Yiddish as a Second Language

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

"If you live in New York, even if you're Catholic, you're Jewish."


"I grew up in an Italian family... you know, the strange thing about Italians -- they're so Jewish."

Kaye Ballard

This trope goes back quite a ways in American television, almost to the point of being a Dead Horse Trope, without passing through the stages of Clever Idea -> Trope -> Subverted Trope -> Discredited Trope. (Mainly because its roots are another fifty years back, in vaudeville.) The characters—some portrayed as being Jewish, some not—will pepper their dialogue with words and phrases in Yiddish (or more specifically, in Yinglish). Translations and subtitles are not provided, and meanings must be inferred from context. This occurs in both dramas and sitcoms, sometimes without regard to the setting city of the show, though it most often appears in shows set in New York, where it's most common in actual speech, and Los Angeles, where schmooze—a Yiddish word if ever there was one—is a way of life. The criminal argot of East End London Gangsters has also absorbed a few Yiddish words.

Thanks to this trope, however, several Yiddish terms have become a standard part of American English vernacular. Concentrated in large American cities and spreading out worldwide, common Yiddish terms like "putz," "schmooze," "Word Schmord," are slowly becoming standard English words. This trope evolved from the early movies and TV—censors were aggressive in editing out curses, sexual references, etc. However, most of these early censors did not speak Yiddish, so the writers, actors, and producers (who often did) used Yiddish curse words as a way of Getting Crap Past the Radar.

If a character speaks in Yiddish as sole proof of Jewish authenticity, then they may be practitioners of Informed Judaism. If a senior character has the accent as well, they're an Alter Kocker.

A rather interesting survey on the Real Life spread of Yiddish words and phrases, Hebrew words and phrases, and New York regional features, both within and outside of the Jewish community, can be found here.

Compare All Jews Are Ashkenazi, Jews Love to Argue.

See As Long as It Sounds Foreign, Pardon My Klingon, You Are the Translated Foreign Word.


Animeheitln (Anime)

Heitln (Film)

  • One of the best examples is this scene from the opening of the 1932 Warner Brothers picture Taxi, in which a Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrant is frustrated in his attempt to communicate with a policeman, until James Cagney interrupts in fluent Yiddish to offer the man a lift. Supposedly, the scene was actually improvised, to take advantage of the fact that the Irish-American Cagney had learnt Yiddish from his playmates while growing up in New York City. The presence of the perplexed Irish cop only makes it ten times funnier.
  • A wonderful instance appears in the film A Mighty Wind: Ed Begley Jr. plays Lars Olfen, a first-generation Swedish-American Public Television executive who nonetheless laces everything he says with a vast amount of Yiddish:

Lars Olfen: The naches[1] that I'm feeling right now... 'cause your dad was like mishpoche[2] to me. When I heard I got these ticket to the Folksmen, I let out a geshreeyeh,[3] and I'm running with my friend... running around like a vilde chaye,[4] right into the theater, in the front row! So we've got the shpilkes,[5] 'cause we're sittin' right there... and it's a mitzvah,[6] what your dad did, and I want to try to give that back to you. Okeinhoreh,[7] I say, and God bless him.

  • A common gag in Mel Brooks films, usually doing them himself.
    • The Yiddish-speaking Indian chief in Blazing Saddles. His headdress actually reads "Posher l'Kesach": roughly, "Posher for Kassover." When he meets Bart's family, he says in Yiddish, "Blacks!" When one of the other Indians raises his tomahawk, Brooks says, "No, no, don't be crazy. Let them go!" After Bart's family has ridden away, Brooks mutters, "Have you ever seen in your life?" He finishes in very Yiddish-accented English, "Dey darkuh den us! Wuff!"
    • Mel Brooks as Yogurt in Spaceballs drops some Yiddish, such as, "The ring was bupkus!" Also, when about to translate the words on the medallion, he makes a bunch of croaking noises that are probably supposed to lampoon the fairly guttural sound of Yiddish. He's just clearing his throat.
    • Rabbi Tuckman in Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
      • Interestingly, the Englishmen he's talking to understand some Yiddish words.

