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Oy with the Poodles Already!”: Yiddishisms and Non-Jewish Characters on American Sitcoms

In: Journal of Jewish Languages
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Rebecca Margolis Professor, Pratt Foundation Chair of Jewish Civilisation, Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation, Centre for Consciousness and Contemplative Studies, Monash University Melbourne Australia

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Abstract

The ever-increasing usage of Yiddish on American sitcoms and other comedic genres encompasses Jewish as well as non-Jewish characters. In this study I offer a metalinguistic analysis of how main or recurring fictional characters who are identified as non-Jewish employ Yiddish loanwords, intonation, and syntax (Yiddishisms) in American comedy television. I argue that Yiddishisms spoken by non-Jewish characters introduce three new tropes: the Yiddish Mask, the Yiddish Tourist, and the Yiddish Connector. In all three tropes, humor derives from the incongruence between the non-Jewish speaker and archetypes or stereotypes associated with speakers of Yiddish; however, the use of Yiddish within the Jewish linguistic repertoire also suggests a range of other semiotic meanings.

Introduction1

The title of this study, “Oy with the Poodles Already!” was coined on the popular television dramedy series, Gilmore Girls (WB, CW, 2000–2007), by one of its non-Jewish main characters. In “I Can’t Get Started” (season 2, episode 22, 2002), Lorelei (Lauren Graham) muses to her teenage daughter, Rory (Alexis Bledel):

You know what I just realized? Oy is the funniest word in the entire world. I mean, think about it, you never hear the word oy and not smile. Impossible. Funny, funny word. Poodle is another funny word. In fact, if you put oy and poodle in the same sentence, you’d have a great new catchphrase. You know, like, oy with the poodles already! So from now on when the perfect circumstances arise, we will use our favorite new catchphrase.

A deadpan Rory responds, “Oy with the poodles already!” In addition to opening with the Yiddish interjection, oy, the construction “with the … already” is distinctively Yiddish in syntax. Here Yiddish is integrated into the playful verbal sparring of two overtly non-Jewish characters who are nonetheless conversant in its linguistic repertoire.

The scene reflects the extent to which Yiddish-inflected English, also known as Yiddishisms—the integration of Yiddish loanwords, syntactical or grammatical constructions, and intonation—has become widespread on screen. A feature of American sitcoms and other television comedy genres since their beginnings, Yiddishisms have come to signify an ethnic humor attached to a particular brand of American Jewishness. An array of sitcoms and other comedy genres feature fictional characters who are identified as non-Jewish within the narrative using Yiddishisms in very deliberate ways. If Yiddish offers a metonymy for the Jewish experience, its use by non-Jewish characters constitutes a form of incongruity humor by creatively violating the gap between our expectations and the social situation in which the Yiddishisms are employed (Bronner 2021:182). Most simply, we expect Yiddish to be spoken by Jewish characters; humor occurs when characters who are marked as non-Jewish employ Yiddishisms.

In this article, I offer a metalinguistic analysis of Yiddish and humor on American comedy television, including the sitcom and its more recent hybrid, the dramedy. Specifically, I investigate the semiotic meanings of Yiddish use among main or recurring fictional comedy television characters who are explicitly portrayed within the show’s diegetic world as non-Jewish (as opposed to ambiguously Jewish). My focus is on the period from the 1990s, with the advent of shows with widespread Yiddish-inflected speech, notably Seinfeld and The Nanny, through 2019, which marked the end of long-running sitcoms that integrate Yiddish borrowings and intonation, including Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I suggest that Yiddish in the mouths of non-Jewish characters adds a distinctive new element to the incongruity humor and familiar archetypes or stereotypes associated with the language. Specifically, I propose that Yiddish use by non-Jewish characters introduces three new tropes to American comedy television, which I call the Yiddish Mask, the Yiddish Tourist, and the Yiddish Connector. I argue that in addition to signaling reverse ethnic humor through parody, Yiddish use within these tropes complicates the indexing of both Jewish and non-Jewish identities on screen.

Yiddish on American Comedy Television

The linguistic carrier of a thousand years of Jewish civilization, spanning Western and Eastern Europe and its immigrant offshoots, Yiddish was the predominant mother tongue of the mass immigration of over two million Jews who made the journey from Eastern Europe to America between 1880 and 1920, a majority of whom landed on New York’s Lower East Side. Even as successive waves of newcomers moved up and out of their working-class immigrant neighborhoods and adopted English, Yiddish loanwords, grammatical constructions, and intonation entered the lexicon of American English. Yiddish borrowings have become well integrated in American English, many of them emotive or vulgar and deployed to comic effect. A lexicographical study of the roughly 300 Yiddish borrowings in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) identifies many commonly used colloquialisms established in English, predominantly as slang (Schultz 2019).

I offer here a selective list of terms that I have found to commonly appear on comedy television, and specifically in the episodes I discuss below. I provide them here with the meanings listed in the OED: bashert ‘destined, predestined,’ bubbe ‘grandmother,’ farkakte ‘inferior, of poor quality’; literally: ‘crappy,’ kibitz ‘banter,’ klutz ‘a clumsy person,’ kvell ‘to feel or show great happiness, pride, or satisfaction,’ kvetch ‘to criticize or complain,’ mazeltov ‘a wish for good fortune,’ mensch ‘a person of integrity or rectitude,’ meshuga/meshugana ‘wildly irrational, uncontrolled, or foolish,’ mitzvah ‘a [religious] duty or obligation,’ nosh ‘nibble, snack,’ pisher ‘a young, inexperienced, or insignificant person,’ plotz ‘to burst, explode,’ punim ‘the face,’ putz ‘a stupid or worthless person,’ schlep ‘to drag,’ schmatte ‘a rag,’ schmendrik ‘a foolish or obnoxious person,’ schmuck ‘a contemptible or obnoxious person,’ schmutz ‘dirt,’ schvitz ‘sweat,’ tchotchke ‘a trinket,’ tsuris ‘trouble, worry,’ and tuchus ‘a person’s buttocks.’ The interjections oy or oy vey express emotions of surprise, dismay, grief, or pain, while meh expresses indifference or lack of enthusiasm. These loanwords have undergone semantic shifts in their encounter with American English. For example, the term shiksa, used to refer to a non-Jewish girl or woman, has become primarily derogatory. These words are often coupled with the distinctive Yiddish cadence known as the “rise-fall contour,” which remains a distinctive feature of American Jewish English speech. Here the voice rises and then falls to indicate an if-then statement or a dramatic transition between phrases or to echo questions in a serious or mocking manner (Benor 2012; Burdin 2017). A study of this intonation contour by Uriel Weinreich (1956:643) suggests that while not inherently funny in Yiddish, the use of the rise-fall contour by comedians engendered new associations with slang and humor in English. Familiar examples of Yiddish-inflected English include syntactical borrowings such as “I should worry,” and shm-reduplication (e.g., fancy-shmancy), an echo formation used for derogatization. These Yiddish forms became increasingly widespread on American television by the late 1950s, even as spoken Yiddish was declining (Tanny 2016:61).

