Take a Biss of This Book!

The recent publication of so-called spoken Yekkish – the languageused by immigrants from German-speaking countries – is a reason forcelebration.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Devorah Haberfeld, director of the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin, was radiant with joy. One day about two weeks ago, she was sitting in her modest office, in an old but beautiful building in the Nahalat Binyamin quarter of Tel Aviv, proudly holding a copy of a new book, in Hebrew, entitled: "The Ben Yehuda Strasse Dictionary: A Dictionary of Spoken Yekkish in the Land of Israel" (Yedioth Ahronoth Books ). This new book will undoubtedly produce a nostalgic smile on the faces of Yekkes - Jews of German-speaking origin.

Tel Aviv's long Ben Yehuda Street (Strasse in German ) is, of course, named after the person most responsible for the modern revival of the Hebrew language, Eliezer Ben Yehuda. Thanks to German-born Jews who settled in its immediate vicinity, the street thrived in the 1930s and '40s. The nickname "Ben Yehuda Strasse," still in use among certain, dwindling circles, is living testimony of the bitter struggle these immigrants had to wage with Hebrew. One product of that struggle is so-called spoken Yekkish, also referred to as Sabre Deutsch: German spoken by sabras (native-born Israelis ) that reflects local linguistic influences as well.

Today, 80 years after the predominantly Yekke Fifth Aliyah (wave of immigration ) to pre-state Israel, their descendants have decided to publish the first official, comprehensive and up-to-date dictionary of words and expressions used by the immigrants themselves and later generations. It is the product of diligent, systematic and orderly work (so typical of Yekkes! ) over a period of three years, under the auspices of the organization headed by Haberfeld (irgun-jeckes.org ).

"The most beautiful part of this new dictionary is the fact that it is a product of an entire community - some 400 of its members have been involved in the project," she explains.

Initially, to recruit people to help out, she says, the association publicized an ad in its official Hebrew-language organ, MB (for Mitteilungsblatt, which means "newsletter" ) Yakinton, inviting members to come up with words and phrases they heard when they were growing up. MB Yekinton is one of the oldest Hebrew papers in Israel that is still being published (Haaretz first appeared 13 years earlier ); it has some 4,000 subscribers.

The association also uploaded a form on its website by means of which members could suggest ideas for entries in the dictionary. Thereafter, an email was sent to the group's long mailing list to ensure that the word would get out to all full-fledged and even partial Yekkes.

"The response was amazing," recalls Haberfeld. "Our members were very excited about the project. They held meetings, consulted with each other by phone and began to flood us with thousands of proposals for words and phrases ... Those who submitted words and phrases thought that their proposals were truly worthy of inclusion and that [including] what they'd picked up at home while growing up was absolutely essential. We had to filter out a large part of the suggestions, but everything was done via a continual dialogue with our constituency."

Dr. Nurit Carmel, a lecturer of communications at Sapir Academic College and editor of the dictionary, adds in her introduction to the book that "in the course of the work, disputes arose over various expressions, their phrasing and their meaning." For example, it emerged that Yekkes in Jerusalem were familiar with a certain expression that Yekkes in Nahariya had never heard of, while Yekkes in Kfar Shmaryahu knew the same expression but with slightly different wording.

"Apparently," writes Carmel, "even within such a small geographical locale like Israel, unique and local expressions were created and took root."

"There were discussions within the [Yekkes'] association," notes Ruth Ofek, one of the dictionary's content advisers and the founder of the German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum at Tefen Industrial Park. "My immediate response was that obviously not everyone had heard [the same] expressions. Germany is a big country and in each district people speak a little differently. There were also Yekkes [in Israel] from other countries, such as Austria, where a different German is spoken. A close look at the dictionary reveals that the shaping of the language also depended on the socioeconomic status of the speakers, not just their geographic origin."

Ofek, born in Salzburg, came to Israel as a little girl. A large proportion of the expressions that found their way into the dictionary are familiar to her from her own home. Nevertheless, she remembers how her mother pressed her to use the standard form of German: "She warned me of the dangers of Sabre Deutsch, the language of immigrants here."

