They faithfully convene every week to laugh, sing, shout and pound their fists on the table.
They share stories, jokes and proverbial wisdom. They have a designated group leader, but they enjoy taking turns playing the role of the teacher.
This group of 25 or so die-hard lovers of the Yiddish language has been meeting each Thursday morning for eight years at the Golda Meir Center in Clearwater. Attendance dwindles during the summer, when several class members head back North, but the remaining students meet just the same.
"I think the Yiddish language is kind of soulful," said group leader Norman Malakoff of Redington Beach. "A Yiddish-speaking person has an advantage with certain words. For instance, "chutzpa' has more meat to it than "gall.' And Gesundheit is better than saying, "get well' or "bless you.' . . . Well, to me it's better, anyway."
Three or four members of the class are fluent in Yiddish; most class members are familiar with the language because they heard their parents or grandparents speak it.
These Yiddish enthusiasts love to point out that scads of Yiddish words have crept into American vocabularies, whether we realize it or not. Many English-speaking people allow words like schmooze, shtick, maven and chutzpa to pass their lips without a moment's hesitation. (See the accompanying glossary of terms for details.)
Yiddish is spoken by about 1-million Jews throughout the world today, according to the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. Most Yiddish speakers live in New York, Montreal, Buenos Aires, Israel and Russia.
The language uses Hebrew letters and is read from right to left, but it actually is a melange of German, Hebrew, Slavic tongues, Old French and Old Italian. Yiddish and Hebrew are entirely different languages.
"Yiddish is a language with a sense of humor," said Nathan Katz, professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida. "There is something almost comical about Yiddish words."
Members of the Yiddish class agree, observing that some Yiddish words are especially humorous.
"Words with a "sh' sound are funny," said Lillian Silberzweig of Clearwater, who attends the class. "Especially words that start with a "shm' or a "shl.' They're just funny."
The great comic potential of the Yiddish language has been pounced upon by several radio and television personalities. Lionel, a former talk show host on WFLA-AM 970, and actor Mike Myers, who has perfected his Linda Richman/Coffee Talk character on Saturday Night Live, are among the entertainers who realize the laughs they can get by crossing a good, throaty Yiddish word with an unwary American ear.
When the class meets Thursday mornings, students translate Yiddish words into English and use them in sentences. Many stand up without being asked and spontaneously share jokes and stories they've heard _ in Yiddish, of course.
"Our group is strictly free-form," Malakoff said. "It isn't formal at all."
They sing Yiddish songs together, some sad, some festive. They take turns translating Yiddish proverbs into English. Some of the proverbs unraveled at a recent class meeting include the following:
A guest is like rain _ if it lasts too long, it's a nuisance.
A good person will not be ruined by the tavern, and a bad person will not be reformed by the synagogue.
A smart man knows what he says; a fool says what he knows.
A boil is better on somebody else's arm than on your own.
A highlight of the class is Silberzweig's Yiddish recital of Little Red Riding Hood (literally translated Kleyne Royte Foorendig Mant'l). Class members howl with laughter throughout the entire story.
"I've told that story so many times, and they still keep asking me to tell it again," said Silberzweig, whose first language was Yiddish. "Every time I tell it I change the details around a little bit. They love it."
During her most recent telling of the story, she had Little Red Riding Hood traipsing through the forest with a basket of bagels, cream cheese and lox from Clearwater Bagels for her bubeleh (grandmother). Little Red Riding Hood's bubeleh is laid up with the flu because she neglected to get a flu shot this year. (She didn't know Medicare would cover it.)
In the course of class discussion, details of the students' lives and gems of Yiddish culture are revealed. Class members reminisced and laughed about the fear some of their parents had of the "evil eye." One remedy believed to remove the damaging effects of this dreaded curse was to have an adult firstborn male look at the cursed one and say, of all things, "poo-poo-poo."
"That happened to me when I was a little girl," Silberzweig said. "My mother used to think that if a woman looked at me and said, "Oh, how beautiful she is,' and then I came home and had a stomachache, that meant that woman had given me the evil eye. Then my father would "poo-poo-poo' me to take away the evil eye. Of course, he'd do a prayer with it, too."
Many who love the Yiddish language are concerned about its survival.
"It is still very much alive in Hasidic circles," said Katz, the professor of religious studies. "Young people in Hasidic families are taught Yiddish as their first language. . . . But except for the Hasidic communities, the only place it's surviving is in the academic community. . . . It is taught at some colleges."
"You have to remember that most of the people who spoke the language are dead," said Jacob Neusner, distinguished research professor of religious studies at USF. "I would say that 99 percent of the Jews in America today who were born here only speak English. . . . But for many Jews, some Yiddish is better than no Yiddish. It can be an instrument of group assertion."
Norman Malakoff, group leader of the Yiddish class, said anyone is welcome to attend, but some familiarity with Yiddish would be extremely helpful. "If you want to see how Jews laugh, come on over," he said. For information on the Thursday morning class, call the Golda Meir Center at 461-0222.
A few gems from Yiddish
Yiddish gems sum up character types and actions as no others can. Here are a few, with some blessings and curses thrown in, too.
(Because Yiddish uses the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, allowances may be made for English spellings.)
Maven _ An expert; a really knowledgeable person; a good judge of quality; a connoisseur. "He's a maven on Mozart."
Chutzpa _ (pronounced khoots-pah; say the "ch" as the German "ch" in Ach! or the Scottish in loch.) Unmitigated gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible guts. Chutzpa is that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.
Nudnik _ (rhymes with "could pick.") Not just a nuisance; a nudnik is a most persistent, talkative, obnoxious and indefatigable nag. A mother may say to her child, "Stop bothering me. Don't be a nudnik!"
Bubee _ (pronounced BU-bee.) Term of endearment, the diminutive of bubeleh, used between a husband and wife, a parent and child, between siblings, and frequently among members of the theatrical profession.
Shlimazl _ A chronically unlucky person; someone for whom nothing seems to go right or turn out well. "When a shlimazl winds a clock, it stops."
Schlemiel _ A foolish person; a simpleton; a social misfit, congenitally maladjusted. "Don't invite that schlemiel to the party."
Nebech or nebbish _ As an interjection, it means, "alas, too bad, unfortunately." As a noun, it refers to an ineffectual, weak, helpless or hapless unfortunate. "Once a nebech, always a nebech."
Schmooze _ Both a verb and a noun, schmooze means a friendly, gossipy, prolonged, heart-to-heart talk, or, to have such a talk. "There's nothing better, to get something off your chest, than a schmooze with a friend."
Shtick _ A prank; a piece of clowning; a piece of misconduct; a devious trick. "How did you ever fall for a shtick like that?"
Mazel tov! _ "Congratulations!" or "Thank God!" rather than its literal meaning, "Good luck!" "Don't "mazel tov!' a man going into the hospital; say "mazel tov!' when he comes out."
A gezint in dir. _ Good health to you.
Lang leb'n zolt ir. _ Long life to you.
A brokhe oyf aykh. _ May you be blessed.
Zoll er krenk'n un gedenk'n. _ May he suffer and remember.
Shrayb'n zol men im retzept'n. _ May they write prescriptions for him.
A mageyfe un a mab'l zol oyf im kumen. _ May he be plagued with an epidemic and a flood.
Sources: The Joys of Yiddish, by Leo Rosten; A Yiddish Word Book for English-Speaking People, by Samuel Rosenbaum.