Now why, you might ask, would it be important for we goyim to learn a few words of Yiddish? Well, besides the fact that many of these words are already common and well-integrated into English, there is another reason as well. You see, some languages have many words that essentially describe what a non-speaker would imagine to be the same thing. For example, 200 words or so for snow or a hundred and fifty words for a camels hoof. Yiddish enriches English because it contains hundreds of words to describe human foibles. Even when it ostensibly refers to a thing like a knickknack, the Yiddish word “tchatchke” seems to say more about the observer and the owner than about the object itself.
Many people have the mistaken notion that Yiddish is a Jewish language like Hebrew. True it was spoken primarily by Jews. However unlike Hebrew, which until establishment of the state of Israel served as the “religious” or “intellectual” language of most Jews; much like Latin was used in western Europe until the last century, Yiddish generally was spoken by only one of the major branches of the Jewish Diaspora. That branch, known as the Ashkenazi were those Jews who lived primarily in eastern Europe and originally included Northern France until various pogroms forced them to flee further east. Like the Kurds of today, they were a nation without a land of their own, a nation without a state. Until the 19th century most Jews spoke a pastiche of Aramaic, Hebrew and the indigenous language of the place they were living at the time. The roots of Yiddish are primarily German with Aramaic and Hebrew influences. It also includes words and expressions from several Slavic languages in varying degrees depending upon where the speakers lived. There are several different “Yiddish dialects” including that spoken as the official language in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Russian far east near Vladavlostok. Its capitol is Birobidzhan. The First Birobidzhan International Summer Program for Yiddish Language and Culture was launched in 2007.
Yiddish developed among the Ashkenazi, one of the three main branches of Judaism. The other two being the Sephardim (primarily originating on the Iberian peninsula) and the Mizrahim comprising most of the others. The Sephardim and the Mizraim, if they spoke it at all, did not speak Yiddish as their mother tongue as did many of the Ashkenazi before emigrating to the US.
They all more or less can trace their patrimonial heritage through the male Y chromosome to a single individual living somewhere in the middle east about 5000 years ago, about the time when Abraham was reputed to have lived. A recent study of the Cohen, the traditional priestly class descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother, using DNA from males with that surname world-wide, indicates that most of them are descended from a middle eastern male alive about 3000 years or so ago; about the time the Bible indicates that Moses and Aaron lived. Given that several hundred years of the most intensive archeological investigation in the world, while turning up scads of evidence of the other Peoples and nations mentioned in the Bible, failed to turn up much corroborating evidence at all of Jewish history older than somewhere between 200 and 600 BC, it is remarkable that modern genetics has been able to confirm at least this part of the story. Not that it proves that Abraham, Moses and Arron actually existed, but it does confirm that during those times there was in all likelihood some horny shepherd in the Near East busy shtupping a shikse or two thereby giving birth not only to the great Jewish nation but, in all likelihood, a significant portion of the population of the entire Mediterranean basin. I guess it could fairly be observed that Arron wielded a mighty rod.
The Ashkenazi male line seems to descend primarily through southern Italian and Sicilian Jews who migrated into Northern Europe about 400-600 AD to escape persecution by the newly dominant Christians. Genetically Southern Italians and Sicilians and the Ashkenazi appear to be closer related to each other than to most of the rest of trans-montain Europe. Unlike the other branches of Judaism, the Ashkenazi seem to have picked up a small but strong Central-Asian genetic component primarily from the Caucuses and the area around the Caspian Sea, the ancestral home of the Khazar’s, the almost legendary medieval Jewish empire.
On the matrilineal side DNA testing shows that although there is strong evidence of middle eastern origins among the women, there is significantly more evidence of non-middle eastern origins then among the men (Again with the shikses.)
Among the Ashkenazi there is a high incidence of Tay Sachs an inherited and inevitably fatal disease. The Sephardim and the Mizrahim seem to have no greater incidence of the disease than the general population, an indication that the effects of natural selection and genetic drift happen quite rapidly and do not require the eons that mutations take to be reflected in a population. The Tay Sachs’ discovery may have revealed another startling fact, that the genes causing Tay Sachs may be related to those controlling for intelligence. * Based on standard IQ testing as much as 20% of the Ashkenazi score 120 or higher, scoring higher in verbal and mathematical elements and lower in spatial than the general population (in other words, great scientists and writers but lousy athletes). In the general population the average is about 4-5% including for the Sephardim and Mizrahim. It is not so hard to guess why that is the case. The Christian pogroms and prohibitions against land owning for the Jews and against charging interest for the Christians coupled with high literate demands of the rabbinate made those excelling in abstract thought high quality breeders so to speak.
On the other hand, among the Christian West, strangely enough, those who were most literate were prohibited from breeding. From the fall or the Roman Empire until the success of the Protestant revolt, for the most part, the most literate of the Western Christians were forced into the clergy who, unless they were Popes or Cardinals, were strongly discouraged from breeding.
Instead we placed our genetic basket on the shoulders of homicidal maniacs whose claim to fame was their preternatural ability to take someone else’s technology and turn it into a more highly efficient means of slaughter.
