When Robert Hertzberg served as California State Assembly speaker from 2000 to 2002, it was natural for him to slip in a Yiddish phrase on the floor of the house from time to time when he felt the mama loshen was more expressive.
But, the Los Angeles Democrat said, it left his colleagues scratching their heads.
“A lot of members would come up to me back then and say, ‘What does that mean? What does that mean?’” Hertzberg told the Journal in a phone interview.
So in 2001, he decided to get proactive. He published a Yiddish guide for members of the Assembly, which they could reference when he spoke.
The pamphlet turned out to be a hit. Yiddish libraries and Jewish institutions across the country wrote to ask for copies, and demand soon outstripped supply. He estimates that he sent out as many as 5,000 copies in total.
“I’m telling you, I had to reprint the thing five times,” Hertzberg said.
More than a decade later, after being term-limited out of the Assembly and spending more than a decade on the political sidelines, the Jewish statesman was elected in 2013 to represent the San Fernando Valley in the state senate, and he found himself once again peppering his speech with Yiddishisms.
So this summer, he decided to reprise his earlier effort, and in August, he released “Yiddish for Legislators,” a glossy 29-page packet.
The definitions came from various Yiddish dictionaries. Hertzberg phoned his friend Jonathan Zasloff, a UCLA law professor who is currently studying for rabbinical ordination, to help with the compilation. He recruited his staff to ponder examples of the words used in legislative contexts, and contracted a local union in Sacramento to print the guide on a press it maintains, paying for the print run with his own campaign funds.
Once it came off the press, he distributed the guide first to members of the California Jewish Legislative Caucus and then to the rest of the lawmakers in Sacramento. He also mailed copies to members of L.A.’s Jewish political establishment, including former county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and City Attorney Mike Feuer.
The guide offers examples of how legislators might make use of Yiddish words such as macher, which it defines as “Someone who arranges, fixes, has connections; a big shot.” As an example, it offers: “He’s a macher; we’ll hold up the meeting until he arrives.”
While some entries are common English parlance (see: mavin, chutzpah and schmooze), the booklet also deals in some more obscure phrases, like hock mir nisht kine chine ick, which literally translates to “don’t bang me a tea kettle.” More colloquially, the dictionary explains, it means, “stop bothering me.” In context: “So he screamed at me for ten minutes, and finally I yelled back, ‘Enough already! Hock mir nisht kine chine ick!’ ”
As Hertzberg explained in a statement when he first released the guide: “I want to make sure members don’t get farblondjet [mixed up] when us alte kahkers [crotchety old people] of the Assembly make a megillah [drawn out story] about our bills.”
Throughout the years, Hertzberg has continued to draw on his Yiddish vocabulary to express what English sometimes cannot.
“It’s so expressive,” he said of the language, an amalgam of Hebrew and German invented by Jews in Eastern Europe. “I mean, often the tone of the word expresses the meaning without knowing what it is.”
Hertzberg said the significance of using Yiddish in the statehouse goes deeper than mere convenience. Rather, it shows that Californians “haven’t forgotten, that we respect the people that came before us, that we respect the language. The language is a lot more than a language — it’s got a lot of meaning.”
Hertzberg, whose haimish (warm, homey) manner earned him the nickname Hugsberg around the statehouse, fondly remembered hearing Yiddish bandied at home, woven effortlessly into English sentences.
“It was part of life,” he said. “It gives you a warm feeling in your heart. You remember that stuff as a kid and as you get older, you start using it.”
The state senator recalled that his father, a lawyer and the son of European immigrants, would occasionally use his Yiddish fluency to his advantage.
“Sometimes he would speak Yiddish with the judge, the Jewish judge — and the court reporter, he wouldn’t know what to write!” Hertzberg recalled, laughing heartily.
Hertzberg’s family history is reminiscent of much of Southern California’s Ashkenazi community. All four of his grandparents were born in the Russian Pale of Settlement before immigrating to the United States in the first part of the 20th century. His parents met in Wisconsin before completing the family’s trek west to California.
He tried his hand young at the type of didactic literature that would later yield “Yiddish for Legislators”: In college at the University of Redlands, he wrote a 400-page handbook called “A Commonsense Approach to English.” Later, as a law student at UC Hastings, he authored a manual on real estate law.
For all his love of language and of Yiddish in particular, Hertzberg doesn’t claim to be the most fluent of his colleagues. In fact, he said, former Assembly Speaker John Pérez, a non-Jewish Latino, speaks better Yiddish than he does. After Pérez assumed the speakership in 2010, he was known to silence Republicans’ opposition by throwing out, “Es vet helfen vi a toiten bahnkes! (That won’t help at all!)”
But perhaps it’s Hertzberg who’s made Yiddish a fad in Sacramento, as members have been stopping him to get him to sign copies of the guide, according to Andrew LaMar, Hertzberg’s communications director.
Alevai — it should only happen!
Examples from “Yiddish for Legislators”
by Robert Hertzberg
Gottenyu: GAWT-en-yew. Dear God; Oh, dear God; an exclamation uttered with affection, despair, or irony.
“Gottenyu! How am I going to be in Sacramento and Los Angeles at the same time?”
Alevai: ah-liv-EYE. It should only happen.
“We’ll get it out of Committee, alevai, and then we’ll see what happens on the floor.”
Nudzh: NUD-jeh. To pester someone surreptitiously.
“He nudzhed me so much that I finally said, ‘All right, all right, I’ll put you on the Select Committee.’ ”
Nu: NEW. The verbal equivalent of a sigh, frown, grin, grunt, sneer, nod, or question.
“I saw you come out of the Governor’s office. Nu?”
Tachlis: TOKH-liss. The point, heart, or substance of the matter.
“Her speech went on for hours and she never got to the tachlis.”