Haberfeld makes an interesting point: "The dictionary embodies a taste of the 'good old days' but it is not German taste, rather Israeli-German taste. Yekkeness sprang up here, not in the Diaspora. Therefore, when contemporary German speakers see this dictionary, I'm not sure they will understand all the expressions there."

Cliches and curses

"The Ben Yehuda Strasse Dictionary," whose publication was supported by the Hamburger family, one of Israel's most veteran and established Yekke families, is divided into six parts (like the six orders, or sections, of the Mishnah, points out Haberfeld ).

"If there must be Ordnung (order ), then it should be thorough," says Aliza Hart, the dictionary's senior content adviser. "We compiled 900 entries: cliches, sayings and aphorisms, regulations, prohibitions, threats and words of praise that were commonly heard in Yekke homes but have faded somewhat ... We put them all under one roof so that they can be permanently preserved and will not vanish like our Yekke ancestors."

The first part is called "Foreigners would never understand this" and it presents "the basic elements of Yekke DNA." It includes basic words and expressions such as unglaublich (unbelievable ), ach so (precisely ), ach wirklich (come on, you must be kidding ), genau (exactly ), gratuliere (sincere congratulations ), Weg damit (get out ), Quatsch mit Sosse (nonsense - literally, with sauce added ), Kleinigkeit (a petty matter ) and schrecklich (absolutely horrible ).

The second part is called "Life according to the rules" and it contains everything from curses and praises to expressions related to order, cleanliness, precision, diligence and sloth. There is, for example, "Genug ist besser als viel" (enough is better than a lot ), something that is said about an overly ambitious person. "Der Ton macht die Musik" (the tone makes the music - or, the way you say something is just as important as its message ) and "langsam aber sicher," which means "slowly but surely." The subsection entitled, "Curses, insults and revulsion for the environmental," includes some real classics, like alte Schachtel (literally, an old box ), used to refer to an elderly woman who looks like a dried-up prune; Arschloch (asshole ); verfluchte Scheisse, which means "damn shit"; and "Dreckfresser, which translates "a glutton for garbage."

The third section of the dictionary - called "From the alienating homeland" - includes a selection of words that come straight from the kitchen, salon and library which Yekke immigrants left back in their Heimat (homeland ). And "In the new homeland," as the next part is called, there are expressions used in Israel, such as the mildly derogatory description of a Yekke: Jecke-Potz.

In the penultimate section of the dictionary, called "Family and home," one can find familiar expressions such as Wunderkind (child prodigy ) - which is generally said about someone who isn't one.

The sixth and final part, "Blending into the Asiatic region," includes expressions that only a Yekke living in Israel could possibly understand: for instance, "zum Tijul gehen" (going off on an outing ), Schmerian Dorf (Kfar Shmaryahu ), Telawif (Tel Aviv ), and Tozsores Haaretz (a combination of totzeret haaretz, Israeli made, and tsuris (trouble, aggravation ).

A number of Yiddish entries, as well as expressions that blend German and Yiddish, have crept into the new publication. Several such phrases have been compiled by Rubik Rosenthal, a scholar of Hebrew language, in an article called "The dictionary as a time capsule," which appears in the book. For example, it emerges that "Wilde Metzie" (literally a wild, or really great, bargain, sarcastically used to mean a total failure - usually with respect to a person ) is the Yekke version of "Grosse-Metziya" (which in Yiddish ostensibly means "a great bargain," but is also used to connote the complete opposite, as anyone who's grown up in a Polish Jewish family can tell you ). Then there is unbeta'amt, or tasteless, an expression that incorporates the Hebrew-Yiddish word taam, or taste.

"It is hard to get to the source of these expressions; however, it is reasonable to assume that they entered the spoken language of Central European Jewish immigrants many years before they came to Israel," writes Carmel. "The source of the expressions is probably the Jewish tradition that previous generations of immigrants from Eastern Europe brought with them to Central Europe, especially to Germany. Even after they had put down roots in Israel, their language still showed the influence of words and expressions from Hebrew and Yiddish."

