(The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language
              (A Companion to MENDELE)
Contents of Vol. 07.006 [Sequential No. 132]
Date: 30 June 2003

1)  In this issue of TMR (ed.)
2)  _oy vey_ (= _oyvey_) in America (ed.)
3)  Letter From Poland -- Was My Grandfather Jewish? (Roman)

1) ------------------------------------------
Date: 30 June 2003
From: Leonard Prager 
Subject:  In this issue of TMR

_oy vey_

-- Only 44% of America's consumers of kosher food (a 166 billion dollar
industry!) are said to be Jewish, a development more of interest to
nutritionists than to theologians.  Analogously, many Yiddish-origin
expressions, often radically modified, are used by at least as many
gentiles as Jews.  In the Old World, _chutspa_ [Yiddish:  _khutspe_] was
despised; in individualistic America it has became an admirable quality.
Less noticed than the now familiar _chutspa_ is the fast-spreading term
_oy vey_, which seems to have been transformed and absorbed into
colloquial American English.


Letter from Poland

-- An almost sure sign of Jewishness in pre-World War Two Poland was
ability to speak Yiddish.  True, there were many gentiles who spoke
Yiddish learned in the kitchens and workshops of Jewish employers, but
their numbers were relatively few and their fluency was often
imperfect.  In present-day Poland there are many young people who are
engrossed by the possibility that they may be descended from Jews;
Yiddish sometimes enters the course of their searches, as we see from a
letter sent to me recently by a Polish friend.  He does not here give
his intriguing family name, but promises to do so in a future letter.

Date:  30 June 2003 
From:  Leonard Prager 
Content:  _oy vey_ (= _oyvey_) in America (ed.)

Not too long ago a _Washington Post_ contest asked readers to supply
alternate -- and obviously facetious --meanings for various words.
Among the winning entries were _lymph_ (v.)  'to walk with a lisp';
_pokemon_ (n) 'a Jamaican proctologist'; and one that will claim our
attention here today:  _oyster_ (n.)  'a person who sprinkles his
conversation with Yiddish expressions'.  A recent heavily endorsed
Yiddish primer encourages students to use Yiddish words at every
opportunity.  Are _oysters_ those who follow this advice?  Or are they
perhaps speakers of the "sociolect" generally described as "Jewish
English"?  The sporadic use of selected Yiddish expressions doubtless
means a lot to many Jews, providing a tangible sense of connectedness to
deceased loved ones, or the good feeling that one is helping to preserve
a disappearing (and once undervalued) culture.  But the _Washington
Post_, a national newspaper and no mere communal organ, is surely not
referring to such persons.  They must mean your neighbor next door:  it
has been well observed that certain Yiddish terms become Jewish-English
ones and ultimately surface in General American, no more "Jewish" than
the bagel.  The Jewish copyright on _oy_ as in _oy vey_, like that on
_shlep_, _zaftik_, _zhlub_ and several score other Yiddish-origin words
has expired.

For millions of Jews and non-Jews alike, the isolated diphthong /oy/ has
long signaled distress and alarm and has been associated with Yiddish
and its speakers.  _oy_ is sounded with great frequency in Yiddish, but
its meanings are actually multiple and nuanced.  Uriel Weinreich in his
masterly dictionary (MEYYED) is content simply to list the interjections
_oy_ with the meanings 'oh!  (fright, pain)' and 'ouch!' and its
iterated form _oy-oy_ defined as 'oh-oh!', 'and how!'.  Given the
declared scope of his bilingual dictionary, Weinreich could not be
expected to describe the entire semantic range of _oy_, much less the
subtle difference -- in meaning and stress -- between the doubly
repeated oy [= _oy-oy_] and its triply repeated cousin [=_oy-oy-oy_].
Fright and pain may be the feelings most expressed by _oy_ in Yiddish,
but there are perhaps a dozen other senses communicated by this
incredibly rich monosyllable:  excitement, approval, merriment,
amazement, joy.  Morevoer, _oy_ often functions simply as an intensive
that adds emphasis to an utterance.  The vocalic richness of Yiddish is
nicely illustrated in an idiomatic sentence given in _Groyser verterbukh
fun der yidisher shprakh_ (band I, New York, 1961, p. 127) where there
are numerous examples of the varied senses of _oy_:  "nit ay-ay-ay
[rimes with English _my_, _by_ --ed.] un nit _oy-oy-oy_ = es iz nito fun
vos nispael tsu vern, nit tsu gut, ober oykh nit tsu shlekht, me ken
zikh nit baklogn."  ['Not ay-ay-ay and not oy-oy-oy -- there is nothing
to get excited about, for good or for that matter for bad, one can't

