New Yiddish Dictionary Explores Intracacies of Language

Delves Into Idioms and Sayings That Other Works Left Out

For Further Reference: Users of the new Yiddish-English dictionary can delve into untranslated works by I.B. Singer, seen above at the 1981 Miami Book Fair.
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For Further Reference: Users of the new Yiddish-English dictionary can delve into untranslated works by I.B. Singer, seen above at the 1981 Miami Book Fair.

By Eitan Kensky

Published February 18, 2013, issue of February 22, 2013.
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Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary
Edited by Solon Beinfeld and Harry Bochner
Indiana University Press, 744 pages, $45

The binding of my copy of Uriel Weinreich’s “Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary” broke sometime between my third and fourth semesters studying the language. The beginning Yiddish student can get by with only the glossary in the back of Weinreich’s “College Yiddish,” or with Sheva Zucker’s “Yiddish: An Introduction to the Language, Literature, and Culture,” but it’s impossible to move into real Yiddish texts — or even to read the publications designed for students, like the Forverts’s Vayter (Forward)” or the Medem Library’s “Der Yidisher Tam-Tam (The Yiddish Tam-Tam)” — without a good dictionary.

Weinreich has been the gateway dictionary for the past 45 years, the first any Yiddish student buys, Weinreich is an (intentionally) limited dictionary, and users soon need a more inclusive one, like the new “Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary,” edited by Solon Beinfeld and Harry Bochner, a translation of sorts of Yitskhok Niborski and Bernard Vaisbrot’s Dictionnaire Yiddish-Français (2002). I was already making use of Alexander Harkavy’s much more extensive, “Yiddish-Hebrew-English Dictionary” (1928) by the time the Weinreich’s pages started falling out, and Harkavy was my go-to dictionary by the time the Weinreich’s spine split.

The book almost perfectly divided itself into two separate Yiddish-English, English-Yiddish dictionaries. Somehow I got the idea that it was better to repair my copy than to buy a new one. I bought binder’s glue, book boards and special tools for evenly spreading the paste. That night I poorly measured, miscut and rebound my Weinreich as a hardcover. A year later, the new glue stopped holding. It’s still the only copy I own.

It hasn’t been that long since I started learning Yiddish, but it’s doubtful that new students will have the same connection with Weinreich’s dictionary that I had. This isn’t an article about technology: There’s no question that digitized dictionaries have changed the study of Yiddish, that dictionaries designed for the Internet can provide fuller definitions from Yiddish literature, and that alternate technologies, like the ability, as seen on the Forverts’s website, to get a translation by highlighting a word on a Web page, will eliminate some need for traditional dictionaries.

The connection to Weinreich’s dictionary will change because the “Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary” is a masterpiece, an essential resource for anyone who wants to know more about Yiddish. [Editors note: The Forward Association made a substantial grant to support the work on the Dictionary.]


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