In the wake of the murder of a majority of Europe’s Yiddish-speaking population in the Nazi Holocaust, and the weakening of Yiddish as a daily spoken language, the sounds of Yiddish on screen—as in popular culture more broadly—have become freighted with metalinguistic meanings. Expanding enclaves of Hasidic speakers speak the language every day as part of a strict Jewish observance where Yiddish functions as a marker of separation from the secular world (Assouline 2018). While Yiddish forms the basis for a thriving cultural milieu, its non-Hasidic participants do not tend to speak the language on a daily basis. In the second half of the twentieth century, Yiddish became an aural shorthand on screen for the origin story of American Jewry, carrier of Jewish memory in the European shtetl (‘town,’ with its own set of semiotic meanings; see Shandler 2014) and the Lower East Side, for example, in the bilingual drama Hester Street (dir. Joan Micklin Silver, 1975) (Diner 2011). Over the last decades, the musical drama Fiddler on the Roof has offered an enduring reference point for a nostalgic, Yiddish-inflected Jewishness, including its iterations on stage and as a musical film (dir. Norman Jewison, 1971), notably in the figure of its Jewish patriarch, Tevye (Frieden 1997).

Yiddish on American comedy television exists within a multilingual matrix of language contact that scholars have demarcated in relation to Jewish identity. Nicola Maurizio Strazzanti (2013:24) defines what she terms “Jewish English(es)” as “a socio-cultural dialect qualified by linguistic ethnic markers, that have gradually been inserted into the texture of general American English and that trans-code on a purely expressive level the culture of pre-holocaust eastern ashkenazik [sic] Jewishness.” Situating its origins in an Eastern Europe that resisted integrating its Jews, she frames Jewish English(es) in America as a re-territorialized and shared imaginary space connecting a group of speakers who form an ambivalent minority, simultaneously outsider and insider. Sarah Bunin Benor’s “Mensch, Bentsh, and Balagan: Variation in the American Jewish Repertoire” (2011:142) proposes that rather than a “uniform linguistic entity” or ethnolect, Jewish Americans index their ethnic identities by drawing on fluid “linguistic resources” that encompass multiple levels of language. The selective use of this “distinctively Jewish linguistic repertoire”—which encompasses loanwords from Yiddish, textual Hebrew and Aramaic, and Israeli Hebrew (revernacularized textual Hebrew), as well as syntactic constructions, intonation, discourse style, and New York regional speech—is contingent upon a range of factors, including the age, ancestry, and social networks of its speakers. Jeffrey Shandler (2020:186) applies the concept of translanguaging, which encompasses a speaker’s full linguistic repertoire, to address the hybridity associated with Yiddish within American Jewish speech (Otheguy et al. 2015). Benor’s (2022) study of the use of Jewish language by non-Jews in the United States proposes four overlapping modes for the diffusion of Yiddishisms within the lexicon of American English: social networks (exposure within family or friendship circles, the workplace, or schools); media/entertainment (literature, the press, stage and screen); commodification (especially food culture); and metalinguistic discourse (commodified, e.g., books about Yiddish, and non-commodified, e.g., websites). Benor suggests that a diversity of out-group Jewish language use reflects the complex status of Jews in contemporary American society as having achieved high standing while remaining a distinct minority group.

Over the last quarter-century, a corpus of scholarly literature has proposed metalinguistic analyses of the language beginning with The Meaning of Yiddish (Harshav 1999). Scholars Cecile Kuznitz (2002) and Shandler (2006a) situate Yiddish in American popular culture within a mode they term “postvernacular.” Proposing that the symbolic meanings associated with Yiddish supersede its communicative uses, Shandler (2006b:104) suggests that “its primary level of signification as a means of quotidian communication is atomized and diminished, while its secondary, meta-value is foregrounded and expanded.” Netta Avineri (2014; Avineri & Harasta 2021) posits a metalinguistic community that is connected to Yiddish as a heritage language and symbol, joined by discourse about rather than in Yiddish, and engaged in “nostalgia socialization” as an orientation to the past rather than the present. Amelia Glaser (2017) frames Yiddish in America as an inclusive and borderless iteration of a diffuse Jewishness, increasingly a signified (a subject unto itself) rather than a signifier (a mode of communication). More recently, Shandler (2020:187) identifies four shifts associated with Yiddish: a mass to a niche language; rooted in Eastern Europe to multiple locations; a native language to one acquired voluntarily in adulthood; and a language of opposition to the status quo or of alterity. He characterizes the incomplete transmission of Yiddish by the descendants of its speakers in America as “a mock heritage, understood as inherently fragmentary, unrestrained, and carnivalesque” (2020:173). These metalinguistic modes are evidenced on American comedy television to varying degrees.

