A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.
According to the usual stereotype, Jews don’t know how to fight. In fact, Jews have been quite adept at defending themselves, and there is even a rich Yiddish vocabulary to describe how it’s done. A new exhibit, “Yiddish Fight Club,” opening April 30 at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, provides a history of this colorful lexicon.
The words and expressions found in the exhibit were taken from a linguistic study of fighting, published by YIVO in 1926, with entries ranging from, “knak,” (blow or hit), to “shteysl” (uppercut). The exhibit also provides the little-known history of Jewish criminals, boxers and professional wrestlers, many of whom are shown in historical photos.
“Even thought the stereotype of Jews is that they were intellectuals and yeshiva students, there were also more than enough street youths who didn’t hesitate to fight when they felt threatened, using an original Yiddish lexicon to express themselves,” said Eddy Portnoy, academic advisor of YIVO’s Max Weinreich Center for Advanced Jewish Studies and the curator of the exhibit.
At the April 30 opening Portnoy will give a talk describing the world of Jewish factory workers, pimps, prostitutes, thieves, gangsters, professional boxers and street fighters of the first half of the 20th century, as well as the earthy language that they used.