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To Kvetch or to Kvell, That is the Kvestion. . .

Gertrude Berg as Molly Goldberg

by Phyllis Pressman Cohen

It is pretty much agreed by all that having children is a great experience leavened by the terrible twos, adolescent hormone surges and teen age angst; a mixture of both joy and sadness, laughter and tears, redemption and frustration. In other words the balance in a parent’s life goes from kvelling (rejoicing) to kvetching (complaining).

If you grew up in a Jewish home you probably know very well the true meaning of both those words. But to the uninitiated they often lose some of their power. And since Yiddish has become infused into the English language so broadly — a fact I attribute to both the large number of Jewish comics and the influence of New York/Los Angeles based TV shows — perhaps it is time for some clarity. When I see some skinny, naturally blonde, clearly not Jewish, socialite talking to one friend about another friend who had the chutzpah to take credit for a benefit they had both worked on when she (the skinny blond socialite) had schlepped all over town signing up sponsors, I know the linguistic ethnic lines are being blurred.

Or perhaps even more telling is when a dyed in the womb skinhead calls his buddy a schmuck! C'mon, really? You are berating your buddy using the language of a people you would like to see eliminated from the planet?

It is difficult to do a true sociological study of how Yiddish became so pervasive in this predominantly white bread culture, the scientific method is difficult to apply here. But my gut feeling is that it was greatly helped along in the 1970s when TV made its presence felt in just about every American home, as Laverne and Shirley skipped down a Milwaukee street, arm in arm, chanting, "schlemiel, schlimazel, hasenpfeffer incorporated." Maybe just nonsense words to some but every Jewish ear in America perked up when they heard "their language" on a national TV show.

These two words, schlemiel and schlimazel, are very often confused, even among the cognoscenti. Most Yiddish dictionaries differentiate them as a schlemiel being a hapless sad sack who acts without regard for consequences and a schlimazel as the one who suffers the consequences, one who is without luck. For example, "When that schlemiel jammed on the brakes to look at the pretty girl crossing the street, the poor schlimazel riding in back bumped his head."

That was roughly the same era when the frozen bagel, a delicacy theretofore confined to areas like New York, Boston, Miami and Los Angeles where there were large Jewish populations, became promoted as a wonderful new breakfast treat by Lender’s. I used to do house to house surveys and I’ll never forget the one where I asked people what they usually ate for breakfast. There were the standard answers like eggs, hot or cold cereal, pancakes or waffles, toast or English muffins. And when the follow up question asked if they had ever eaten a bagel for breakfast I got the most quizzical looks as this predominantly Irish suburban Boston neighborhood I was surveying had never even heard of this product. Contrast that with today’s world where every little podunk town has a strip mall with a Dunkin’ Donuts shop where they sell almost as many bagels as they do donuts! Green bagels are even a featured item in many supermarkets for Saint Patrick’s Day.

Then in the early 1990’s along came Mike Meyers with his character who sprinkled yiddishisms throughout her conversations. I can remember the first time I saw him as Linda Richman (a take-off on his real life mother-in-law) in his coffee talk segment, talking about being ferklempt and directing the audience to "talk among yourselves" on a topic he suggested, thus supposedly giving him time to compose himself. Instant understanding. No one had to have a Yiddish dictionary to understand what ferklempt meant, they had only to look at him as he held his hankie to his eyes and waved his hand in mock agitation, and all was clear. The word began to be used everywhere, particularly on college campuses.

This led to a plethora of imitators and Yiddish words were used like seasoning in many tasty comedy sketches. It seems like suddenly everyone was ferklempt (all choked up).

After that Yiddish seemed to explode on television. Every show seemed to throw in words like chutzpah, maven, schlep. Sitcoms, talk shows, even shows devoted to political punditry. You may have expected it on Seinfeld who was, after all, a Jew living in New York City, but to hear blonde, Irish, Catholic Chris Matthews introduce someone as a maven on the Philadelphia electorate or chastise Hillary Clinton for having the chutzpah to think her Florida delegates should be seated at the convention, really made me chuckle. It is particularly amusing to see black or Asian characters complain about having to schlep heavy bundles (although former Secretary of State General Colin Powell is rumored to speak and understand Yiddish perfectly).

And I've even heard those twin blonde guys on the august Antique Road Show on Public Television use tchotchkes to describe the items in a home that was overflowing with antiques and knick knacks. "Wow, look at all these tchotchkes," one said to the other. One night I saw Carson Kressly going into paroxysms of delight over the way the tush of one of his protégés on Queer Eye looked in the new jeans he had been encouraged to buy.

But I think the apogee was reached several years ago when Oprah devoted her entire show to the ‘Shlumpadinks’. She claimed she didn'’t know where the word came from, she seemed to think she just made it up. Well, did she ever unleash a raging torrent of dreck from all her Jewish fans who were eager to correct that notion. Email after email on her website contained outrage from viewers who grew up in households where shlumpadik was used to describe everything from the mismatched, ragtag outfit of a teen age son to the way one’s daughter-in-law kept house. Oprah may have changed it to shlumpadink but there is no disguising the origin of the word. Don’t appropriate our language and claim it as your own invention Miss Thing, the yentas of the world will not allow it.

So if you are getting all ferklempt because your teenage son has just thrown his first TD and you have the chutzpah to want to discuss it with all the other neighborhood yentas who are also kvelling about their own children’s accomplishments, or kvetching that their daughter’s skirts are so short her tush is exposed, welcome to the 2010 world of parenting where everyone can talk like a Jewish mother.

Phyllis Pressman Cohen had her first story published in her high school literary magazine at 16. Since then she has pursued several careers; from selling jock straps to writing and publishing newsletters for small businesses, and for the last 25 years has had a sales promotion and public relations company. As the economy has slowed so has business and she is now attending classes at a lifelong learning program and writing for pleasure once again. She is married and lives in Wayland MA with two darling daughters, two handsome sons-in-law and four fabulous grandchildren nearby.


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