Western Yiddish in Orange County,
New York State
Middletown, New York, is a city of 20 or 30,000 people about 70 miles northwest of New York City. It is located in the center of Orange County, in an area of dairy farms and onion farms. In the 1930s, Orange County attracted a number of German Jewish cattle dealers fleeing Hitler, who had succeeded in reaching America. Dealing in cattle was a traditional occupation among Jews in central and southern Germany. Immigrants tend to move to cities. My own maternal grandfather was typical. Although he had been a cattle dealer in Poland, when he arrived in the United States in 1930 he moved to Brooklyn, where he owned and ran a kosher butcher store. Some of the German Jewish cattle dealers, on the other hand, did not follow the pattern of abandoning their profession and living in cities. They were able to rebuild their careers in Orange County, and they became an important part of the Middletown Jewish community, where most of them were active members in Temple Sinai, a Conservative congregation.
In 1948, there were perhaps 15 families in the cattle-dealer community. In 1997, there were no more than five German-Jewish cattle dealers in the Middletown area, only one of whom was in the business full time. The decline was caused by two factors: the increasing suburbanization of the United States in general and of Orange County in particular, and the tendency for Jews to leave the businesses of their parents and enter the arts and the professions. The language of the cattle-dealer households became predominantly English, replacing regional varieties of German or Western Yiddish. Nevertheless, I was able to elicit a number of lexical items, some specifically belonging to the world of cattle dealing, others that were survivals of Western Yiddish. I was able to interview two informants: L, who was born in Bavaria, near Bad Kissingen, in 1911, and arrived in America in 1937; and R, born in Ulrichstein, Hesse, in 1931, who arrived in America in 1934. A third informant died suddenly before an interview could be arranged. Both informants stated that their cattle dealer languageto an extent, a secret languagewas not Yiddish, which for them meant the Eastern Yiddish spoken by American Jews, a language more distinctly differentiated from German. Neither had any name for the speech of cattle dealers, although both recognized it as something that existed and was worthy of study. Florence Guggenhein-Grünberg (1954) describes a community of horse dealers in Switzerland somewhat similar to the one in Orange County. "Living in a kind of rural ghetto, the Surbtal Jews preserved this language nearly unchanged down to the 20th century" (48). Yet she says it was only with great difficulty that one could find people speaking it among themselves. In the America of 1997, in a community where it is common to drive to synagogue on the Sabbath, it may be impossible.
Guggenheim-Grünberg tells us that there is a distinction between loshn ekoudesh, the secret language of the cattle dealers, and yidishdaytsh, the ordinary vernacular (51). My own small sample of informants had no name at all for the language and offered no indication that they were dealing with two different, albeit overlapping, forms of speech. What they did have was an inventory of lexical items. R provided me with about 45 words; L with about 125. Many of the words were numbers. R volunteered dales '4', tes vof '16', yus alef '11', me:ye '100', and he me:ye '500' as soon as he knew I was going to interview him about his language. As for L, when I asked him how he pronounced the names of the letters of the alphabet, he produced this astonishing sequence: olf beys gimel dalet hey vov zoyen xes tes yut kaf lames mem nun samekh shive shmone tishe meye. Apparently the letters exist primarily as the names of numbers. After the letter samekh, equivalent to '60', we move directly into the Hebrew words for '70', '80', '90' and '100'. The alphabet--the names of the letters--has gotten lost in the process. I am sure, however, that had I persisted in my questioning, L would have recited the complete alphabet. In addition to the names of the numbers, L volunteered the word rat 'three times the number of marks or dollars cited'. Thus, meye rat is $300 or marks; kaf rat is $60 or marks. Otherwise, shuk was used for 'mark'. It could also be used as a verb: es shukt, 'it costs'.
