and Dusseldorf. In addition, the University of Potsdam near Berlin plans to open a Center for Yiddish Music. And a Yiddish conversation group meets regularly at Berlin’s Technical University. It is convened by Arnold Groh, author of a Yiddish handbook for travelers.

Several textbooks on Yiddish have been published in Germany in recent years, including a dictionary by Ronald Lotzsch, published in 1990.

Another book, “Zocker, Zoff & Zores: Yiddish Words in the German Language” by Hans Peter Althaus, was recently published by a firm in Munich.

Publisher Balk said he chose a different title from Rosten’s original because ” ‘The Joys of Yiddish’ does not work in German. We wanted to stress the seriousness and the fullness of the book,” Balk said.

Wolff said he made the initial proposal to translate “The Joys of Yiddish” four years ago, after being inspired by a friend, New York author Binnie Kirshenbaum, who used Rosten’s book to explain the roots of the word “bagel” to him.

In 2001, “The New Joys of Yiddish,” edited by Lawrence Bush, was published in the United States. Wolff’s German translation is based on this edition.

Wolff said his favorite word in the 638-page book is “nebisch.” And he said the most moving word was the verb “teitschen,” which means “to explain.”

Linguistically, “teitschen means to make something German,” Wolff said. “So my work as a translator of Yiddish was to ‘teitschen.’ “

Quite a bit of teitschen took place at the book launch in the cozy bookstore, opened by Rachel Salamander 10 years ago.

Herself a native speaker of Yiddish, Salamander read aloud a humorous tale about a matchmaker, translating as she went along.

Wolff listed numerous Yiddish words for “dumkopf,” or idiot. And Brenner insisted on telling several Yiddish jokes, which he delivered in the appropriate deadpan.

Some of those present needed no German translation of the Rosten original.

Berliner Sara Bialas, a Holocaust survivor born in Poland, said she had “become a fanatic Yiddishist” in recent years.

Bialas, 75, said she has made sure her sons, now 56 and 54, can speak the language.

“I will die with the feeling that I have done something,” Bialas said. “But when I see the Yiddish books in the library of the Jewish community, I don’t want to die. There is so much to read.”

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