Rather than a semiotically meaningful language representing the multiplicity of the American Jewish experience, Yiddish-inflected speech patterns signal a set of archetypes and stereotypes on screen. While both represent reductionist iterations of human characteristics, stereotypes refer to culturally specific traits whereas archetypes refer to culturally enduring models (Kidd 2016). For example, Rosina Lippi-Green’s (2012) investigation of the stigmatization of non-standard American English discusses Walt Disney’s animated film, Three Little Pigs (dir. Burt Gilette, 1933), where the Big Bad Wolf’s Yiddish-accented English reinforces negative antisemitic stereotypes. More recently, Yiddish-inflected speech has become associated with gendered stereotypes that evolved in Eastern Europe and were reconfigured by Jewish fiction and screen writers in America. On screen, the archetype of the strong and entrepreneurial matriarch who emerged from the Jewish immigrant experience was termed the “Yiddishe Momme,” a figure that stands in contrast to the less positive traits associated with the submissive, and self-deprecating male Nebbish/Shlemiel/Shlemazel.2 The Yiddish-inflected Jewish woman would subsequently manifest in two negative iterations: the overbearing and benevolently manipulative Jewish Mother and the materialistic, passive, and entitled Jewish American Princess. Scholars have traced and critiqued these gendered television stereotypes, where women are depicted as loud, argumentative, emotional, or unruly, whereas men appear weak, inept, and ineffectual (Antler 2007; Branfman 2020; Caplan 2017; Caplan 2020; Pickette 2023; Prell 1999; Rubin 2021). Further, James Mitchell’s study Watching in Tongues: Multilingualism on American Television in the 21st Century (2020:124) suggests that Yiddish operates as “marker of a particular ethnic subculture” that denotes “the New York Jewish community in the popular American imagination.”

The prevalence of Yiddish on American broadcast television, notably in the enduring genre of the sitcom, has ebbed and flowed. The first family sitcom, The Goldbergs (CBS, 1949–1956) centered on the Yiddishe Momme Molly Goldberg (Gertrude Berg), who portrays an overbearing, nurturing, ethnically Jewish matriarch who speaks in Yiddish-inflected English replete with Yiddishisms and humorous malapropisms. The show, aimed at broad American audiences, stands in contrast to the subversive ethnic performance of contemporaneous popular entertainers such as Mickey Katz, who created a Yiddish-inflected comedy tradition aimed at American-born Jews that was not well received by Jews within the entertainment industry (Weber 1998–1999:129). From the 1950s into the 1980s, the three major broadcast networks—CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System), NBC (National Broadcasting Company), and ABC (American Broadcasting Company)—were Jewish-owned, and many of their leading executives, producers, and writers were Jewish. However, whereas Jewish themes grew more visible within the American movie industry, it was precisely during this period that explicit representations of Jewish ethnicity were the most submerged on commercial television (Zurawik 2003). For example, despite its predominantly Jewish personnel, audiences, and sensibility, mentions of Jewishness were veiled on the iconic Your Show of Shows (NBC, 1950–1954) (Margolick 2014); characters carried names derived from Yiddish (e.g., Gantze Mishpokhe, meaning ‘whole family’) that would have been recognizable to Jewish immigrants and their descendants but not to the average American (Benor 2022:37). The adage “Think Yiddish, write British” governed television production, with openly Jewish characters or speech a rarity. Sitcoms differed markedly from Hollywood comedy movies, where Jewish characters and Yiddishisms and lines of Yiddish dialogue spoken by Jewish as well as non-Jewish characters aimed at Yiddishly-aware audiences appeared in the films of Mel Brooks (e.g., Blazing Saddles, 1974), Woody Allen (e.g., Annie Hall, 1977), and other Jewish directors (see Benor 2022:39). Jewish ethnicity reappeared in sitcoms depicting highly assimilated Jewish characters, with the sounds of Yiddish a marker of an atavistic Jewishness in the older generation. For example, in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970–1977) and its spin-off, Rhoda (CBS, 1974–1978), the Jewishness of the recurring character Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper) is signaled through her Yiddish-inflected parents (Nancy Walker and Harold Gould), who appear as extreme manifestations of the well-meaning but overbearing Jewish Mother and hen-pecked Nebbish father. In the many television shows and films with Jewish writers, which draw on the writers’ own experiences of being Jewish in America, Yiddish acts as a cipher for submerged Jewish identities or as inside jokes (nods and winks) aimed at Yiddishly-aware audiences. For example, on Welcome Back, Kotter (ABC, 1975–1979), the main character of New York-based teacher Gabe Kotter, while played by a Jewish actor, Gabriel Kaplan, is never identified as Jewish. However, critics noted that in one episode, Kotter calls his wife a “yutz from Nebraska,” using the Yiddishism to mean an inept person (“Follow the Leader,” season 1, episode 16, 1975) (Barr 1993:90).

In a new era of network television beginning in the late 1980s, visibly and proudly Jewish characters played main or recurring roles, and the sounds of Yiddish increased in prominence. As part of what Vincent Brook (2003) terms “the rise of the ‘Jewish’ sitcom,” a roster of shows, notably the hit series Seinfeld (NBC, 1989–1998) and The Nanny (CBS, 1993–1999), both reinforced and subverted the Jewish stereotypes of the Nebbish/Shlemiel/Shlimazel, Jewish Mother, and Jewish American Princess. Over the last twenty-five years, Yiddishisms have become increasingly widespread in comedy programming on both network and, most recently, post-network and post-broadcast television. Changes to the television industry—cable, the VCR, streaming—supported niche programming, resulting in more diverse casts and stories featuring Jewish narratives. The representation of Jews on comedy television has shifted from an entirely Jewish immigrant setting in the 1950s The Goldbergs, to 1990s programs such as Seinfeld where a character’s Jewishness remains ambivalent, to the twenty-first century’s overtly Jewish characters where the integration of elements of the American Jewish linguistic repertoire—Yiddish as well as Hebrew or Aramaic—marks a character as Jewish. Yiddish appears in the mouths of Jewish as well as non-Jewish characters in dozens of shows across comedic genres: the sitcom, dramedy, satire, adult animation, period sitcom, period dramedy, and mockumentary.3 In The New Jew in Film, Nathan Abrams (2012:208–209) suggests the emergence of fresh models of Jewishness on screen, with characters who are more secure in their Jewish identity but less ethnically marked in their speech. By the same token, he observes a more “ethnically inflected, more ‘Jewish’ language in mainstream cinema, where Yiddish is voiced by younger characters in the present, rather than by older characters or set in the past.” A study of Jewish diasporic humor suggests that the traditional Jewish underdogs, the Shlemiel and the Shlimazel, are being supplanted in popular culture by more confident Jewish characters who are immersed in the non-Jewish world through friends and romantic partners (Rosenberg 2015). The voicing of Yiddish by non-Jews in American sitcoms offers yet another distinct iteration of Jewish linguistic space on screen.

