Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. If you take Amtrak to visit your mother on her special day, be sure to follow this advice. When it’s time to head for home and Amtrak is leaving the station, be sure to throw Momma from the train … a kiss.
The weird syntax of that last sentence is likely to confuse people who did not grow up some place where there was a strong Yiddish culture. Technically, Yiddish is a language, and it was an integral part of the lifestyle of many people in the Jewish communities of New York during the post-World War II years when I was a child.
Yiddish was developed during the 12th century among Jewish people who had taken refuge in Germany. The language combined elements of Hebrew, Aramaic, and German. By the 20th century, it was emerging as a major Eastern European language, spoken mostly by Jewish residents of Russia, Germany, and parts of a number of other countries in the central, northern, and eastern parts of the continent.
About the same time in our country, there developed a fear of new waves of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. So, in 1920, the government began programs that severely restricted immigration with a “quota” system. When World War II began in Europe, this had the adverse effect of “trapping” millions of Jews in an increasingly hostile environment that was created in Nazi Germany. At that time, there were perhaps as many as 14 million Europeans who spoke the hybrid language. But, about 85 percent of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust were Yiddish speakers. After the war, the use of Yiddish among Jews became a badge of courage.
As I traveled around New York, and especially once I started taking the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan to my high school (Xavier Military Academy), I listened to many conversations that involved “code switching,” the practice of mixing English with words or expressions from a different language. This was so common that many Yiddish words became part of the American vernacular.
The immigration story
To understand Jewish immigration to America and, in particular the Yiddish language, it’s necessary to realize that there is no such thing as a unified “Jewish” community. That’s because American Judaism is a mosaic that was created by three distinct waves of immigration, each of which has its own focus of identity.
• Sephardic Jews. The first Jews (four men, two women) to come to the New World arrived in New Amsterdam (now New York) in 1654. At the time, New Amsterdam was a Dutch colony and, like Holland, was religiously tolerant. Later, more Jews, escaping the Spanish Inquisition, arrived from the Iberian Peninsula. Then, others came who were fleeing pograms (organized genocidal raids on Jewish villages in Russia and Poland). But, their combined numbers were small, and by the end of the 18th century there were fewer than 3,000 Jews living in America. Over the centuries, their descendents have assimilated into the general population, speak only English, and follow American customs.
• Ashkenazi Jews. Yiddish was brought to America by the Ashkenazi Jews who migrated to the United States (mostly settling in New York) between 1880 and 1914. One conspicuous exception was Löb Straub, who changed his name to Levi Strauss. After gold was discovered in California, he moved to San Francisco where his riveted denim jeans became the “uniform” of men who worked the mines. He and his partner, Jacob Davis, patented Levi work pants in 1873, and the blue jeans can be found today in the closets of even affluent people.
These “new” Americans were largely responsible for the development of not only a vigorous garment industry, but also finance (Goldman Sachs) and the movies (Adolf Zukor, founder of Paramount; Wilhelm Fuchs, 20th Century Fox; and Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn, MGM). Additionally, they accepted the notion that the United States was a “melting pot.” Consequently, just as they adopted some of the customs native to New York, residents of the Big Apple also incorporated some Jewish elements into their own culture.
In most parts of NYC, any goy (Gentile) could walk into a Jewish deli, order a potato knish (filled pastry), and listen to another customer kvetsh (complain) about his meshugener (crazy) bubbe (grandmother). But, one would have to have a lot of chutzpah (brazen confidence) to order a pastrami sandwich and then shmeer (spread) it with mayonnaise (a particularly goyish practice), and one would certainly be a klutz (blockhead) to ask for it on white bread. Oy vey! Such a shlemiel!
• Hasidic Jews. Some members of the American Hasidic Jewish community arrived along with the Ashkenazi, and others were survivors of the Holocaust who came to the U.S. after immigration laws were relaxed in the 1960s. Unlike the general population of Ashkenazi Jews, however, they have not favored assimilation. Hasidic Jews are the most orthodox, live in nearly exclusively Hasidic neighborhoods (Crown Heights, Williamsburg, and Boro Park in Brooklyn, for example), observe traditional Hebrew customs, speak proper Hebrew — not Yiddish — and have little interaction with the rest of society.
Yiddish probably became known widely among the general population as a result of the Borscht Belt, the Jewish alternative to the Bible Belt, which was centered on the entertainment industry that developed around the hotels, bungalow colonies, and summer camps in New York’s Castskill Mountains. Some of the well known resorts that flourished between the 1920s and the 1970s were Grossinger’s, The Concord, and Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club.
In these venues, frequented mostly by Ashkenazi Jews from New York and other areas in New England, stand-up comics like Milton Berle, Red Buttons, Mel Brooks, and Jack Benny got their start. Later, Joan Rivers, Billy Crystal, and Rodney Dangerfield would take the stage. Eventually, all of these entertainers made their way into the mainstream of American popular culture.
As these comics began appearing on television and in movies, “The Singing Rage, Miss Patti Page” brought a bit of Yiddish culture to the radio and juke boxes with her rendition of a song, “Throw Momma from the Train (A Kiss, A Kiss),” which rose to No. 12 in Billboard magazine in 1956. And, in a display of Yiddish humor, street vendors who sold knishes near subway stations in New York placed lettered signs on their carts: “Throw Mama from the train, a knish, a knish ... . Don’t leave her hungry behind.” Happy Mother’s Day!
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Retired sociology professor Jim Glynn can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.