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Yiddish a part of American vocabulary for Ages

By Maxine Shapiro

Dallas, TX – My friend and I were talking about the meaning of some widely used Yiddish terms -- and she wanted some answers. Having grown up in a Jewish home I felt I was the authority she was looking for, so I said, "Shoot." She started out with a very common term: "schlep." Oh that's easy. "Schlep. You know, to schlep - to schlep your briefcase, to schlep the water bottle, to schlep the kids - schlep!!!" I don't know why she wasn't satisfied with that explanation, but she wasn't.

So she tried another: "schmooze." Now this is a piece of cake. "To schmoooooze - to smooooooth talk, usually about nothing." I was so proud of myself; I mean, they sound so much alike! I tried to explain to her that sometimes there is just no literal translation. I was getting uncomfortable; kinda like when some people first find out that I'm a Jew, they start asking me all these questions. "What does it mean to keep kosher?" "Why can't you eat pork?" My God, didn't you see "Fiddler on the Roof?" Tradition!!

It wasn't working, so I decided to do some research. I called my 96 year old aunt. Aunt Louise was eight years old when our family first came to America from Paris, France. My real name is Sapera. So when they arrived here it was Jean, Louise, Leon and Charles Sapera. Beautiful, eh? And it wasn't too long that it got changed to Jean, Louise, Leo and Chuckie Shapiro. What a difference an ocean makes.

My aunt doesn't remember a single word of French BUT speaks Yiddish as a second language. In fact that's how it was during all my formative years. My parents would speak Yiddish not to enhance or to educate my sister and I on our heritage, but to talk about us, so we wouldn't understand - sort of like a Jewish pig latin.

Up until I was 8 years old my mother's father, my "zadee," lived with us. He was from Lithuania, and I only remember him speaking Yiddish. You know what he did for a living? He sold crosses down on Maxwell Street. Isn't that great? My dad and he would occasionally get into some intense Yiddish arguments when my zadee didn't like the way my father was talking to us. "Go Zadee!" I would cheer to myself. But he got too old to take care of and moved into a nursing home. The name of the home was "The BMZ". That stood for "Bubbies Mitz Zadees," Yiddish of course.

Back to my aunt. She actually knew the definition of "schlep." She said to drag, to carry. But she didn't even know the word schmooze. Later I found out there was a good reason why. At 96 I should only be that smart!

So I trotted on down to my favorite library - Borders - comfortable chairs, great lighting, and no Dewey decimal system to look up. There's this fabulous book I remembered from the late 60's titled "The Joys of Yiddish" (not to be confused with the "Joy of Cooking!") Anyway, this book by Leo Rosten had a reprint in 1996 and is filled with the definition and origin of every Yiddish word and expression you could think of.

Sure enough, my aunt was right about "schlep" - to drag. And it turns out that the word "schmooze" is not even Yiddish. It comes from the Hebrew word "sha mu as", meaning idle talk, heart to heart chitchat. This time I was correct. So the next time you schlep over to your neighbors to schmooze a little about all the meshugass in your life, remember you don't have to be a Jew to speak Yiddish. You just have to be willing to sound a little more colorful than the next person.