Robin Hood: You've just entered the territory of Robin Hood and his Merry Men.
Rabbi Tuckman: (waves his hand) Feygeles?
Robin Hood: (the Merry Men react negatively) No, no, we're straight, just merry.

  • Eddie Murphy's urban conman running for Congress in The Distinguished Gentleman impresses a Jewish senior citizen by contradicting her in Yiddish, which he apparently picked up playing gin on Miami Beach. He is also shown driving through several neighborhoods while talking on a megaphone using an accent common to each neighborhood, including sounding like an old Jewish man with Yiddish-peppered sentences.
  • London hood Don Logan in Sexy Beast uses a little Yiddish during a Mirror Monologue.
  • Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels pokes fun at London gangsters not realizing the origins of their slang when Tom assures Nick the Greek that a deal is "kosher as Christmas," to which Nick answers, "Jews don't celebrate Christmas!"
  • An extended joke in the erotic thriller spoof Fatal Instinct: the hero's wife and the man she is having an affair meet in a park to discuss murdering the hero. She suggests they speak in Yiddish and they both converse fluently for several minutes in the language before the elderly black man on the opposite bench interrupts with a helpful suggestion. He can't speak Yiddish but he can "read subtitles".
  • Both of the old comedians in The Sunshine Boys (played by George Burns and Walter Matthau) liberally use Yiddishisms. Both of them are veterans of the old Borscht Belt comedy circuit.
  • In Independence Day, Judd Hirsch plays a Jewish man and drops a lot of Yiddish.
  • Used by every Jewish adult in A Serious Man, and justified by that they are all conservative Jews in the late 60's.
  • Top Secret! uses Yiddish dialogue and signage to stand in for actual German.
  • In Robin and the Seven Hoods, Frank Sinatra at one point feels like he's being noodged. "It's an old Italian word."
  • In City Hall, Mayor's aide John Cusack (who's supposed to come from Louisiana) mispronounces "schtick" as "stick", prompting Bridget Fonda to snap at him to "get the cornpone out of your Yiddish" if he's going to get anywhere in New York City politics.
  • In Mary and Max Max says a phrase in Yiddish whilst mailing a letter to his penpal Mary.

Internetkarikaturn (Web Comics)

Karikaturschurnaln (Comic Books)

  • Spider-Man, particularly the Ultimate universe version, is fond of peppering his speech with random Yiddish, especially during fights—despite the fact that he's Lutheran, not Jewish. But then, he's from New York City. In fact, his home neighborhood in Queens, Forest Hills, is very Jewish.

Mary Jane: Where do you know Yiddish all of a sudden?
Peter: I picked it up.
Mary Jane: You should put it back.

  • The Thing from the Fantastic Four is Jewish and often peppers his speech and battle banter with Yiddish words and phrases.
  • Shaloman. All together now... "Oy vey!"