R and L differ on the pronunciation of the final consonant of two letters: R says yus and dales; L says yut and dalet. Both agree on lames, however. L's use of lames is thus inconsistent with his pronunciations yut and dalet. When we leave the alphabet and consider the word yad, used to mean 'pointer for reading the Torah', not 'hand', L and R agree. Furthermore, the final consonant is at least partially voiced, suggesting that this lexical item has been influenced by the pronunciation of American Whole Hebrew. There is no t-d distinction in the German or the cattle dealer language of either L or R, although there is in their English. R's English sounds basically native. In Provencal, intervocalic d became z. In Judeo-Provencal, the letter daled was apparently pronounced z in medial position and z or s in final position (See Jochnowitz 1978, 66; Pansier 1927, Vol. 3, 181; Saboly 1824, 84-85). Forms such as asar for the month of Adar and talmus, apparently for 'Talmud', have been reported. Encyclopedia Judaica, however, in its list of pronunciations for letters of the Hebrew alphabet in the article "Hebrew Grammar," shows no z or s for daled, since it does not list the Jewish community of Provence (Vol. 8, pp. 85-86). When Jews were expelled from southern France in 1498 (the order was not completely carried out until 1501), could they have brought the pronunciations yus and lames with them to Germany?
The existence of a separate system of words for numbers reflects the fact that the cattle dealers are speaking a trade language. They wanted to have a private way of discussing price among themselves. Nevertheless, L reports that in Germany, the non-Jewish cattle dealers understood the language quite well. In fact, Guggenheim-Grünberg reports the existence of a book published in 1764 (von Reizenstein) that "offers the reader a large vocabulary and several dialogues on matters of horse trade, accompanied by German translations. The pronunciation of Yiddish in this book is that of the Jews of central Germany--a western Yiddish dialect, too, but different from Swiss Yiddish" (49).\
In addition to price, there needed to be words for the products. Although horses are not used as farm animals in Orange County, L reported sus for 'horse'. R, who grew up in the United States, knew only gaul and fert. Both, to be sure, reported bo:re (Heb. parah) for 'cow'. Both had a word for 'pregnant cow', pronounced padesh by R and badesh by L, who added that one could say "five months badesh". Guggenheim-Grünberg gives the etymology as Heb. pe-tet-resh, perhaps 'first-born' plus Ger. -isch (56).
'A good cow', according to R, is tof bo:re. There is no agreement for gender, and the adjective precedes the noun, as in German. A bad or a sick cow, according to L, is kholne. Both informants defined khoule as 'sick'. me:genen, according to L, meant 'cough' when used for a cow. An animal that had died, according to L, had gepeyert. R, on the other hand, defined beyern simply as 'die'. Similar verbs are found in standard Yiddish (peygern) and Judeo-Italian (pegare).
Other words had nothing to do with dealing in cattle at all, but had an emotional or comic connotation that could be expressed effectively. Jewish languages generally have words of Hebrew origin for 'fear'. R used eyme and mo:re; L just volunteered mo:re. Both offered dayes for 'worries'. L changed the vowel in moy do:ye, 'not my worry'. L used broukhes to mean both 'angry' and 'anger'. R said rökhes for 'anti-Semitism' and L and R said ro:she for 'anti-Semite'. L used rishes for 'anti-Semitism'.
Both informants agreed that a conceited person had geyes. L pointed out the homophony of dales meaning 'prayer shawl', poverty, and 'dollars' when said with a German accent. Thus, a man with dales had no dales, although he might wear a dales.
L used fi:vere meaning 'let's go'. Guggenheim-Grünberg cites fi:efrekh houlekhe 'to flee', and notes its similarity to standard Yiddish makhn vayivrakh (59). R volunteered low lonu with the meaning of "we won't make this sale'. L produced low lonu shteyt in Hallel meaning 'there is nothing at all'. A friend of mine who grew up in Flensburg and whose family was so assimilated that he didn't know there was a Jewish New Year until he got married, told me he had heard law lone from other German Jews.
Some words of Romance origin have religious implications. layenen means 'read from the Torah' (leyenen is also possible, according to L). R produced o:rn meaning 'to pray', but L knew only awsgeort, 'finished praying'. Otherwise, L said davenen. The religious and comic meet in the saying L told me: "Anybody who doesn't oumer every night doesn't get cheesecake on Shavuos."