As luck would have it, due to the plague almost wiping us out, and our short-term tendency to compensate by breeding like rabbits, coupled with our forced procreation of prescient psychopaths equipped with proficient killing machines and a resistance to disease, we in the West were able to conquer the world. Hooray for us.
*Note: Contrary evidence for the genetic connection between Tay Sachs and a certain type of intelligence is provided by the fact that the Irish appear also to be prone to the disease and generally fall within standard IQ testing ranges. On the other hand, the Irish seem to have a facility with literature and music unrivaled in Europe at least. Perhaps the Hibernians were one of the lost tribes of Israel like the American Indians and just about everyone else, except for the Mormons, who, to hear them tell it, never get lost.
So what’s it to me?
Some of you may be curious about my fascination with Judaism given that I am a goyim and all that. Actually it is not Judaism that fascinates me but the Ashkenazi. To me the whole People of the Book (Jews, Christians and Muslims) thing leaves me cold Their beliefs all descend from the original book (The Old Testement) about an insane sand God who promotes genocide as the ultimate goal of his peculiar brand of piety.
The Ashkenazi used to be a sizable stateless nation in eastern Europe that barely escaped annihilation. It now has a state of its own in the Near East that exists under extreme stress of annihilation. Many of the surviving descendants of the original Ashkenazi not living in the Near East now live in the US.
I used to think that my fascination was because my great great grandmother was Jewish (and given mathematics of human generation, whose wasn’t somewhere along the line). Her family (named Tau) was from somewhere in Austria. In the early 1800s they left Austria, probably under the pressure of one pogrom or another and could not afford the ticket to the US, and settled in a tiny Italian hill town named Roccantica in the then Papal States. Go figure.
More recently, however, as I read about the newest advances in genetic analysis of population migration over time, I was fascinated to learn that the modern Ashkenazi, at least on the male side, were primarily descended from Sicilian and Southern Italian Jews who migrated to Northern Europe to escape the emerging dominance of Christianity during the latter stages of the Roman Empire.
I recall looking at a photograph of my maternal Sicilian grandparents. In the photograph both my grandfather and grandmother were pictured separately. He, with his tightly curled blond hair, long narrow nose and wispy blond mustache, appeared to be one of those Sicilians descended from either the Normans or later French settlers who bequeathed their blond hair and surnames to their descendants (Cygna and Gallo common Sicilian surnames and my mother’s name Corsello appear to be examples). However my grandmother, a Defalco, was different. Her photograph always fascinated me. Dark where my grandfather was pale, long black hair and eyes coal black, not haunted nor haunting but quietly alive as though they saw more and deeper than the rest of us. The Defalcos seem to be an old Sicilian name. Several Castelo Falconaras, that may or may not relate to them, dot the Sicilian landscape. Could they be the remnants of that gene line left somehow behind when the rest of them set off for el Norte and became Ashkenazi? Who the hell knows.
When I was a little kid my first playmate other than cousins, was a boy named Ian who lived down the block. I would now and then have what then passed for a play date with him. I liked going over his house. He had a sand box in his back yard. I did not. I only had a grape arbor. We would play and after a while, if he got frustrated, he would punch me. I did not know why he did that.
At the other end of the block, beyond the large black rock that jutted on to the sidewalk, lived an older boy. He was about seven (I was only four or five years old). I was afraid of him because he was big and he would punch me also. Nevertheless, it was always an adventure to walk down the block all the way to the flat rock and sit there. I would not go further because I then could no longer see my house.
At that time we lived in the one street in the lower part of Tuckahoe, New York where no other Italians (or for that matter any blacks) lived, although they were the predominant ethnic groups that made up the rest of the population of that town. My grandfather built the house when he had gotten rich from his construction company. Unfortunately he lost it all in the depression, so we divided up the house among the family and still lived there. My father, mother, baby brother and I lived upstairs. That floor had been converted to an apartment. My Grandparents lived in an apartment on the ground floor and my Aunt had a room made out of the old sun deck. We all shared the living room. The rest of the neighborhood was mostly peopled by what became referred to as WASPs, but I knew them then as Americans. There were three Jewish families that I was aware of on Dante Avenue as the block was named, two of them belonged to the boys who would punch me.
Even though I was afraid of him, I soon found out that all the bigger boy wanted was just someone to talk to. I did not understand that at the time. In any event, we would sit on the rock and talk about those things of interest to little boys, like pirates and the like. I later learned that they were both being bullied horribly by the older boys, in part because they were Jewish.
I never understood bullying. I learned to live with the name calling, but when it moved beyond that I always had to step in. I was able to get away with it, not because I was strong or brave, but because I realized that the object of bullying was to take advantage of the ease of dominating someone weaker than you. However, when a third person interposes himself between the bully and his victim, then the object of the exercise becomes muddled. To pass through someone who puts up even slight resistance to get at the weak and defenseless is simply not worth the effort. Besides most bullies were that way because someone else was bullying them. It was always a risk for them when someone fought back. I would find myself stepping in to stop some act of bullying about once a week. No one ever decided to fight with me about it even though I was small and weak at the time. That puzzled me for a while because I otherwise fought almost every day with anyone who I thought was trying to bully me. I wondered why. Eventually I came up with a theory. But that is for another post.