  • This abounds in the works of Harry Turtledove, most prominently in those sections of his World War series featuring the Russie family, and also in several sections of his American Empire trilogy. While what they say always fits with the meaning of the word, they are sometimes idiomatically incorrect—no one would actually use the word the way the character does.
  • Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemens Union, an Alternate History mystery featuring a Jewish refugee state in Alaska. Almost all the Jews who immigrated there are Ashkenazi and they interact with few outsiders, so Yiddish has been adopted as the standard language. There are even a few Yiddish/English puns, such as calling a handgun (a "piece") a "sholem," meaning "peace."
  • Miles Vorkosigan uses a noticeable amount of Yiddish words, despite living around 1000 years in the future. He is portrayed as having an above average knowledge of the past, but it's interesting that this part of a High German language of Jewish origin was preserved.
    • Given that Barrayar had a huge Russian influence, and modern Russian can be compared with New-York English in its level of Yiddishisms, it's not that surprising.
  • The classic science fiction short story "A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G. Weinbaum includes a German engineer named Putz.
  • Esther Friesner's novel Elf Defense includes among its minor characters a classic Tolkien/Shakespeare-style elf maiden whose speech is unexpectedly punctuated with the occasional bit of Yiddish. When called on it, she abashedly admits to dating a dybbuk (a possessing demon of Jewish myth).
  • In respect to the influence of Yiddish on British criminal argot, this probably explains why a Redwall character who was a Lovable Rogue ended up with the name Gonff (goniff is Yiddish for thief). In a more general example, the phrase "keeping shtum" (quiet in the sense of "not snitching") is much more likely to be heard from a London Gangster character than a Jewish one.
  • Dashiell Hammett used the word gunsel in The Maltese Falcon. It was actually Yiddish for "a young man kept for sexual purposes", but he knew that his editor would misinterpret it as "gun-carrying hoodlum"; and indeed, as a result, the word now means that!

Meyreve Karikaturn (Western Animation)

  • The Joker, in Batman: The Animated Series, often threw in a Yiddish word when searching for another adjective to drive his point home, although probably out of many Yiddish terms being Inherently Funny Words. Harley Quinn being Jewish, used plenty too.
  • The Disney version of Hercules managed to have Hades throw various Yiddishisms into his speech, despite ostensibly being from ancient Greece.
  • Timon's mother (a meerkat) in The Lion King 1 1/2
  • In Brandy and Mr. Whiskers, Mr. Whiskers' brain speaks with a Yiddish accent. Whiskers himself does not. Whiskers appears to be capable of thinking on a Whiskers level without the aid of a brain (the plot of at least two episodes revolves around Whiskers' brain getting fed up with being ignored, and leaving), so maybe it's not so surprising.
  • Slappy Squirrel's eternal (And elderly) nemesis Walter Wolf speaks with a Yiddish accent and swears in Yiddish a lot.
    • Minerva Mink and Slappy herself are fond of the Yiddish insult "yutz", meaning "idiot".
  • Futurama's John Zoidberg, from the Space Jew race of Decapodians: "Hello? Attack Earth! Yeah I know it's a schlep, just do it!" He also says "Mazel Tov".
  • Irwin's grandfather from The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy is this, even though he was an Egyptian pharaoh, and the Egyptians kept the Israelites as slaves.
  • Larry of Time Squad often says "Oy vey!" when dismayed. Seeing as he was originally designed to be a polyglotic diplomat, this is rather appropriate.
  • The Critic's Alice Tompkins: "Honey, we have a saying back in Tennessee: 'Be a mensch, not a schmendrick.'"


Onhengerarbetn (Fan Works)

  • DC Nation‍'‍s Sue Dibny peppers her dialogue with a few choice Yiddish phrases, but only if she is really ticked. Dr. Light wound up with a real earful before she and Constantine all but tossed his sorry hide out an airlock.
  • Born into a show-business family and with a German Jewish grandmother, it's a wonder that Drunkard's Walk‍'‍s peripatetic superhero Doug Sangnoir doesn't use more Yiddish than he does. As it is, though, he still ends up accidentally "teaching" choice Yiddish terms to everyone from Japanese Magical Girls to British Wizards to Norse deities.
  • Amusingly, fan author Ozzallos writes Japanese martial artist Ranma Saotome as occasionally using the odd Yiddish word:

All I did was uphold the code. Same as those other poor shmucks.

—from A Time Apart, chapter 3


  • Played with in The Producers (the musical), in "The King of Broadway."

Max Bialystock: I'll never forget, he turned to me on his deathbed and said, "Maxella, alle menschen muss zu machen, jeden tug a gentzen kachen!"[8]
Crowd: What does that mean?
Bialystock: Who knows? I don't speak Yiddish. Strangely enough, neither did he.

Even the Nazi speaks Yiddish in the musical.

