The Joys of Yiddish and the 'Schlonged' Debate

Talk about a cultural disconnect! There was Donald Trump explaining the real meaning of the Yiddish term "schlonged." He claims that it isn't vulgar. In reality, I'm dying here writing about this the term which doesn't exist as a verb in Yiddish. The word "schlonge" means penis, it's rude and crude and I have never uttered out loud in my life. My father would have had a heart attack. It comes from the German word for "snake" and implies that the "schlonge" in question is ample in size. There is no verb "to schlonge," so Trump can own that one.

Trump spent much of his career in New York City where the Jewish community is a major influence and Yiddish can still be heard. Once a vibrant language of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Yiddish is now best known for its use in Jewish humor. Trump may have seen Mel Brooks' movie, SpaceBalls, one too many times. Mel's Yiddish-style potty humor was meant to shock polite company, that's why the jokes are funny. It's not so funny in a presidential campaign. Yes, "schlonge" insults Hillary Clinton and the inferred application of "schlong" to Barack Obama hasn't gone unnoticed by those objecting to the racial stereotyping.

I'm insulted, too, and I suspect there are many other Jews who don't appreciate being hijacked and appropriated. While I do appreciate the renaissance for Yiddish in mainstream America, it's a weird phenomenon. I'm confused by ads featuring pretty young women selling various-and-sundry who tack on a Yiddish-sounding "Uch!" for emphasis. I better understood the popularity of "schlemiel, schlimazel" in the opening lines of the old TV show, Laverne & Shirley. Decades ago, I never expected a broad comprehension of the Yiddish meaning of the words or a broad application of them outside of the entertainment world.

The colorful, earthy language of Yiddish should come with a warning label for the uninitiated using it professionally today. A non-Jewish colleague told me how she used the word "putz" in a professional presentation and offended an older Jewish member of the audience. I explained the meaning of the word to her in an outdoor cafe over coffee. I could hear the Jewish patrons guffawing in the background. I couldn't tell if the laughter was because she'd called someone a putz publicly at a major conference or because I stammered and stuttered trying to explain that the word means penis and calling someone a putz is like calling him... please don't make me go there again.

There's no doubt that Yiddish is full of words and phrases that you couldn't get away with in English. All the more so when accompanied by the Yiddish lilt that non-speakers shouldn't try, any more than non-Southerners should fake a Southern accent. The Yiddish gestures and facial expression that go with the phrases are emphatic and entertaining to the Jewish community and fascinating to non-Jews. When I spoke recently at a Seventh-day Adventist conference, they took a picture of me doing the classic Yiddish full-body shrug. That photo, with shoulders raised, arms outstretched, and palms turned up, appeared on the front of their magazine. There was no caption. The visual said it all.

Take a close look at Trump next time he's on TV. Then check out Bernie Sanders who truly is a Yiddishe Kopf. Then watch the video of Larry David, creator of TV's Seinfeld, doing a take-off of Sanders' Yiddish speech and body language. Lo and behold! All three men work the stage Yiddish-style, but Trump's version is so over-the-top as to be mildly asinine.

While I doubt it will happen, I'd love to see Sanders and Trump face off. Never before in the history of the United States would so much Yiddish grace the presidential debate stage. Oy! I may have to hide under the covers. Or maybe I should just reread The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten, and do my part to make sure Yiddish doesn't get schlonged. (Sorry, Dad!)