Is Yiddish Inherently Funny?

Intersecting factors help to explain the deeply entrenched popular associations between the sounds of Yiddish and humor. An empirical study of some 45,000 English words, “Wriggly, Squiffy, Lummox, and Boobs: What Makes Some Words Funny?” (Westbury & Hollis 2019:116) offers the following traits for the “ideal funny word”:

[it] is a short, infrequent word composed of uncommon letters that is likely to include one or more specific letters or phonemes (/u/, consonant +le, y, and/or k), with an animate (or animacy-related) referent, especially one that is human and insulting, profane, diminutive, and/or related to good times.

Whereas a sizable category of Yiddish borrowings employed colloquially in English do relate to human behavior or characteristics (Schultz 2019), the humor of Yiddish derives more from social attitudes about the language than its phonotactics. For example, as I discuss below, American sitcoms draw humor from the difficulties posed by the voiceless velar fricative “kh” [X], which is unfamiliar to English speakers. However, the phonotactic hypothesis does not explain why this Yiddish sound is heard as funny when the same fricative also exists in German, which is generally not classified as funny by American English speakers. Rather, English-speakers most often encounter Yiddish through intonation or borrowings deployed as slang, stripped of broader cultural context and marked as funny. Books such as Leo Rosten’s bestselling The Joys of Yiddish (1968) and The Joys of Yinglish (1989) framed Yiddish as funny for a broad English-speaking American public. Ari Kelman’s “The Acoustic Culture of Yiddish” (2006:134) suggests that these books, geared at audiences who know Yiddish sounds rather than Yiddish, have as “the source of some of their humor that it would be impossible to imagine a world of spoken, colloquial, vernacular Yiddish.” Since Rosten, a corpus of books has popularized the language for broad audiences to include Yiddish parodies of well-known works (Glaser 2008). Without a doubt, however, the most significant factor remains the prominence of Jewish participation in the American comedy industry over the last century. Benor (2022) aligns Yiddish as a significant comedic trope with the prevalence of Jews as comedians and television writers, and the decades-long dissemination of Yiddishisms within popular culture: “From vaudeville to Broadway, radio to television, comic strips to film, Jewish culture makers—especially comedians—have played an important role in exposing American audiences to fragments of Yiddish” (2022:34). These Yiddishisms were incorporated into the English of both the descendants of Jewish immigrants and the broader American mainstream.

The literature on Jewish humor suggests that it is deeply embedded in Yiddish language and culture. Within traditional Ashkenazi civilization, Yiddish jokes offer a form of social interaction that constitutes a “paralanguage” (Matisoff 2000:xiii). Studies posit verbal humor as a source of Jewish group solidarity (Wisse 2013) or satire (Dauber 2017). One study asserts, “within the Ashkenazi Jewish cultural polysystem, humor is Jewish” (Finkin 2009:85). For new immigrants to the United States, Yiddish became associated with a brand of verbally based and self-deprecating humor that offered a mechanism for Jewish survival as outsiders, and subsequently as a way for comics such as singer Mickey Katz to invoke a particular unruly brand of urban Jewishness (Saposnik 1998). Robert Alter’s seminal essay, “The Jewish Voice” (1995:43 n. 52), identifies a set of distinctive “speech habits” associated with Yiddish writers and their descendants to conclude, “its impetus also drives a good deal of stand-up comedy in the American idiom.” Vincent Brook’s study of the American sitcom (2003:6) refers to comedy’s “archetypical association with Jews,” encompassing a predominance of Jewish writers and performers on television and radio as well as among stand-up comedians.

Scholars have critiqued the all-pervasive reductionist associations of Yiddish with humor as stigmatizing and delimiting (e.g., Kronovet 2005:10). Sander Gilman (1991:56) addresses the implications of sounding Jewish in his provocative essay, “Chicken Soup, or the Penalties of Sounding Too Jewish,” written in response to the abrupt cancellation of the television series Chicken Soup (ABC, 1989), which starred the Yiddish-inflected Jackie Mason. Gilman casts “Mason’s role as a Jew who sounded too Jewish, a Jew visibly marked by his discourse” within a long history of internalized anti-Jewish hatred where the Yiddish accent, intonation, and vocabulary signaled otherness. Shandler (2020:173) characterizes the fragmented rather than whole use of Yiddish in American popular culture as “a signifier of the flamboyant, irrational, truculent, or salacious, but never the dispassionate.” Jordan Finkin (2010:148) posits the automatic alignment of Yiddish with humor as “a negative product of the ‘postvernacular’ condition, because Yiddish at its most basic level is still a language, neither different in that way nor any more inherently risible than any other language.” Benor (2022:40) notes that the daily use of Yiddish among contemporary Hasidic communities underscores that the language is not inherently funny.