_oysters_ did not have to couple _vey_ to _oy_ to form the now seemingly
ubiquitous single-word borrowing _oyvey_.  _oy vey_, with all of the
meanings of simple _oy_, has been in Yiddish for centuries.  To view its
remarkable spread and semantic transformation, one needs to consult
that universal encyclopaedia -- the internet.  There one finds that eBay
has an auction site whose url features "oyvey" prominently (see:
www.geocities.com/ebayoyvey).  For some reason there are a number of
auction sites which use the once-Yiddish lexeme _oy vey_, the latest
being OyVeyAuction (http://www.oyveyauctions.com/join.asp).  The latter
is distinctly aimed at the Jewish community, as we learn from the

"This is a true story.  One Wednesday morning at Chabad Jewish Center
Mission Viejo, California, the President of The itrade Group Inc. was
learning how to do Tefillin with Rabbi Zalman Kantor and had a vision.
It was to build OyVeyAuctions.com in order to create a way to fund
Jewish Charities.  Rabbi Zalman Marcus, who was also in the room
exclaimed that this was a 'Divine Inspiration'.  This vision has led to
the creation of our Rabbinical Council which will advise
OyVeyAuctions.com on Jewish matters and will direct the charitable
giving programs."*

_oy vey_ usages range widely within varied Jewish contexts, but not
exclusively within such borders.  An enterprising quilt maker,
discovering the utility of Jewish themes in her product, gives us a
website named "OyVey!  Quilt Designs."  Numerous Jewish humor sites use
the " oyvey" verbal icon, the suffering in the original Yiddish
expression having somehow been comically transformed in America.  (Is
this the New World equivalent of "lakhn mit yashtsherkes"?  ['laughter
through tears'].)  A young people's klezmer site adds "oy vey" as a kind
of talisman to ward off mishaps = "Young People's Klezmer Workshop / Oy
Vey!"  (http://www.klezmershack.com/bands/ypkw/oyvey/ypkw.oyvey.html).
Our once dark sigh of suffering is reified in a 1997 satirical piece by
Gary Rosenblatt which fantasizes an "oy vey chip":  "Also under
discussion is the proposal of placing an OV-chip, or electronic device,
inside every Jewish home's front-door mezuzah.  This Oy Vey chip would
monitor and block out every transgression committed inside the home, and
is said to be quite popular with secular and liberal Jews; the Orthodox,
however, are insisting on immersing the chip, mezuzah and entire home in
a mikveh and declaring them purified."  (cited from _Jewish Bulletin of
Northern California_, January 3, 1997.  See

Surfing the internet uncovers a motley crew of url's with _oyvey_ in
their contents and even their titles.  Two identical vocabulary lists
maintained by Messianic Jews give "_oyvey_ -- boy are we in trouble (woe
is me)."  (See MESSIANIC JEWISH TERMS, and Their Meanings:
http://www.dccsa.com/greatjoy/messterm.htm; and Glossary of Netzarim
No help is given as to what makes this expression a "Messianic Jewish"

An instance in the serious _Chance News_ has no Jewish dimension at all:
"_Science_ has recently published issues on special topics, such as
women in science, and have invited reader response and published a
summary of responses saying, for example, that 76% of the respondents
felt one way about a subject.  _Science_ also received an avalanche of
letters from statisticians who were concerned with the use of the word
_poll_ or _survey_ for such a non-scientific process....  The
statisticians responded by saying that _Science_ was such a prestigious
journal that they were still worried that people might think that this
was an o.k. way to do a serious poll.  Apparently, the statisticians
involved accepted the editor's proposal that this kind of study be
called an "Oyvey" survey." (See CHANCE News 2.10 -- 16 May to 1
June,1993.  Editorial by Daniel E. Koshland, Jr).

In a piece entitled "Ho ho ho oy vey!" in the national gay and lesbian
news magazine internet site, _The Advocate Commentary_
(http://www.advocate.com/html/stories/828_9/828_9_...), Lisa Eisenbud
writes of the multiple challenge of being a lesbian Jewish mother:
"Making our Jewish children understand why we don't have Christmas trees
and Santa Claus is a good model for instilling pride in other
differences -- such as having two moms."  _oy vey_ here expresses a
readiness to acknowledge and deal with real difficulties and even to
uncover an element of humor in them.  A dual -- problematic and Jewish
-- combination is seen in another gay item, where the playful
possibilities of rime have also been enlisted.  T.J.  Michels' "'Gay?
Oy Vey!' cleans out Israel's closets" (in San Francisco's _Jewish
Bulletin of Nothern California_) previews a series of lectures on
"Queerness in Israeli Film and Culture."  (See

One general explanation for the spread of the term _oy vey_ in America
is that nothing in English expresses the intended meaning quite as well.
But what exactly does it mean and will it still be in the language, say,
a decade hence?  Prefacing the sense discriminations of _oy_ as
interjection, the _Groyser verterbukh fun der yidisher shprakh_ (band I,
New York, 1961, p. 126) writes of _oy_:  "farshpreytster, oftster,
kharaktaristisher oysruf in yidish mit a sakh bataytn" ('most
widespread, most frequent, characteristic exclamation in Yiddish, with
many meanings').  Uttered in Yiddish,  the synonymous _oy vey_ 
with its varied shadings continues to be a fine-tuned glossary of feelings.