I did not know what Jewish, or Christian, or Italian, African-American and so on meant then. They were simply words to me. Of course, sometimes those words indicated a difference I could see, for example “colored” kids as we called African-Americans at the time, were often, but not always, darker than Italian kids and American kids were pinker with blue veins. I couldn’t see much difference in most of the others. Later I learned what people meant when the used those words to describe themselves or other people. Most of the time when they were not describing themselves, they used those words because they were a little afraid of the others.
The woman many considered my second mother, was a member of the third Jewish family on Dante Avenue. They lived next door. I called her Anna Banana, probably because I could not pronounce her last name. She was married and childless. She had a narrow face and freckles. She also had carrot colored hair that seemed to be all wiry and would fly about her head at odd angles whenever she moved around, which she did a lot. I spent almost every day all day with her at her house. She never seemed to mind. She taught me how to eat scallions and play the piano. Nights I would spend sitting on my grandmothers lap before the fireplace that my grandfather built with big rocks that he had carried himself from somewhere. I would repeat from memory all the nursery rhymes I had learned from my mom and Anna Banana, sing songs and recite poems in English and Italian that my grandmother taught me. I felt very and happy with Anna Banana and my grandmother.
Then my father decided to sell the only asset we had, the house, in order to open up a business, a bar and restaurant. Six months later we were homeless and living on the streets. But that is another story.
Although the above post was written in a light hearted, and I hope not too offensive attempt to explore something that interests me, an area of history that seems to be mostly ignored, and to retell my own early experiences with bullies and racism that bedeviled that nation for millenia, the sickness bred of unreasonable hate still exists and can strike where you least expect it.
Many years after the events described in the latter parts of the above post:
Sometimes sadness buries you like ash from a volcano buries a town.
While driving to breakfast a few months ago with my grandson who I had not seen for a while and his uncle, we played a game in which each of us would tell the others a story. In response to his uncle's retelling of the Christian myth in which he mentioned Jews, my grandson blurted out, "I know about Jews, they are jealous of everyone." When I asked him where he had heard such a thing, he responded, "Everyone knows that. I thought it by myself." Later he made a similar racist comment about blacks and Obama; again claiming that everyone knew it and that he thought it up all by himself.
When I pointed out his best friend was black like Obama, he said that it was different. I asked him how many Jewish children he knew attended his school. He answered that they were the jealous ones.
Like the suffocating chilling stench of a newly open grave cripples ones will to breathe, I felt the overwhelming darkness plunge me into the pit of despair. My mouth felt filled with ash, things began to turn grey and dark. The innocent like the the ignorant and ill-informed defend their insecurity by insisting their basest thoughts are their own.
What sort of a despicable human being would teach hate to a seven year-old? What sort of a person am I who cannot conceive of a way to eradicate that cancer from this child's soul?
Recently I ran across the following in a Brad Delong column:
Diary of Chaim Kaplan in the Warsaw Ghetto:
4th August 1942
In the evening hours
I have not yet been caught; I have not yet been evicted from my apartment; my building has not yet been confiscated. But only a step separates me from all these misfortunes. All day my wife and I take turns standing watch, looking through the kitchen window which overlooks the courtyard, to see if the blockade has begun. People run from place to place like madmen....
[He describes how a friend has obtained a factory job by bribery]
My lot is even worse because I have neither money nor a factory job, and therefore am a candidate for expulsion if I am caught. My only salvation is in hiding. This is an outlaw’s life, and a man cannot last very long living illegally. My heart trembles at every isolated word. I am unable to leave my house, for at every step the devil lies in wait for me.
There is the silence of death in the streets of the ghetto all through the day. The fear of death is in the eyes of the few people who pass by on the sidewalk opposite our window. Everyone presses himself against the wall and draws into himself so that they will not detect his existence or his presence.
Today my block was scheduled for a blockade with Nazi participation. Seventy Jewish policemen had already entered the courtyard. I thought, ‘The end has come.’ But a miracle happened, and the blockade was postponed. The destroyers passed on to the Nalewki-Zamenhof block.
When the danger was already past I hurried to escape. Panic can drive a man out of his mind and magnify the danger even when it no longer exists. But already there is a fear that my block will be blockaded tomorrow. I am therefore trying to lay plans to escape with the dawn. But where will I flee? No block is secure.
Thousands of people in the Nalewki-Zamenhof block were driven from their homes and taken to the transfer point. More than thirty people were slaughtered. In the afternoon, the furies subsided a bit.
The number of passers-by increased, for the danger of blockade was over. By four in the afternoon, the quota was filled: 13,000 people had been seized and sent off, among them 5,000 who came to the transfer of their own free will. They had had their fill of the ghetto life, which is a life of hunger and fear of death. They escaped from the trap. Would that I could allow myself to do as they did!
If my life ends – what will become of my diary?
These are the last words written in his diary.