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The Joys of Yiddish is a book containing the lexicon of common words and phrases in the Yiddish language, primarily focusing on those words that had become known to speakers of American English due to the influence of American Jews. It was originally published in 1968 and written by Leo Rosten.

The book distinguished itself by how it explained the meaning of the Yiddish words and phrases: almost every entry was illustrated by a joke. This made the book not only a useful reference, but also a treasured collection of Jewish humor.

As is inevitable with any book that references popular culture, it quickly became dated due to the dramatic changes that American culture (and Jewish-American culture) underwent over the next 30 years. In 2001, a new edition of the book was published. Titled The New Joys of Yiddish, it was revised by Lawrence Bush, with copious footnotes added to clarify passages that had become outdated. Some material was also rearranged.

References in popular culture

In 1998, Charles Schumer and Al D'Amato were running for the position of United States Senator representing New York. During the race, D'Amato referred to Schumer as a putzhead. The New York Times referenced the entry for putz in The Joy of Yiddish and maintained that the phrase did not merely mean "fool", as D'Amato insisted, but was significantly more pejorative. Based on that entry, a better translation might be "dickhead".

D'Amato ended up losing the race: some observers credit this incident with costing him the election.

Harlan Ellison's 1974 science fiction story "I'm Looking for Kadak" (collected in Ellison's 1976 book Approaching Oblivion) is narrated by an eleven-armed Jewish alien from the planet Zsouchmuhn with an extensive Yiddish vocabulary. Ellison courteously provides a "Grammatical Guide and Glossary for the Goyim" in which, he says, "The Yiddish words are mine ... but some of the definitions have been adapted and based on those in Leo Rosten's marvelous and utterly indispensable sourcebook The Joys of Yiddish ... which I urge you to rush out and buy, simply as good reading."

Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman's 2005 fantasy film MirrorMask includes Rosten's classic riddle—"What's green, hangs on a wall and whistles?" The original version appears in The Joys of Yiddish, where the answer is "A Herring" (as you can paint it green, nail it to the wall and the whistling part is added just to make the riddle hard).

John Updike's final novel in the Rabbit series, Rabbit at Rest, copies Rosten's joke from the entry on tsuris.


This book has a German translation published by Deutsche Taschenbuch Verlag, 11.2002 and 4.2003 ISBN 3-423-24327-9: Jiddisch. Eine kleine Enzyklopädie and a French one published by Éditions Calmann-Lévy ISBN 2702122620, Les Joies du Yiddish.

See also

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