A predominant point of reference for Yiddish as funny is Seinfeld, which set the standard for sounding Jewish, even as the ethnic identities of its main characters remained ambivalent. Rosalin Krieger’s “Does He Actually Say the Word Jewish?” (2003) finds that all the show’s primary characters lapse in and out of the language in humorous situations, including the distinctive sing-song cadence, borrowings, and grammatical structures. The sounds of Yiddish can be read as Jewish or as denoting the speech of New Yorkers. Jon Stratton’s “Seinfeld is a Jewish Sitcom, Isn’t It? Ethnicity and Assimilation in 1990s American Television” (2006:117–118) frames the show as a “comedy about the experience of civility” that is “typical of the structure of American Yiddish humor,” with its penchant for transgressive comedy. Jarrod Tanny’s “Decoding Seinfeld’s Jewishness” (2016:61) observes that the show is replete with Yiddishisms such as “enough with the,” but rarely features Yiddish words. Rather, the sounds of Yiddish are associated with the inherently language-oriented character of the show, where debate and verbal manipulation drive each episode. Tanny suggests that the rhetorical devices associated with traditional Talmudic study in Yiddish, with its marked sing-song cadence, included ridicule; the language was also associated with the machinations of tricksters in Yiddish folklore; these made their way into Seinfeld (64). Seinfeld created a frame of reference for Jewish speech more broadly; for example, the iconic episode “The Yada Yada” (season 8, episode 19, 1997) is referenced in the title of a sociolinguistic study, “More than Just Yada Yada Yada (Jewish English)” (Bernstein 2006). That episode offers a rare occurrence of a Yiddish word when Jerry Seinfeld’s dentist, Tim Whatley (Bryan Cranston), who has recently converted to Judaism, makes Jewish-themed jokes, much to Jerry’s chagrin. The episode also offers a rare acknowledgement of Jerry’s own Jewish identity: when told the news, he pauses and says, “welcome aboard.” The episode interrogates Yiddish and sounding Jewish as an indexer of Jewishness. Tim’s speech is peppered with Yiddishisms—“Give me a shtickle of fluoride”—as part of his comedy as he equates Jewish speech, and the use of Yiddish terms, with sounding funny.

More recently, Yiddish has come to mark recurring characters as Jewish, or apply stereotypical gendered Jewish traits to non-Jews. One recurring example is found in the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory (CBS, 2007–2019). The show’s main character of Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) displays many of the negative stereotypes associated with Jewish masculinity on television (Rubin 2021). The grating and disembodied Yiddish-inflected voice of Howard’s domineering Jewish Mother, Mrs. Wolowitz (Carol Ann Susi), spouts words like farkakte and putz, which she proceeds to transmit to Howard’s non-Jewish partner, Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz (Melissa Rauch). When she imitates Mrs. Wolowitz’s Yiddish, Bernadette adopts traits of the Jewish Mother, much to Howard’s horror (“The Engagement Reaction,” season 4, episode 23, 2011).

Yiddish on comedy television predominantly carries semiotic value as a postvernacular language and signifier that is not associated with a regular speech community. As an ethnic group whose minority status is not immediately discernible, Jewish identities are coded on screen through a linguistic repertoire of fragmented Jewish speech. In contrast to the wide variation in patterns of American Jewish speech in real life, I have found that the American Jewish English depicted on comedy television tends to comprise a relatively small glossary of terms that privilege Yiddish as well as its accompanying Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew; thus, the term מזל טוב is most often pronounced “mázeltov” versus the Modern Hebrew “mazáltov.” The Jewish inflected speech depicted on comedy television tends to assume that the linguistic repertoire of its members includes Yiddish. Yiddish in the form of loanwords and inflection is predominantly the purview of secular speakers—Jewish and non-Jewish—rather than the vernacular of hundreds of thousands of contemporary Hasidic speakers who use the language daily in Brooklyn and elsewhere. The uses of Yiddish on comedy television reflect a metalinguistic awareness of the social meanings and audience expectations surrounding Yiddish in America on the part of its writers, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

Yiddishisms Spoken by Non-Jews on Comedy Television: Three New Tropes

Both network sitcoms aimed at wider audiences and post-network niche comedy shows place Yiddishisms in the mouths of non-Jews to play upon existing viewer associations with, and expectations of, Yiddish as an aural expression of a specific configuration of American Jewishness. That is, American Jews descend from the mass migration of Eastern European Jews to America; their ancestors stem from the shtetl; they travelled by ship to land on New York’s Lower East Side; and they were Yiddish speakers. The predominant form of humor associated with Yiddish spoken by non-Jews is incongruity: a gap between our expectations that Yiddish belongs to a certain kind of Jew, and a reality where non-Jews speak or sound Yiddish, even if only for a brief and self-contained interval before characters return to their regular speech patterns. The archetype of the Yiddishe Momme as well as the stereotypes of the Nebbish, Jewish Mother, and Jewish American Princess are destabilized by this incongruous invocation by non-Jewish characters. In addition to humor, this transient use of Yiddish marks transformative character development.

My study of the use of Yiddish by non-Jewish characters on comedy television draws on Benor’s concept of the “distinctive Jewish linguistic repertoire” (2011:142). I argue its use functions to index a character’s identity in relation to Jewish archetypes or stereotypes, as well as to interrogate expectations associated with the semiotic meanings attached to Jewish speech and Jewishness more broadly. I suggest that whereas Yiddish marks an openly or ambivalently Jewish character as such, Yiddish utterances by explicitly non-Jewish characters offer their own comedy tropes. These meanings both draw on, and subvert, metalinguistic assumptions associated with Yiddish. Yiddishisms spoken by non-Jews on screen portray out-group language use and align with concepts of mediated indexicality, where specific group linguistic repertoires are adopted by non-members in order to index socially constructed behaviors or traits associated with that group (Ochs 1992; Benor 2010). I now identify and examine each of these tropes in turn with examples from television shows from the 1990s through the late 2010s.

The Yiddish Mask

The most widespread category of non-Jews sounding Yiddish in American comedy is the Yiddish Mask. In this trope, non-Yiddish speakers deploy Yiddish as a marker of authentic Jewishness as they scheme to present themselves as more Jewish than they are in order to ingratiate themselves with Jewish characters. Humor is derived from convoluted subterfuge, where the show’s non-Jewish characters attempt to pass as Jewish by using Yiddish borrowings and inflection and adopting traits associated with Jewish stereotypes. The setting for the Yiddish Mask is often a recognizable Jewish space, notably the celebration of the Bar Mitzvah as a Jewish rite of passage. For American Jews, the milestone of the Bar Mitzvah study and celebration have come to represent a fleeting touchstone of Jewish identity in coming-of-age narratives, for example, in the film A Serious Man (dir. Ethan and Joel Coen, 2009). The narrative underpinning for the Yiddish Mask is the use of Yiddish linguistic resources to spotlight or stabilize a character’s unsteady identity. In some cases, the unmasking of the truth yields a new self-awareness for the characters, notably in increased or renewed appreciation of family, friends, or affirmation of their own values and ethics.