"So ve hop our hops, Und ve clop our clops, Und ve drink our Schnapps 'Til ve plotz!"

  • In Fiorello!, La Guardia says he's half-Jewish when campaigning among the Jews, and sings a Yiddish version of his campaign song ("Ich zug tsu eye-ich, Tammany is nisht kosher").
  • In the musical Little Shop of Horrors, the plant knows some Yiddish, like "Come on Seymour, don't be a putz". He probably learned the Yiddish from the likely-Jewish Mr. Mushnik, who uses "mensch" and "mishegas". The lyricist/composer team, Ashman and Menken, also did many Disney movies, and the same influence is seen there (Phil in Hercules, etc.).
  • The new[when?] musical In the Heights, which takes place in Washington Heights (upper Manhattan with a predominantly Hispanic community) has several Latino/a characters use Yiddish rather believably in their daily conversations, similar to their usage of Spanglish (although less frequently, for obvious reasons). Prior to a wave of Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants into the area Washington Heights was a rather Jewish neighborhood, and the characters probably picked it up from one of the innumerable senior citizens with a rent-controlled apartment dating back to the 40s—in which case the Lenny Bruce quote above becomes applicable.
    • During "It Won't Be Long Now" Vanessa tells Usnavi he has "some schmutz on his face" from fixing the refrigerator.
    • During "The Club," Usnavi and Benny are trying to drink away their troubles and Usnavi says "As long as you buy 'em -- L'chaim!"


  • Mike Myers as Linda Richman in the "Coffee Talk" sketches on Saturday Night Live.
  • On M*A*S*H, Hawkeye sporadically uses Yiddish words.
  • Fran in The Nanny. Max and Niles hang a lampshade on this at one point when they debate what a certain word means, despite both being British.
    • In fact, almost every member of the Fine family uses Yiddish words at one point, especially Sylvia and Yetta.
    • Non-Jewish characters also use Yiddish words and phrases, most notable Val, Grace, and occasionally Niles, though only for comedic effect.
  • Aaron Sorkin loves this one, especially when he can subvert it:
    • Lampshaded and subverted in Sports Night, when Isaac, an African-American (played by Robert Guillaume), busts out the phrase, "What, am I from Minsk-a-Pinsk?". When called on it, he claims that Yiddish phrases, "work for him." He is summarily informed, "Not as well as you think they do."
    • The West Wing
      • Most characters especially the New York-area Jews Toby and Josh, will successfully pepper their speeches with Yiddish... and Jed and Leo, probably thanks to a lifetime of politics, will have at least a passing familiarity. In "Enemies Foreign and Domestic", Jed comes out with a beautifully inflected Vas vilst du fun mein layben?
      • Subverted when Donna—a blonde Midwesterner—tells Toby that Josh is recovering from being shot, and he doesn't need Toby "going over there and getting him fuhtushed. Toby, a New York Jew, corrects her pronunciation of "fartoost" and tells her, "don't bring the Yiddish unless you know what you're doing."
      • Subverted when Toby goes into a monologue about how a particular night is special, CJ interrupts "We dip twice and eat gefilte fish?" He replies "Suzie Creamcheese, do not attempt the Haggaddah" and she responds "I know how to bless the soup, too."
      • Subverted somewhat in flashbacks about Toby's father, showing him fully conversant in Yiddish as a member of the Jewish Mafia.
  • Munch only occasionally used Yiddish on Homicide: Life on the Street, although he did once teach it to Kellerman for his own amusement. It did, however, come in handy after he switched over to Law and Order SVU, when they suspected a Rabbi of sexual misconduct and he fled New York to a Jewish community upstate where even the cops were Jewish and decided to shelter him. When Munch and Stabler arrive their local police contact is told (In Yiddish) to keep them away from the synagogue, and Munch overhears and thus deduces where the Rabbi is being hidden.
  • As a New Jersey Jew, Jon Stewart frequently uses this trope on The Daily Show, but reprimanded Brian Williams for using one too many Yiddish words in an interview:

Stewart: What's with the Yiddish tonight? What's with the -- "shmaltzy", and the "just gave me a little schpilkis, but" -- "I took my punim over there", bing bang boom --
Williams: Joey Bishop, ladies and gentlemen.

