Have you ever wondered how you might say “quickie” in Yiddish? Or maybe “sugar daddy” or “one-night stand”?
You wouldn’t be the first.
In 60 years of researching the Yiddish language, linguist Mordkhe Schaechter collected vocabulary on every aspect of human life and developed vocabulary lists for many specialized subjects not covered in detail by regular dictionaries. He published glossaries like “Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Early Childhood: An English-Yiddish Dictionary” (1991) and “Plant Names in Yiddish: A Handbook of Botanical Terminology” (2005). Among the many subjects his research covered was one that has been mostly left out of Yiddish lexicography — sex.
Like nearly all Schaechter’s work, the love and sex terminology he collected remains unpublished. There is only one place to find it: several boxes of note cards marked “libe,” “love,” in his son Binyumen Schaechter’s Manhattan apartment.
Read the Yiddish version of this article at the Forverts.
These “love-cards” have become legendary among young Yiddishists. At Yidish-Vokh (Yiddish Week) and other Yiddishist gatherings, I have heard people ask how to say something related to love or sex, and usually nobody knows the answer. The question is often met with, “Perhaps you’d find an answer in Dr. Schaechter’s files.” Such terms (especially the juiciest of them) aren’t usually learned from parents, but from friends, TV or pop music. With Yiddish, however, the normal process of cultural transmission has been interrupted, and younger Yiddish speakers find that they don’t know many of these words.
Thanks to a new generation of young researchers, that situation will soon change. Last March, literary scholar Zohar Weiman-Kelman received the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s Dina Abramowicz Emerging Scholar Fellowship to research Schaechter’s “love cards,” and is preparing to write about the world of love and sex in Yiddish in the coming years.
“I’m interested in how the past comes to life through this terminology, the sexual window it provides on our history,” Weiman-Kelman told the Forward. “Schaechter’s cards provide a unique glance into a period of Yiddish history, an important phase of Yiddish searching for its place within American culture. Because it is an unfinished archive, looking at it we see complex movement, in which some words are coming from Yiddish into English while others move in the opposite direction. The languages themselves intimately interact as they produce a new vocabulary for intimate interaction.”
I recently visited Binyumen Schaechter in order to go through the note cards that his father had collected over six decades. In his apartment in Chelsea, surrounded by Yiddish books written by his sister, father, aunt and grandmother, he told me that some of the words in his father’s files were not final linguistic pronouncements, but suggestions for possible terms that Mordkhe Schaechter had coined himself. Binyumen Schaechter explained that his father would eventually have rejected some coinages and accepted others.
Mordkhe Schaechter, who died in 2007, immigrated to the United States in 1951 after receiving his doctorate in linguistics from the University of Vienna. In addition to publishing textbooks and articles and working as the editor of the journal Yidishe Shprakh, Schaechter taught Yiddish at Columbia University and Yeshiva University and at other institutions.