Yiddish Resurfaces as NYC’s 2nd Political Language


laguardiaSam Roberts of the New York Times reports: In 1897, Isaac Fromme, an office-seeker from the largely Jewish Lower East Side, punctuated his campaign palaver with Yiddishisms to refute insinuations that he was Irish. In 1922, Fiorello H. La Guardia was re-elected to Congress from East Harlem after he rebutted charges of anti-Semitism by challenging a rival to debate in Yiddish. La Guardia, a son of Jewish and Italian parents, was fluent in Yiddish. His Jewish rival was not.

That Yiddish remains the second language of New York politics was demonstrated yet again over the weekend in the disembodied debate between Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the State Senate.

On Friday, Mr. Bloomberg said that for the Senate to adjourn for the summer without voting to extend his control over New York City’s school system was “meshugeneh.”

To which State Senator Hiram Monserrate replied on Sunday: “We believe it would be meshugeneh not to include parents in the education of our children. As opposed to loosely using the word ‘meshugeneh,’ we would also say we don’t need a yenta on the other side of this argument and this debate.”

Neither Mr. Monserrate, who is Hispanic, nor Mr. Bloomberg, who is Jewish, was surgically precise with his Yiddishism.

But their casual embrace of an onomatopoetic language is a reminder of how universal Yiddish has become. Not only in New York, where Jews now constitute fewer than one in five mayoral election voters, but even beyond. Meshuga and yenta both appear in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The last Jewish mayor, Edward I. Koch, suggested as much on Monday when he offered an obvious reason why New York politicians drift into Yiddish. “They all want to sound like citizens of the world,” Mr. Koch said.

The comedian Jackie Mason said Mr. Bloomberg would have felt more self-conscious about using Yiddish 10 or 15 years ago. “It’s now hip to be Jewish,” he said. “A Jew used to be embarrassed at saying a Jewish word.”

Twenty years ago, Mr. Mason himself regretted being quoted as describing David N. Dinkins, the Democratic mayoral candidate, as “a fancy schvartze,” invoking a Yiddish word, often used derogatorily, for a black man. Mr. Mason later apologized. “I’m a comedian,” he said then, “not a politician.” He was criticized for calling President Obama the same word during a show this year, but told the entertainment Web site tmz.com that it was no longer a pejorative term.

In 1998, Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato referred to his Democratic opponent, Charles E. Schumer, as a “putzhead.” The backlash to Mr. D’Amato’s reference resonated because of his own reputation for crudity and because he at first denied using the slur.

“I think that Mayor Bloomberg probably used Yiddish as a way of having his kugel and eating it, too,” said Michael Wex, the author of “Born to Kvetch” and “Just Say Nu.”

“His use of meshugeneh – a not uncommon solecism, incidentally; the adverb should be meshuga – seems intended to strengthen his point at the same time as it gives his expression of it a heartfelt, rather than denunciatory, feel,” Mr. Wex said. “The idea that ‘this is crazy, pure and simple’ comes across all the more strongly by implying that English simply lacks the words to describe what he’s feeling – that in his guts, as they used to say, he knows it’s nuts.

“Rather than crossing ethnic lines here, Mayor Bloomberg seems to be presenting himself as an Everyman who, since he happens to be Jewish, expresses himself in the idiom that’s supposed to be closest to his heart,” Mr. Wex said.

“Senator Monserrate raises the stakes, though, by calling the mayor a yenta -‘a female motormouth,’ ” Mr. Wex continued. “If the senator’s earlier uses of meshugeneh were meant to show that he could play the mayor’s game, yenta is his way of proving that he can even play it better.”

Whatever the mayor’s motivation in resorting to Yiddish, the debate with some of the Democratic senators, who want to loosen mayoral control of the schools, was degenerating well beyond meshugas into a very English digression. When Mr. Bloomberg invoked Neville Chamberlain on Friday in defending his version of mayoral control over education against any compromise, was he suggesting that the senators were comparable to Adolf Hitler?

“It wasn’t an analogy at all – the mayor was talking about endless negotiations in general,” Stu Loeser, Mr. Bloomberg’s chief spokesman, explained on Monday. “The former prime minister’s name is now synonymous in the American lexicon with appeasement and endless negotiations. Since it wasn’t an analogy, the mayor wasn’t comparing anyone to anyone else.”

{NY Times/Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. “a yenta -‘a female motormouth,’’

    Yenta or Yente is the name of some of our Yiddishe sisters and/or ancestors, and we should not make fun of it. It used to be a classy Yiddish name. Yente is related to Gentille, related to the word genteel, which means refined and gentle. Then someone made a play called Yenta telebenda, about eight five years ago, and then Yenta became a big joke and put down. But we have to be careful not to fall into this trap, yenta has a long history before these leitzim, don’t let them totally succeed in hijacking the Yiddish language and being mevazeh our grandmothers and sisters who have that name.

    P.S. We should also be mechazek ourselves in Yiddish, it is the language of our ancestors, our zeides and bobbes, the language of many great gedolim and roshei yeshiva. You don’t have to be Chassidish to speak Yiddish. Yiddish is not only for Chassidim!

    I hope the readers here know Yiddish better than those politicians

  2. when mario biagi lost the mayoral race i saw him in lod airport i told him that i was sorry he didnt win he answered whats bashert is bashert