  • On an early Series 4 episode of Doctor Who, The Doctor tells Donna, "I'm tired of the shmoozing." Being The Doctor, of course, he can most likely speak Yiddish fluently just like practically every other human language.
  • Carl Kolchak recognizes Yiddish words in Kolchak the Night Stalker. He's an ex-New York reporter working in Chicago. So...
  • Parodied in the episode of Frasier, "Merry Christmas Mrs. Moskowitz," where (as part of a Fawlty Towers Plot) Frasier needs Niles to pretend to be Jewish for reasons too complicated to explain. Niles takes the job to heart, liberally injecting common Yiddish words into the conversation.
  • Blair Waldorf on Gossip Girl after her mother marries a Jewish man. Also the man who plays Rufus, in one memorable blooper:

Rufus: (serious) I think he's been schtupping Blair Waldorf.

  • The opening credits from Laverne and Shirley begins with the title characters chanting the immortal verse

One, two, three, four,
Five, six, seven, eight,
Schlemiel, schlmazel,
Hassenpfeffer incorporated!

  • Casualty 1906 has a lot of of Yiddish in it, hardly supprising due to the very high Eastern-European Jewish population of London and the fact that The London has Hebrew Wards.
  • Seinfeld has 'The Yada Yada' episode, where Tim Whatley converts to Judaism for the jokes. He uses a few yiddish words in the episode.
  • Barbara Brownstein, Cody Martin's Jewish/Japanese-American girlfriend in The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, likes to show off her Judaism by tossing the occasional Yiddish word around.
    • In one episode, even London uses some Yiddish when she mentions she celebrates Hannukah (for the extra presents).
  • House is sporadically prone to this, originally when in context of referring to Jewish people but later on just to throw off his co-workers.
    • House also presents us with Cuddy's incredibly Jewish mother, who isn't even Jewish. (She converted, but seems to have gone whole-hog; it rather reminds one of a certain Walter Sobchak).
  • On Covert Affairs, Eyal distracts Annie while pickpocketing her by telling her she has some "schmutz on her collar".
  • Subverted in one episode of Northern Exposure, Joel Fleischman finds out that the local Indian tribe has adopted several Yiddish words and phrases into their native language, due to the influence of a 19th Century Jewish doctor who joined the tribe and became one of their heroes. When the very Jewish Dr. Fleischman starts casually using Yiddish with the local Indians in an attempt to connect with them, he's told (by them) to knock it off because he sounds like a poser.
  • Babylon 5: Susan Ivanova is Jewish and occasionally uses Yiddish word order and phrases for comedic effect:

What am I, chopped flarn?
For this you wake me up?

  • The assorted Jewish gangsters of Boardwalk Empire are conversant in Yiddish. Manny Horvitz in particular is fond of it, boychik, though Arnold Rothstein doesn't seem to be.
    • Then there's the Crowning Moment of Funny from "Broadway Limited", where Prohibition Agents Van Alden and Sebso are interrogating a gravely injured Jewish gangster in the middle of a public dentist's office. He growls something at Van Alden and the nice lady in the corner gasps in shock:

Woman: He says you should fuck your grandmother with your faggot penis.
Sebso: Little. He said little faggot penis.

    • Another interesting use of Yiddish is an exchange between Jewish Meyer Lanksy and Italian Lucky Luciano:

Luciano: Meshuge bisl yingl. (Crazy little kid.)
Lansky: Che cose potente fare? (What can you do?)