The sitcom Frasier (NBC, 1993–2004) introduces the trope of the Yiddish Mask in the episode “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz” (season 6, episode 10, 1998). A spin-off of the popular sitcom Cheers, Frasier resumes the story of non-Jewish psychiatrist Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) in his return to his hometown and family in Seattle. In this episode, set during the winter holiday season, Frasier is set up on a date with the Jewish Fay Moskowitz (Amy Brenneman), the daughter of a woman he met in a department store. The relationship is proceeding well until Fay determines that Frasier is not Jewish. To placate her, Frasier pretends to be Jewish when her stereotypically overbearing Jewish Mother, Helen (Carole Shelley), drops by on Christmas Eve. Hilarity ensues in a scene titled “Oy to the world”: for example, Frasier claims to have been Bar Mitzvahed in front of the mohel (‘circumciser’) “just to show him there were no hard feelings.” As part of the subterfuge, his younger brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce), plays along by pretending to be Jewish: he toasts their drinks with, “Lechaim, mazeltov, next year in Jerusalem,” to which Frasier mutters, “Take it down a notch, Tevye.” When asked to help his father in the kitchen, Niles happily says, “He’ll probably just kvetch at me and frankly I don’t need the tsuris.” When his father, Martin (John Mahoney), seems bewildered about how to behave Jewishly, Niles advises him to answer every question with a question, which he demonstrates using a Yiddish syntactic construction and sing-song cadence: “What, I should give you an example?” The episode concludes with Frasier and his father trying out the stereotypically Jewish emotive communicative approach they witnessed between Fay and her mother. After shouting and crying, they finally determine that they prefer their less emotional, non-Jewish style of communication. Having non-Jewish characters overplay or test out elements of a contrived Jewishness forms part of the trope of the Yiddish Mask. The resolution at the end of the episode, which is characteristic of the sitcom genre, entails a reassertion of self through the unmasking of the Jewish Scheme.

Another Frasier episode, “Star Mitzvah” (season 10, episode 6, 2002), provides a counterpoint, this time with the use of Hebrew. In honor of the Bar Mitzvah of his son Frederick Gaylord Crane (Trevor Einhorn), whom Frasier is raising with his Jewish ex-wife, Lilith Sternin (Bebe Neuwirth), Frasier composes an English blessing that he intends to deliver in Hebrew. His Jewish co-worker, and Star Trek fan, Noel Shempsky (Patrick Kerr), offers to translate Frasier’s speech and tutor him in its pronunciation. However, when Frasier fails to attend a science fiction convention for him as promised, Noel seeks revenge by translating the blessing Frasier has composed into the invented alien language of Klingon. Unbeknownst to him, Frasier delivers his blessing in Klingon, ending with a resounding Hebrew “Shabbat Shalom.” When a bewildered Rabbi Gendler (Corey Fischer) labels Frasier’s blessing “gobbledygook” and “gibberish,” one of Frederick’s friends (Brendan Hill) stands up and clarifies, “Freddie’s dad just blessed him in Klingon.” Rabbi Gendler responds, “it’s better to end with laughter than tears. I don’t know how they say it in outer space, but here we say ‘Ahava and Shalom.’ Love and peace [Hebrew].” The same friend later compliments Frasier’s Klingon accent and translates the poignant text back for Frederick, who is touched by his father’s words. The episode suggests that while Frasier has the capacity to fluently generate Yiddishisms from the Jewish linguistic repertoire, he lacks access to full textual Hebrew as an insider signifier of Jewishness.

Two and a Half Men (CBS, 2003–2015) is a sitcom that follows the exploits of jingle writer and playboy Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen) when his brother, Alan (Jon Cryer), and young nephew, Jake (Angus T. Jones), move into his Malibu beachfront house. In the episode “Captain Terry’s Spray-On Hair” (season 7, episode 9, 2009), Alan pretends to be Jewish to go out with a girl he met on the J-Date Jewish dating service. When Charlie points out that their family is not Jewish, Alan replies, “You should see these girls: very hotsy-totsy,” plus, pointing to his yarmulka, “until the hair pills kick in, two birds with one stone.” As he dresses for his date and talks to Charlie, he overloads his conversation with Yiddish loanwords: “Meshuga, right? Oh! Uh, I got to go. Oh, listen, Jake’s grounded for coming in late last night, so be a mensch and keep an eye on the little pisher, would you?” Charlie pauses and then utters, “oy … vey.” The episode underlines the extent to which the desperate Alan is prepared to invoke subterfuge to find romance. Needless to say, the romance built on deception is a failure.

These schemes predate an oft-cited example of the Yiddish Mask by a Jewish character in the improvisational comedy show Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, 2000—ongoing), which stars Jewish television writer and producer Larry David playing a fictionalized version of himself as the Shlemiel navigating contemporary multicultural America (Gillota 2010). In the episode “The Ski Lift” (season 5, episode 8, 2005), Larry seeks to impress the head of the hospital’s kidney consortium, Ben Heineman (Stuart Pankin), so he will move his friend up the waiting list for an organ transplant. He intentionally hits Ben’s car and leaves a note with his contact information, and he poses as an Orthodox Jew to ingratiate himself with the religiously observant Ben. When they meet in a kosher deli, Larry wears a yarmulka, exaggerates his Yiddish intonation and mutters in Yiddish gibberish. When Heineman asks, in Yiddish, “Vos makhtsu?” ‘how are you,’ David makes a series of gestures and guttural sounds to approximate a response. He employs this strategy repeatedly, in combination with banging on the table and laughter. Ultimately the scheme is unmasked. The humor stems from his obviously exaggerated but unsuccessful attempts to fake Yiddish, which is rendered more incongruous by his identity as an older American Jew and Schlemiel; in other words, as a stereotypical Yiddish speaker. He has enough access to part of the Jewish linguistic repertoire to pass as an Orthodox Jew, which for Heineman carries an expectation of Yiddish use beyond commonly used loanwords. The episode underscores the levels of linguistic resources available to different types of American Jews as they index their identities.

