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In California, Yiddish Guide Helps Politicians Spice Up Their Debates

June 18, 2001
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The speaker of the California State Assembly has published a 36-page booklet for the benefit of the 90 percent of Assembly members who are not Jewish — as well as other Yiddishly-challenged politicians.

Robert Hertzberg’s “Yiddish for Assemblymembers” contains a selection of words drawn from the mama loshen — with examples of their possible uses in the legislative process — as well as a brief guide to Jewish holidays.

In a press release, Hertzberg, who likes to enliven the chamber’s debates with Yiddish expressions, explained the purpose of his literary effort.

“I want to make sure members don’t get farblondjet when us alte kahkers of the Assembly make a megillah about our bills,” Hertzberg wrote. A sanitized translation would read, “I want to make sure members don’t get mixed up when us fussy old guys make a long story about our bills.”

In a phone interview, Hertzberg said he owed his own Yiddish vocabulary to his grandparents, who came to America from Latvia and Odessa, Ukraine.

Hertzberg said he had received numerous thank-you notes from fellow legislators, who can finally figure out what the speaker is talking about and can begin to use selections from the book in their own speeches.

Another enthusiastic reader has been Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who has been known to drop a Yiddish exclamation here and there, to good effect.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the booklet:

Klutz: Clumsy person.

Example: I’m such a klutz; I smashed my finger when I banged the gavel for order.

Mitzvah: Commandment; a meritorious act.

Example: You did a mitzvah when you passed the family health insurance bill.

While Hertzberg’s booklet signals the advance of Yiddish in the legislative branch, its increasing use in the judiciary was noted some years back in the Yale Law Review. In an article titled “Lawsuit, Shmawsuit,” Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh noted the growing use of the word “chutzpah” in legal pleadings and opinions.

“There are two possible explanations for this,” the authors wrote. “One is that during recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the actual amount of chutzpah in the United States — or at least in the U.S. legal system.”

But, they wrote, “The more likely explanation is that Yiddish is quickly supplanting Latin as the spice in American legal argot.”

With the legislative and judicial branches increasingly attuned to Yiddish, it remains for the executive arm to weigh in. In a hopeful sign, Hertzberg said that shortly after he gave a copy of his booklet to Gray Davis, the California governor declared publicly that he needed the state’s energy crisis like a “Loch in kop,” a hole in the head.

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