  • On Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Barek asks Logan if he feels like "taking a schvitz" with a suspect. To be fair, Yiddish is one of the languages she picked up while working for the FBI. Logan, on the other hand, is a NYC Irish Catholic.
  • In an early episode of the Law and Order mothership, Cragen responds to his detectives reporting that their last lead failed to pan out with "What's less than nothing? Minus zero? Negative bupkis?"
  • In the Two and A Half Men episode "Captain Terry's Spray-On Hair", when Alan pretends to be Jewish so he could use a Jewish dating service, he uses as many Yiddish expressions as he can.
  • In Welcome Back, Kotter, title character Gabe Kotter—a classic New York Jew—occasionally threw out the odd Yiddish word, although far less often than one might expect. And Epstein completely averted this trope, embracing his Puerto Rican side almost to the exclusion of his Jewish heritage.

Faktes Lebn (Real Life)

  • In the Russian internet community there is a subculture of net trolls called the Kaschenites (after Kaschenko clinic, a prominent Moscow mental hospital). Their favourite tool of the trade is Gratuitous Yiddish (and sometimes Gratuitous Hebrew), which tends to confuse the general population. The confused responses are then purposefully misinterpreted as antisemitism, which is then used as rationale for a flame war or simply to derail any given discussion.
    • Trolling aside, Russian in general experienced a huge Yiddish influence, especially southern dialects, which formed inside the Pale. Jews also were very significant in Russian culture and entertainment, so Yiddish never was all that foreign to Russians. Modern Russian exhibits level of Yiddish influence similar to New York English, especially in informal speech and slang.
      • And, in a funny aside, a lot of words that Americans perceive as intrinsically Yiddish, are actually Russian (or Polish), as eastern Yiddish dialects for their part also experienced an enormous influence of the local Slavic languages.
  • Dutch from Holland, especially Amsterdam, has the mazzel of being very Yiddish-influenced, which is rather tof.
  • Yiddish and German are closely related: Yiddish began as a sort of Middle High German creole, so it's unsurprising that some words have filtered back, such as "meschugge", "Schickse", "Schlamassel," "Ganove" and a lot of others. All in all, there are estimated to be well over a thousand, many of them in constant use across all social strata.
    • Quite a bit of Yiddish vocabulary (along with a handful of Romani words) passed into everyday German via Rotwelsch, the argot of small criminals, beggars and vagrants (which also influenced the language of wandering journeymen craftsmen). Yiddish also preserves a few features that fell into disuse in Modern High German, such as the word "Tate" (two syllables) for "father" and one has to wonder if the use of at least some German words in Yiddish in American English (e. g. "schmaltz", spelled "Schmalz" in modern German) may not have been reinforced by the presence of large numbers of German-Americans. Usages in German and American English can differ quite markedly - in the US, "schmuck" is seen as semi-obscene, while its German version, "Schmock" it is harmless and is sometimes used in the meaning "snob".
  • New York Senator Al D'Amato is widely believed to have lost his Senate seat because he, as Toby Ziegler might put it, "brought the Yiddish without knowing what he was doing." In the closing days of a tight race against then-Congressman Charles Schumer, D'amato publicly referred to the Jewish Schumer as a "putzhead," without apparently being aware of what the word "putz" means in Yiddish.[9] The resultant furor alienated the state's large Jewish community, which had previously been very supportive of him, and he lost by a ten-point margin.
  • African-American Colin Powell (former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State) grew up in the Bronx and picked up Yiddish while working for Jewish employers.
  • Being that Yiddish, and not Hebrew was the everyday language of the Jewish people for centuries, a lot of young Jews in America are learning it again in order to connect to their history.
  • The article Lawsuit, Shmawsuit studies the use of Yiddish in U.S. court decisions.
  • Hacker parlance is absolutely full of Yiddish, as well as various other languages. See the Jargon File for examples.
  1. joy
  2. family
  3. squee
  4. wild beast
  5. nervousness
  6. good deed
  7. not the word he meant to use; alav hasholem means "rest in peace," this is more along the lines of "knock wood"
  8. Roughly, "Max, everybody should have a bowel movement every day."
  9. "penis," with similar connotations to "prick."