Happy Endings (ABC, 2011–2013), a sitcom that follows the interconnected stories of six friends living in Chicago, revisits the trope of non-Jewish characters overplaying their fake Jewishness as part of the Yiddish Mask. In the episode “Mein Coming Out” (season 1, episode 4, 2011), Max Blum (Adam Pally), who is gay, is encouraged by his friends to come out to his parents (Alan Rachins and Caroline Aaron)—“sweet liberal Jews” —who are visiting. When a Jewish friend who has been posing as Max’s girlfriend for several years is unavailable, his non-Jewish friend Jane Kerkovich-Williams (Eliza Coupe) volunteers to help Max keep up the ruse. To play the part of the ideal fake girlfriend, she integrates copious quantities of Yiddish slang into her speech: “look at this ponem” (face) and “this shiksa’s gotta pish.” The latter, which contains terms that are both pejorative (shiksa) and vulgar (pish), cheerfully reveals that Jane is not Jewish. However, instead of ingratiating her to Max’s Jewish parents, Jane’s overdone Yiddish strikes his mother as “bordering on the antisemitic.” When Jane finds out how her act has gone over, she says, “I thought I was doing you a mitzvah,” to which Max replies, “Enough with the Yiddish.” When Max enlists another friend for the role, he warns her, “Go easy on the Jewish. It was not well received.” In dismantling the Jewish scheme, the episode pokes fun at the overt association of Yiddish as a signifier of Jewishness in contemporary America. The inverted relationship between the parents’ generation and Yiddish use in the episode—Max’s parents do not employ Yiddishisms but his ostensible non-Jewish girlfriend does—suggests that in comedy television, Yiddish no longer automatically functions to index Jewish identity, nor is American Jewish identity marked by the use of Yiddishisms The use of Yiddishisms can offer a form of incongruence for generations of American Jews who do not draw from that set of Jewish linguistic resources.

The Yiddish Mask appears as one of multiple iterations of Yiddish in the musical dramedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (WB, 2015–2019). The series follows Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), a twenty-something Ivy-league-educated Jewish lawyer, in her relocation from New York to West Covina, California, to follow her summer-camp boyfriend, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), in search of happiness. The first season of the series traces Rebecca’s transition into a new job and relationships while dealing with her mother, Naomi (Tovah Feldshuh), who offers an extreme, negative representation of the stereotype of the overbearing Jewish Mother. The episode “My Mom, Greg’s Mom and Josh’s Sweet Dance Moves!” (season 1, episode 8, 2015) signals the characters’ complex relationships with their Jewishness not only by deploying Yiddish terms in their speech and songs but by representing the origins of their dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship in a short Yiddish-only prologue depicting the immigrant journey to America. The prologue portrays a wholly Jewish space where Yiddish is spoken fluently as an authentic iteration of Jewishness. In contrast, the language is also employed within a Yiddish Mask to feign authenticity. Rebecca appeals to her new non-Jewish best friend, Paula Proctor (Donna Lynne Champlin), to help impress the ever-critical Naomi after she declares Rebecca a “level-five Mom pleaser.” Paula obliges by taking on the persona of a British Jew and adopting a British accent replete with American Yiddishisms. For example, she complains about the California heat during the holiday season: “And it is tough to drink hot toddies when you are schvitzing”; critiquing the waiter, she says, “I bet if you asked him for a crumpet, he would plotz.” The humor stems from the double incongruity of an American non-Jew feigning a Jewish British persona that spouts Yiddishisms. Paula’s willingness to employ Yiddish as deception forms part of the season’s narrative arc, which is propelled by underhanded schemes intended to assist Rebecca in finding true happiness with Josh Chan.

Rebecca’s use of Yiddish, which marks her as Jewish in non-Jewish West Covina, is mimicked by those who seek her approval. One example comes from Rebecca’s non-Jewish boyfriend, Nathaniel Plimpton III (Scott Michael Foster), a handsome and successful lawyer who is represented as stemming from an emotionally repressed non-Jewish family. In a moment of intimacy in bed with Rebecca, he attempts to connect with her by proudly interjecting a Yiddish word into the lavish dinner plans he has made for them: “It’s a bit of a schlep but …” When a charmed and laughing Rebecca asks, “Since when do you use the word schlep?” he responds, “Well, I’ve been watching a lot of Seinfeld. I have a Jewish girlfriend, after all” (“Nathaniel Needs My Help,” season 3, episode 8, 2018). Nathaniel’s foray into Yiddish is short-lived when the relationship is derailed due to Rebecca’s becoming aware of her unhealthy dating patterns.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had a Jewish creator, producer, writer, and star in Rachel Bloom, whose character, Rebecca Bunch, was unambiguously Jewish. Yiddish signals Rebecca’s New York identity and Jewishness for the show’s Jewish as well as non-Jewish characters. The show was critiqued for its negative representation of Jewish stereotypes, particularly the Jewish mother (e.g., Caplan 2020). However, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was rich in its integration of contemporary American Jewish culture, including a recurring and textured use of the Jewish linguistic repertoire in dialogue as well as in elaborate musical and dance numbers.