Part of daily discourse

Spoken Yekkish has also influenced and entered into Hebrew usage, and there are many examples to illustrate this, as Rosenthal points out: Schlafstunde (afternoon nap ), Schlager (a hit in the music industry ), Biss (small bite ), Schluck (gulp, sip ), Kuntz (prank ), Schieber (faucet ), and "Gute, Gute" (superb ). The Yekkes have managed to make these words part and parcel of the everyday discourse of many Israelis.

Haberfeld realizes that many young readers will regard the new dictionary as a source of entertainment. Nevertheless, she points out, "beyond the humorous, endearing and nostalgic elements, the dictionary also has other more significant aspects ... The story of spoken Yekkish is also the story of the Yekkes' integration and assimilation into Israeli society. What we have here is not only the familiar story of cultural figures and musicians, but also the story of those who ... struggled here. Within the context of that struggle, a new language emerged."

"Yekkish," says Reuven Merhav, a former director general of the Foreign Ministry and president today of the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin, "has neither grammar nor syntax. It has no roots and no orderly morphology. It sprang up here 80 years ago, with the first influx of immigrants from the German-speaking countries of Central Europe. At its height, the [local] Yekke community numbered no more than 100,000, yet its members passed on many elements of their language both through speech and memory to tens of thousands of their descendants - all of whom are Israelis rooted in the soil of this country."

Today, according to Merhav, "very few of the original speakers of Yekkish are still alive, and as the years go by, all that will remain of that language will be entertaining recordings and memories saturated with humor."

He observes that "adjustment to life in a new country with a very hot climate, the wide gaps between the lifestyle of the Yekkes and that of other communities here, the linguistic and cultural discrepancies, the different accents and the sometimes incorrect use of words - all these were obstacles. But the Yekkes were determined and they diligently learned the Hebrew language at home, at school, in study groups, through vowelized newspapers and in their attempts to decipher their children's school notebooks."

The Yekkes never threw in the towel, he avers: "What choice did they have," asks Merhav rhetorically. "As a highly visible minority grappling with a difficult reality, they led their lives, trying not to get too upset with the continually teasing and mockery, with the insults and with the jokes that were told at their expense. These insults and jokes were plentiful and some of them have become classics of Israeli folklore."

Alongside its lexicographical entries, the dictionary offers another unique graphic treasure: original advertisements that adorned a Yekke journal, simply called Mitteilungsblatt, which was the forerunner of MB Yakinton and continues to be published today. Many back issues of Mitteilungsblatt are kept in Haberfeld's office, in a 19th-century Biedermeier-style cabinet. Magen Halutz, who did the graphic design for the dictionary, leafed through and spotted some striking visual examples of Yekke culture, consciousness and taste, in the advertisements.

Members of Haberfeld's organization regard these as something that "can teach us much about the spirit of the times in that era," says Ruth Ofek. "In many of the ads, German and Hebrew appear side by side."

For instance, in an ad for orange juice, the Hebrew name of the product, Hadran, appears in Latin letters and, below a drawing of an orange, there is an English text: "A Tnuva product." But the last line is a mix of German and Hebrew: "Der erfrischende Mitz an heissen Tagen!" (Refreshing juice on hot days ). The intrinsic tension between new and old homelands is reflected in the ads.

Ofek: "That tension is expressed, for example, in the fact that professionals offering services include information about their old homeland." Thus, for instance, a dentist by the name of Dr. Oppenheimer advertises his services thus: "Formerly of Frankfurt am Main. Haifa, 3 Masada St., near the water tower." A physician, Dr. A. Salomon, writes in his ad, "Formerly a resident of Berlin. Now living in Tel Aviv. 69 Rothschild Boulevard." An expert in lingerie, Margot Brauer, advertises: "Formerly with Einstein of Berlin. Tel Aviv, Scheffer St. corner Nahalat Binyamin. Big selection. Superior service."

When I ask her for whom the new dictionary is intended, Ofek replies that it is "not just for the original Yekkes of the first generation - it is actually more for the second and third generations. When I hear my 38-year-old son tell his two-year-old son, 'Itai, what is all this Schweinerei?' I realize that the language is imbedded in us in childhood and that we have transferred it to our children."

By the way, the definition in the Ben Yehuda Strasse Dictionary for Schweinerei is "piggishness, abomination, appalling corruption."

Illustration from MB Yakinton, courtesy of the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin.



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