Kvelled by the Mamma-Looshen

February 02, 1994|By MURRY FRYMER

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA — San Jose, California.--Jackie Mason is in trouble again for calling black people ''schvartzehs.'' It all goes back to the time Mr. Mason called then-New York Mayor David Dinkins ''a fancy schvartzeh with a mustache.''

''48 Hours'' on CBS showed him again defending himself on the matter. Mr. Mason said, '' 'Schvartzehs' is Yiddish for black. It is not an insult.'' Of course, he is right. And wrong. But he's a comic. You have to give a comic his own definitions.

Mr. Mason is not a political figure, though he did at one time threaten to run for mayor of New York. He dropped out, probably because he couldn't get the ''schvartzeh'' vote.

The thing that he did not say, but I am here to clear up, is that Yiddish is a language like no other when it comes to definitions. Words come with various connotations. What they mean has a lot to do with the context in which they are used.

I learned my Yiddish connotations at my mother's knee, which is why Yiddish is often called ''Mamma-looshen,'' i.e., mother language. I learned what the words meant by picking up what she meant when she used them.

For example, the word ''klieg.'' (Note: Spellings may vary.) It means intelligent. When my mother refers to a ''kliegeh man,'' it is with the utmost reverence. You can't do better in life than to be a ''kliegeh man.'' Naturally, that is what I aspired to be, though I have yet to hear my mother refer to me that way. It's not a pinnacle easily reached.

My mother does call my wife a ''voyleh froh.'' That means, as best as I can define it, ''a good woman'' or what we sometimes call ''a good girl,'' without referring particularly to some noble virtue. You wouldn't call Mother Teresa ''a voyleh froh.''

Women and men are lauded differently, which indicates a certain chauvinism in the language. Women, being admired, might be ''voyleh'' or ''shayneh,'' which means attractive. Both are good things.

But a ''kliegeh froh'' (intelligent or ''clever'' woman) is, perhaps, said with suspicion of something or other. And a ''voyleh man'' is a good guy, but nothing to write home about.

Are you following this?

A Jackie Mason, putting his foot into his mouth over this ''schvartzeh'' thing, might be referred to as a ''schlemiel,'' a fool or a jerk, but since the culture contains many such examples, the connotation usually contains a bit of sympathy.

''Schvartzeh'' gets its negative connotation from the fact that most ''schvartzehs'' are not Jewish. The word often is or was used in older Jewish households to refer to the black help. It is like the word ''goy.'' It means gentile. But since in the ''old country'' ''goyim'' (the plural) were seen as adversaries, it is an emotional word, often accompanied by a frown. (A ''shiksa,'' on the other hand, referring to a young or unmarried gentile woman, has no such emotion attached. Go figure.)

You could, of course, say someone was a ''kliegeh goy,'' but I think that means devious. A ''shayneh schvartzeh'' used to mean Lena Horne.

It's a fascinating language and I regret that except for a few phrases that have made their way into English colloquial usage, it seems to be dying. There are words in Yiddish that are so loaded with connotation that it takes a full paragraph of English ,, to define.

For example, ''farblondjet.'' It means lost. But what it means is really lost, insurmountably lost, so screwed up that you can recover only with a doctorate in geography. You can also be ''farblondjet'' in life, on the job -- don't ask.

''Don't ask,'' by the way, is not Yiddish but it may as well be. When I call my mother to ask how much snow they have had in Cleveland so far this winter, she will say, ''Don't ask.'' It is a set-up line, sort of what Johnny Carson meant when he said, ''How cold was it?''

My mother follows ''don't ask'' with (and you truly don't have to ask): ''We had so much snow I can't see my nose.'' I think it means, ''It's up to my nose.''

One of my favorite Yiddish words is ''kvell,'' which means to thrill, but you don't really ''kvell'' on a roller coaster. You ''kvell'' when you've won the Nobel Prize.

And then there are all the Yiddish insult words, words so insulting, honed over centuries, that they have become an art form. There is a whole lexicon, maybe more put-downs than in any other language. Many have to do with that Bobbitt thing.

Mr. Mason tends to use the word ''faygeleh'' in his act. It means a little bird. But in his connotation, it means a gay man, one who flutters. Definitely uncomplimentary, but in Yiddish, calling someone ''little'' softens the pejorative.

''Schvartzeh'' can be softened with a variety of adjectives, but Mr. Mason isn't using them, so he'd be wise to drop the word, though he is too much the schlemiel to do it.

He gets his laughs. It's an ''inside'' joke for an ethnic audience. All ethnic comics, white and black, have their own versions. But most comics, when their success carries them ''outside'' to a wider neighborhood, edit the old routines. Mr. Mason hasn't. Talk about farblondjet.

Murry Frymer is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.

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