Oy! Though Michele Bachmann once worked on a kibbutz and has always been pro-Israel, her Jewish street cred is hurting after a recent interview with Greta van Susteren. Discussing President Obama’s audacity, Bachmann used the Yiddish word for it—“chutzpah”—but pronounced it CHOOT-spa. (It’s actually HUT-spa.) Naturally, Bachmann’s gaffe has already given her critics a lot of naches.
Ed Begley Jr.
Having goyim characters speak perfect Yiddish has always been a formula for comedy gold. In Christopher Guest’s folk-music mockumentary A Mighty Wind, Ed Begley Jr.’s Lars Olfen, a Swedish-American public-television producer effortlessly laces his language with the mamaloshen: “The naches that I'm feeling right now,” Olfen tells Bob Balaban’s character Jonathan Steinbloom, “because your dad was like mishpucha to me. When I heard I got these tickets to the Folksmen, I let out a geschrei, and I'm running with my friend, running around like a vilde chaya, right into the theater, in the front row! So we've got the shpilkes, 'cause we're sittin' right there... and it's a mitzvah, what your dad did, and I want to try to give that back to you. Kinehora, I say, and God bless him.”
Sometimes a bissel Yiddish goes a long way toward Mideast diplomacy. As a teenager, former Secretary of State Colin Powell worked at a Jewish-owned baby-furniture store in the Bronx and picked up some Yiddish phrases that came in handy on a visit to Israel. In 1993, Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Yitzhak Shamir and greeted him by saying, "Men kent reden Yiddish." (“We can speak Yiddish.”) And a year earlier, Powell, charmed the audience at Yeshiva University’s annual Hanukkah dinner by shpritzing a few Yiddish words into his talk.
Though his family was of Irish and Norwegian descent, Oscar-winning actor James Cagney picked up Yiddish as a boy growing up on New York’s Lower East Side. In the 1932 film Taxi!, Cagney got to show off his skills onscreen when his character, a cab driver, conducts a conversation in Yiddish with a passenger. The movie also contains a scene that likely inspired Cagney impressionists to sneer, “You dirty rat!”—a line he never actually spoke in any movie.
Thanks to Mike Myers’ beloved Saturday Night Live character Linda Richman, the word “verklempt” (Yiddish for “choked up”) entered the lexicon. The heavily Noo Yawk-accented host of “Coffee Talk” was based on Myers’ then-mother-in-law, Linda Richman. She loved all things Streisand and would frequently drop Yiddish (and mock Yiddish) words—“this show used to be hosted by my friend Paul Baldwin, but he developed shpilkes in his genechtagazoink.”—just in case viewers weren’t clear about Linda’s ethnicity. The real Richman loved Myers’ homage, and even parlayed her fame into a book, I'd Rather Laugh: How to Be Happy Even When Life Has Other Plans for You.
New York did not elect a Jewish mayor until 1974, but Fiorello LaGuardia (who ran the city in the ‘30s and ‘40s) certainly could have passed. Born to a Jewish mother, LaGuardia was raised Episcopalian like his father, but spoke fluent Yiddish. And during a contentious congressional campaign in 1922, when Henry Frank, a Jewish opponent falsely accused him of being anti-Semitic, LaGuardia dictated an open letter in Yiddish that was also printed in Yiddish: “On the issue which you have raised,” LaGuardia wrote, “I hereby challenge you to publicly and openly debate the issues of the campaign, THE DEBATE TO BE CONDUCTED BY YOU AND ME ENTIRELY IN THE YIDDISH LANGUAGE.” Frank, who could not speak the language, declined—and lost the election, like a schmuck.
Legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday was inspired to write her most famous song, “God Bless the Child,” after having an argument with her mother about money. (“God bless the child that’s got his own,” Holiday recalled saying.) But in 1956, Lady Day was singing a different tune when she recorded “My Yiddishe Momme,” which contains the loving lyrics: “I know that I owe what I am today / to that dear little lady so old and gray / to that wonderful Yiddishe momme of mine.”
In 2009, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg became frustrated with the New York State Senate and called them “meshugeneh” (crazy) for adjourning without voting on the city’s school budget. Hispanic State Senator Hiram Monserrate immediately fired back some well-aimed Yiddish of his own: “We believe it would be meshugeneh not to include parents in the education of our children. As opposed to loosely using the word ‘meshugeneh,’ we would also say we don’t need a yenta on the other side of this argument and this debate.” A year later, the meshuga Monserrate was expelled from the State Senate after he was convicted of a domestic assault.
In 1965, Julie Andrews escaped the Nazis by singing a few songs in The Sound of Music. Two years later, in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Andrews shouted “Mazel tov!” and delighted guests at a Jewish wedding by belting out “Trinkt Le Chaim” in perfect Yiddish. But perhaps the funniest part of the scene is Mary Tyler Moore (playing Andrews’s friend) turning to an elderly couple and cheerfully explaining, “it’s Jewish.”
In 2010, California State Assembly Speaker John Perez was talking with Jewish scholar Mark Yudof, president of the University of California, when Yudof broke out a little Yiddish. “Es iz a shandeh,” Yudof said and quickly started to translate. But Perez held up his hand and stopped him, “Ich darf es ahf kapores.”—"It’s good for nothing." Perez later explained that he learned the language from his mother, who lived in a neighborhood with many Jewish families. “I'm definitely not conversational," he modestly told the San Francisco Chronicle, "I probably have 100 words, maybe more."