Recently, Rav Shaul Alter, the Gerrer rosh reshiva of Yerushalayim, visited the New York area. When it was announced that he was coming to Monsey and speaking at Sheiner’s shul, I decided to attend. Aside from the fact that my family roots are in Ger, it was an opportunity to see a renowned talmid chacham.
The tent that he spoke in was packed. He entered exactly on time and briskly walked to the podium and immediately began, without any fanfare.
Although I hoped he would be speaking in Hebrew, he spoke in Yiddish. I have always wished I was more fluent in Yiddish. But I was confident that I would be able to understand much of his shiur because in recent months I have been practicing Yiddish, thanks to Duolingo.
Duolingo is a popular, free, language-learning app, with lessons that require a mere five to ten minutes a day. The makers of the app recently announced that users can now learn Yiddish.
Developing the Yiddish course wasn’t easy. There are three basic dialects of Yiddish – Galician, Lithuanian and Romanian/Ukrainian. Then, each dialect has sub-dialects. Most contemporary Yiddish speakers are chasidim, so the team of developers included Jews who grew up speaking “chasidish” Yiddish.
The developers decided to provide different synonyms to include different dialects. For pronunciation they decided to base it on the accent of the Satmar community.
Fortified with a few Duolingo Yiddish lessons, I thought I was ready for a Yiddish shiur. But I’ve come to realize that language isn’t only about words, it’s also about knowing the correct vernacular. For example, although dank means thank you, most Yiddish speakers say yasher koach (or Shkoiach). From the app I learned that bileten means ticket, guitarin means guitar, garten is garden, and royz is rose. But, surprisingly, Rav Shaul Alter didn’t use any of those words in his shiur about hilchos tzedakah.
For the app to be more effective, they should use words like geshmak, gefilte fish, heimishe, and gezunt.
I am fortunate to spend my mornings as a rebbe in Heichal HaTorah in Teaneck. I try to teach my talmidim Torah and they try to teach me contemporary lingo, so I could be a hip rabbi (though some of them assert that I have no shot). Twice a week during the afternoon I teach a class in Government and Law in more yeshivish yeshivos. Aside from the fact that it keeps me balanced, I get a kick out of the contrast between the contemporary lingo the “boyz” in Heichal use and the yeshivishe shprach of the more yeshivish bochurim.
The morning after someone gets a haircut, I might hear someone quip that he has a “fresh cut,” while in the afternoon someone would say “shayne haircut!” Someone who makes an outlandish comment in the morning may be told “you’re trippin’, bro,” while in the afternoon he would be told that he has “no shaychus.” Say something untrue and you might be told that you’re “capping” versus “that’s shekker v’chazav.” The opposite of capping/shekker is fax/emes! If someone says a sharp line, someone may say “Oh snap! Shots fired!” as opposed to “you just got shtuched out!” If a kid is good on the basketball court, he is a “baller” or a “shtark player.” A fun night can be “litty” or a geshmake matzav.
Maybe one day I’ll be able to blend the two worlds. People will learn that being salty is the same as being kvetchy, and that a T4 is the same as a subtle flex. Whether you are vibing and feeling shtultzy, or even on days when you’re just not down, if you don’t want to be a grubbah am ha’aretz, you gotta push yourself beyond your comfort zone.
It’ll be obvious how you identify yourself depending on whether your reaction to this article is “Pshhhh!” or “Sheeesh!” (Or “shtusim!” versus “very sus!”)
One of the rules in public speaking is the need for the speaker to know how to speak to his crowd. It’s not only about the language, but also about the dialect and vernacular. If a speaker presents using words that are uncomfortable or unfamiliar to his listeners, he will lose the crowd. In our world, there are crowds in which it is necessary to translate every quoted pasuk or statement from a Gemara or Medrash. There are other crowds in which doing so can come across as boring or even demeaning.
The truth is that the lingo is constantly changing and by the time you read this some of these phrases might not even be a thing anymore. Still, everyone has their own way of speaking. Whether your listener is a Karen or a Yoeli, make sure you know whether to speak the lingo for the “boyz” or the shprach for the chevra.