Saturday, 8 October 2016

Rochelle Sibley – Adventures in Yiddish (7): Nahum Stutchkoff, hero of Yiddish

One of the many joys of learning a new language is encountering new writers you’ve never even heard of before.  Until two years ago I knew spectacularly little about Yiddish literature, so most of these discoveries are just long overdue, but occasionally a writer turns up who is of such significance that I can’t believe I missed them for this long.  Nahum Stutchkoff (1893-1965) fits that category.  I’m calling him a writer, but that’s not really an accurate description of his achievements.  He did write radio plays and advertisements, but he was also an actor; he was a radio presenter but he was also, and most importantly for me, an exceptional linguist and lexicographer.  Without him, our understanding of Yiddish today would be considerably impoverished.
Stutchkoff’s two great Yiddish publications are his 1931 Gramen-lexicon (Yiddish rhyming dictionary) and his incredible 1950 Oytser fun der yidisher shprakh (Yiddish thesaurus).  These two deserve blog posts of their own (and will be getting them), because each illuminates a different aspect of why Yiddish kicks ass. The Oytser is the most beautiful of all my dictionaries (that’ll be dictionary number seven), and the one that best encapsulates the flexibility and variety of the Yiddish language.  The Gramen-lexicon (dictionary number eight – yes, I have a problem) is a wonderful creation, made even more appealing by the fact that Stutchkoff used it to help him write advertising jingles for his radio shows.
From 1932, Stutchkoff worked as a presenter at the Forverts radio station WEVD in New York, but of all his broadcasts it’s Mame-loshn that really stands out to a Yiddish learner.  This show ran for over 600 episodes from 1948, and was all about sharing the richness and adaptability of the Yiddish language.  Although I’ve not been able to uncover any recordings of it, in 2014 Forverts published a collection of segments from Mame-loshn, all of which are based on Stutchkoff suggesting English words for Yiddish terms, and visa versa.  He might have been a scholar of language but this dude was interested in how Yiddish was used in the everyday and, as such, his writing is way past some of the restrictions imposed by the standardized YIVO version of Yiddish that I’m learning.  I’ve no wish to undermine YIVO Yiddish – without YIVO it’s doubtful I’d be in any position to learn the language at all – but standardization always comes at the cost of regional variety and other linguistic idiosyncrasies.
This is where Mame-loshn really delivers.  Stutchkoff’s responses to his audience reflect the diversity of Yiddish terms, acknowledging the different linguistic branches to a level of detail that even my eight dictionaries are hard-pressed to match.  A personal favourite is his reply to a woman who asked about the Yiddish word for “gravy” or גרײװי. Stutchkoff advises those his listeners from Warsaw that they would have said “brotyoykh” and “gebrotene”, while “zuze” and “zshuzshe” were also popular in other Polish areas.  However, Stutchkoff continues, in Lithuania the term was “tunk” (a word I’ve never seen in any of my main dictionaries), and he thought that this was the most pleasing option because it suggests “a sauce that isn’t for eating and isn’t for drinking, but rather is for dunking”. [1]
It’s this love of language for its own sake that makes Stutchkoff such a hero of Yiddish.  Mame-loshn shows Yiddish in the process of adapting to life in the US, creating neologisms and adopting Americanisms as it went.  Not that Stutchkoff was unaware of the threat to Yiddish: he wrote the Oytser fun der yidisher shprakh in the hope of preserving Yiddish after the Holocaust.  However, what is clear from Mame-loshn is that Stutchkoff was very much against preserving Yiddish in stasis.  His love of the language was always dependent upon it being alive and therefore capable of evolution, and despite his desire to see Yiddish survive, he was remarkably pragmatic about the challenges it would face.  The best way of seeing this is for me to translate the segment on “Gosh” in full, in the hope that some of Stutchkoff’s inherent cheekiness and conversational wit come through: [2]

A Jewish Woman from the Bronx pours her bitter heart out to me: ‘I have,’ she writes, ‘a little boy who goes to a Jewish school and studies very hard, but it is becoming very difficult to persuade him that he should speak Yiddish at home.  What does he claim?  That it’s too difficult for him.  Recently I shouted at him: “You should listen to me, every minute with your “Gee” and with your “Gosh”!”  He raised up to me a pair of innocent eyes and said, “How do you say “Gee” and “Gosh” in Yiddish?”  I didn’t know how to answer him.  Truly, can you help me, Mr. Stutchkoff?  I have told him that I will ask you.’

I can help you.  I can tell you how Jewish children in the old country used to express their surprise when they didn’t know “Gee” or “Gosh”, but they spoke Yiddish and so their sayings sounded right.  Perhaps they wanted to fit in with the other little Jewish boys, I don’t know.  When a little Jewish boy felt really surprised, he used to shout: “OY! Mamelekh! Tatelekh!” or (in Lithuania): “Maminke!  Tatinke!”.  Or he used to say: “Really?! What are you talking about? Ze! Ova! Oy-oy-oy!”  And so, he would fit in with all the other little boys.
In that one response, Stutchkoff highlights not just the fact that there is rarely only one way to translate any word into Yiddish, but also acknowledges that for the next generation of American Jews, Yiddish was always going to play second fiddle to English.  However, thanks to his epic efforts to capture the Yiddish he knew as a living, breathing language, those of us in the generations that followed can still experience Yiddish in all its messy, non-standardized glory.  Despite his understandable fears for Yiddish’s future, Stutchkoff created some of the best resources for ensuring its continuing survival not only as a point of historical or literary interest, but also as a language of gossipy backchat.  In Stutchkoff’s view of Yiddish, bedspreads and window blinds are just as relevant as matzo and gefilte fish to American Jewish life.  Thanks to him, I can write Yiddish limericks and understand phrases that no longer appear in any modern Yiddish dictionary.  If he were still alive I’d buy him a pint, but in lieu of that I’ll just have to say, װאָס אַ מענטש.

[1] No surprise that the Yiddish word for “dunking” is “tunken”.
[2] The initial paragraph is the listener’s letter, while the section in bold is Stutchkoff’s response, or as close as I can render it.  Even with eight dictionaries, there are words here that I can’t find.

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