What does all this mean? Can we say there is a cattle-dealer language in Orange County if I was not able to interview more than two informants? Max Weinreich would have agreed that there is. Any form of any language used by Jews with any degree of consistency is a Jewish language. Speaking of Judeo-Greek, which he called "Yavanic," he referred to it as follows:
A fusion language, the stock of which was mostly Greek, but in which the "mistakes" vis-a-vis standard Greek are not individual, but characteristic of Jews. In other words, the deviations are systematized, and it is therefore necessary to speak of a separate language of the Jews, however similar to Greek. (1980: 62)
Certainly we can agree that any form of speech is worthy of description, of historical analysis, and of comparison with other varieties. However, can we agree that there is a language if no one uses it unless a visiting linguist comes by? Is it enough to say that if an occasional word, pronunciation or intonation survives, the language has survived? Then what are we to say when these words are borrowed by speakers of surrounding languages? A friend of mine from China had used the following expressions: "Every Monday and Thursday"; "Enough already"; "Hurry shoyn"; "Should we eat after the exhibition or will you khalish?" The last example was addressed to an Italian-American friend, who understood it. What language is he speaking? Can we say he has learned Judeo-English? Is there a Judeo-English? Can we say that when a language has spread outside of the Jewish community that originally used it, it is no longer entirely a Jewish language? Perhaps we need a term to describe a dialect that is nobody's primary language and whose boundaries cannot be defined.
Is cattle-dealer language a dialect of Western Yiddish? Max Weinreich is reputed to have defined a language as a dialect with an army and navy. His definition doesn't help when none of the varieties is spoken by people with firearms. Should Western Yiddish be considered Yiddish because of its historical and geographical connections with Eastern Yiddish, or should we take the word of its speakers? My two informants did not consider their language Yiddish, although they did consider it Jewish.
Is the language alive? According to Hutterer (1969) "In western and central Europe the WY dialects must have died out within a short time during the period of reforms following the Enlightenment" (4). Yet one of my informants, R, grew up in the United States. He described his first language, the language of his parents, as German, but now he is most at home in English. Neither informant, I must point out, expressed any trace of embarrassment or discomfort about using Jewish words or a Jewish way of speaking.
Judeo-Italian has been described as moribund or dead for the last century or so. Yet there is a theater group in Rome that not only performs plays in Giudaico-romanesco but writes new ones. Jana DeBenedetti (1997) has written a dissertation on this group and on the survival of the Jewish language of Rome. There are no simple answers. There is variation and fuzzy boundaries. Nancy Dorian (1981) has written, "It is not certain how widespread a phenomenon the semi-speaker is in language death settings. . . . But it is evident in a number of reports on dying language communities that a semi-speaker group does exist" (115).
Dorian takes it for granted that the Scottish Gaelic dialects she has studied are dying. Languages do indeed die. Judeo-Provencal died with its last speaker, Armand Lunel, in 1977. On the other hand, languages in general, and Jewish languages in particular, occasionally show that reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated.
DeBenedetti, Jana L. 1997. Dabbera in Scionaccodesce (Speak Giudaico-Romancesco): Keeping the Jewish-Roman Dialect Alive. Dissertation. State University of New York at Albany.
Dorian, Nancy C. 1981. Language Death: The Life Cycle of a Scottish Gaelic Dialect. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania Press.
Guggenheim-Grünberg, Florence. 1954. "Horse Dealers' Language of the Swiss Jews in Endingen and Lengnau." The Field of Yiddish. Uriel Weinreich, ed. New York: Publications of the Linguistic Circle of New York (now the International Linguistic Association).
Hutterer, C.J. 1969. "Theoretical and Practical Problems of Western Yiddish Dialectology." The Field of Yiddish, Third Collection. Marvin I. Herzog, Wita Ravid, and Uriel Weinreich, eds. The Hague: Mouton.
Jochnowitz, George. 1978. "Shuadit: la langue juive de Provence." Archives juives 14, 63-67.
Saboly, N. 1824 (nouvelle edition). Noues Juzioou (Noels juifs). Avignon.
von Reizenstein, Wolf E. 1764. Der vollkommene Pferd-Kenner. Uffenheim, Germany.
Weinreich, Max. 1980. History of the Yiddish Language. Tr. of Geshikhte fun der Yidishe Shprakh (New York: YIVO Institute 1973). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
I have used the YIVO system of Romanization, with the addition of : to indicate length.
I am grateful to Marvin I. Herzog and to Steven Lowenstein for their help and advice.
This article appeared in Les Cahiers du CREDYO No. 5 (2010), published by the Centre de Recherche, d'Etudes et de Documentation du Yidich Occidental.
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