*Certain Yiddish expressions resist transformation.  To "do tefillin"
may be Jewish English, rather than Yiddish -- in Yiddish, one "leygt
tfiln," "tut on tfiln" or "davnt in tfiln,"  yet to "do tefillin" is a far cry  
from "to put on phylacteries." The spelling "tefillin" sugests the trisyllabic
Hebrew form, but many American Jews still say /tfiln/.  

Date: 30 June 2003
From: Leonard Prager 
Content: Letter from Poland -- Was my Grandfather Jewish?

Dear Leonard:
And now the question.  But first I have to tell you a few words about me
and my family.  I was born in a village in southeast Poland to a
Catholic family (as all families there are).  My mother (who died in
1978) often told me about her father.  I never saw him because he
migrated to Argentina in the 1930s and during the War [WW2 - ed.]
contact with him was lost and never restored.

A shoemaker and small trader, he was an outstanding person; he spoke
Yiddish.  Jews often visited him in our house.  He always spoke to them
in Yiddish, so nobody else understood what they were talking about.  He
spoke Yiddish also when shopping in the nearby small town.  My mother
often told me a small story:  Once she needed a shirt and they walked to
the town and went to a Jewish shop.  My grandfather and the shopkeeper
conversed a little in Yiddish while drinking tea.  What my mother
understood was that the price of the shirt was by one third lower than
that for usual costumers.  She interpreted this reduction as a reward
for using Yiddish.

In the 1930s my grandfather suddenly left his wife and four daughters
and migrated to Argentina (he was then more than 40 years old).
Together with him at least one other man from our village went out.
This man returned home a few years later (before the outbreak of the
War).  He died in the 1960s or 1970s.  I remember him but I never spoke
to him.  My mother died in 1978 but the story of my grandfather
surprisingly continued.

A few years later I lived in Warsaw in a university hostel room with a
man from Silesia (a region of Poland).  At that time I was studying
Yiddish very hard (e.g. my radio was often tuned to Kol Yisrael's
Yiddish service).  He was curious and asked me:  "Why are you learning
Yiddish?"  I answered, half seriously, half to test his reaction:
"Because I want to know the language of my grandfather."  "Was he a
Jew?" he asked.  And I answered, "Maybe," again more to test him than
for any other reason.  Shortly thereafter he came back to Silesia and
he often visited me.

In 1983 he came to me, very excited.  He told me that he had found out
(by an unbelievable accident) that a professor at the Silesian
University was born in and still had a mother living in my native
village and that he knew me.  This professor was a son of that man who
migrated together with my grandfather to Argentina, and had returned.
What struck me the most was that my friend said:  "You were right about
your grandfather.  He was a Jew." A few months later I met this
professor at a conference.  He invited me to see him in his home in
Silesia and in his mother's home.  Once I managed to meet him.  We had
a long conversation about many things touching the future of Poland.  He
treated me, very politely, as a person of Jewish origin, which made me
rather uneasy because I never presented myself in such a role.  I also
met his mother.  She was more than 90 years old, but she was
extraordinarly strong-minded.  She gave me a photo of my grandfather
made in Argentina and given to and brought by her husband.  It was my
last meeting with the professor.  A few years later (1991) he died in a
road accident and a few weeks therafter his mother died.

Since that meeting I have wondered about my grandfather.  Frankly
speaking I don't believe he was of Jewish origin, because of his good
(or at least correct) business relations with Jews.  Having a Christian
wife and children he would also have had to be Christian or a Christian
convert.  As far as I know, Jews in that time used to reject and boycott
such people, and they themselves used to avoid contacts with their old
community.  At the same time, however, it is hard to believe that a
person (the professor's father) who had spent several years in one
village and then in one place abroad with my grandfather could make such
a mistake.  I thought about it often.  Recently, I think I have solved
the problem:  the professor must have misinterpreted his father's words.
Probably his father told him about my grandfather's Yiddish, contacts
with Jews etc. and the professor viewed this as evidence that my
grandfather was a Jew.  What do you think ?

Yours truly,


End of The Mendele Review 07.006
Editor, Leonard Prager

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