Smut comes wrapped in brown paper. Which explains why the cover of Ilene Schneider’s Talk Dirty Yiddish (Adams Media, $7.95) resembles the kind of mail you don’t want your neighbors to see. A smudged postal stamp warns: “Beyond Drek: The curses, slang, and street lingo you need to know when you speak Yiddish.”

Having grown up in a household where Yiddish was the language of secrets and raucous punch lines not meant for little ears, I grew up wondering what the hell my parents and grandparents were jabbering about.  Sure, I knew the terms that were bantered about on TV sitcoms. Shmooze. Shlepper. Shmata. But I had no idea what my mother was actually saying when she cursed out some poor mumser who had cut her off in traffic or overcharged her at the deli. Now, thanks to Talk Dirty Yiddish, I know. My sweet, docile mother was wishing plagues, cholera, and venereal diseases, no less, on those who had wronged her. And on appropriate occasions, she was telling my sister and me to “gai in drerd arein.” In other words, Go to hell!

Now that all the Yiddish speakers in my family are gone, I find Schneider’s book to be an informative, entertaining and at times hilarious guide to the “dead” language that has seeped into our modern culture. Anyone who owns a television knows what a shmuck is, although they might not be able to identify the part of the male anatomy that it describes. In a chapter on body language, Talk Dirty Yiddish bares all. (If you don’t know your dorten from your bristen, this book is for you). While Saturday Night Live has made fahrklempt a household word, Schneider delivers the fine points between fahrmished, fahrmutshet and fahrpatshket. Which, quite frankly, is enough to make me fahrblonget.  My favorite section is the one on curses, which displays the more colorful, imaginative aspects of Yiddish. Why tell people to merely drop dead when you can implore them to be transformed into a chandelier—hang by day and burn by night?

Although it contains adult language, this isn’t the kind of book to hide under your mattress. It belongs in plain sight, on a coffee table or maybe in the guest bathroom, where your friends will be intrigued to discover what their parents were really saying. In addition to chapters dedicated to curses, sex, and insults, Schneider devotes a section to words that have crossed over into everyday English, as well as to terms relating to the strongest of all Jewish desires: food. You may know what a shmear is, but how about forshpeis or geshmakt? Originally published in 2008, Talk Dirty Yiddish is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

Who would write such a dirty book? A rabbi, of course. Ilene Schneider (left) was one of the first six women rabbis in the United States to be ordained in 1976. She currently serves as Coordinator of Jewish Hospice Services at Samaritan Hospice in Marlton, NJ.  Schneider is also the author of Chanukah Guilt, the first in a series of humorous mysteries about the misadventures of Aviva Cohen, a female rabbi living in Jersey. Such chutzpah. The mysteries are worth a look, and so is Schneider’s blog, named after her wisecracking rabbi-sleuth.

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • RozWarren January 16, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    That’s pretty funny. I think that a lot of people who use the word “schmuck” are unaware of the literal translation.

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen January 14, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    I wish I had read this book when I was in medical school. I had NO idea what I was saying when I called many of my sometimes annoying classmates, shmucks. Who knew I was calling them…penis? I was told at the end of my 4th year. Apparently it had been a running joke for 4 years.

    Dr. Pat