In contrast, the long-running series Modern Family (ABC, 2009–2019), a mockumentary sitcom that follows three branches of a Los Angeles family, was created by the Jewish Steven Levitan but featured no major Jewish characters, a feature of the show that was critiqued by viewers (Singer 2018). Instead, Levitan incorporated his Jewish sensibilities into his characters in a writing room that was one-third Jewish. One Jewish fan commented in an online review, “None of the main characters in Modern Family are Jewish, but that doesn’t mean the show isn’t” (Kaplan 2020). In addition to a few scant appearances by Jewish characters, the show’s Jewishness manifests in Yiddish borrowings by non-Jewish characters, to various ends. One of these is the Yiddish Mask, which appears in the episode “Mystery Date” (season 4, episode 8, 2012). Here the recurring character of the teenaged romantic poet, Manny Delgado (Rico Rodriguez), exchanges a smile with a girl in a hotel lobby whom he instantly believes to be the love of his life. When he overhears her talking about a Bar Mitzvah, he pursues her by sneaking into three different Bar Mitzvahs taking place simultaneously. As part of the subterfuge, Luke Dunphy (Nolan Gould), who is Manny’s friend (and nephew), adopts stereotypically Jewish speech patterns. As Manny returns from searching for the girl in one banquet hall, he finds Luke holding a plate of food. In response to Manny’s announcement that they are at the wrong Bar Mitzvah, Luke responds, “not if you like prime rib, bubbie.” In response to Manny’s dirty look, he adds, “You said to blend! I picked up some expressions at the latke station. P.S. They’re hash browns.” When Manny bumps someone in his haste to leave and apologizes, Luke comments using a Yiddish-influenced syntactic construction and Yiddish sing-song cadence and accompanied by an exaggerated arm gesture: “Such a hurry, this one!” The incongruity humor stems from the teenaged and non-Jewish Luke’s temporary adoption of Yiddish words, syntax, and intonation in combination with stereotypical Jewish mannerisms associated with American Jews of the older generation.

The Yiddish Tourist

In a trope I call the Yiddish Tourist, borrowings, syntax, and intonation form part of an attempt to index higher orders of meaning by invoking specific archetypes—for example the nurturing mother in the Yiddishe Momme or the patriarch caught between two worlds in Tevye—and associated positive character traits such as moral fortitude, responsibility for others, or empathy. In contrast to the Yiddish Mask, the characters do not deliberately draw on the Jewish linguistic repertoire as subterfuge. Rather, they temporarily adopt Yiddish linguistic mannerisms to signal attributes associated with the language within the narrative. The trope’s incongruity humor subverts expectations around ethnicity and ethnic stereotypes but does not undermine the archetypes themselves.

Modern Family offers a brief example of the trope of the Yiddish Tourist. In the episode “Summer Lovin’” (season 7, episode 1, 2015), the joke centers on one of the show’s main characters, Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell), father and real estate agent, who wears a novelty V-neck t-shirt that reads “oy vey,” with the deep cut in the shirt standing in as the “v.” Clad in the “oy vey” shirt, the non-Jewish Phil spontaneously peppers his speech with Yiddishisms: “They loved it at the deli. They were kvelling!” Phil’s success at the deli emboldens him to extend his foray into the Jewish linguistic repertoire as he turns to real estate agent in training, Andy Bailey (Adam DeVine), and proclaims, “You’ve done a real mitzvah, buddy.” A mystified Andy responds, “I hope that’s good.” Although the total Yiddish in the episode amounts to just three words, viewers rejoiced. An American rabbi published a review of this episode titled “The Modern Family Season Premiere Was Amazingly Yiddish” that concludes, “Considering that 75 years ago, most of the world’s Jewry spoke Yiddish as their primary or only language, I’ll take a little extra mamaloshen (mother-tongue) wherever I can—‘Modern Family’ included” (Buechler 2015). The use of Yiddish offers a nod to Jewish viewers while also underlining the degree to which the Jewish linguistic repertoire has become entrenched within American popular culture, and in a positive guise.

The most elaborate example of the Yiddish Tourist, and of Yiddishisms delivered by non-Jewish characters on an American sitcom, appears in Raising Hope (Fox, 2010–2014). Set in the fictional Southern American town of Natesville, the show centers on the multigenerational working-class Chance family, which includes Virginia (Martha Plimpton) and Engleburt “Burt” Jebbidiah (Garret Dillahunt) raising their young son, Jimmy (Lucas Neff) and granddaughter in the home of Virginia’s grandmother. “Burt Mitzvah: The Musical” (season 3, episode 21, 2013) is a full episode dedicated to what amounts to a crash course in American Jewishness and its linguistic repertoire for the Chance family. The premise is that Burt is informed by his visiting parents that he is Jewish and should connect with his heritage, including holding an adult Bar Mitzvah. As one marker of his newfound Jewishness, Burt spontaneously utters Yiddish terms such as kibitz. His non-Jewish wife, Virginia, employs Yiddish terms such as schmendriks and meshugana. Burt’s mother, Christine (Shirley Jones), adopts a suffering Jewish Mother persona: “I was just trying to help, I … Look, if-if I’m in the way, I-I can wait outside. My people spent four decades in the burning desert, and I think I can last 20 minutes schvitzing in a hot car.”

The Chance family indexes its newfound ethnic identity by both speaking and singing the distinctively Jewish linguistic repertoire. In a turn to the surreal, the cast breaks into elaborate song-and-dance numbers that offer a sampler of popular American Yiddishisms and associated references to food and other elements of Jewish popular culture. With the tagline, “Burt Gets Musical (and Kosher),” the music-themed episode was created as the first of a two-part season finale and thus enjoyed more latitude than a typical episode. At the time, the fully-integrated musical was rare in broadcast television. In this genre, songs exist in an imaginative realm to reveal the inner life of the show’s characters in the narrative, notably during times of heightened or complex emotions; a previous example is found in the sitcom Scrubs (NBC, 2001–2010). The elaborate musical numbers, produced in a Musically Enhanced Reality Mode (MERM), create an idealized space that allows viewers to suspend disbelief (Knapp 2006; McCracken 2021). The genre of the fully integrated musical comedy would be wholly realized in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Konkle 2021). In “Burt Mitzvah: The Musical,” three songs represent the emotional lives of Burt and Virginia as they consider the implications of Burt’s newfound Jewish identity. Further, the musical scenes allow for a complex layering of popular culture references and parody. In “What Makes a Jew a Jew,” Jimmy and Burt visit a delicatessen, where he orders Jewish foods and “a full explanation of what it is to be a Jew.” In a parody of the Fiddler on the Roof song “Tradition,” the musical number features the deli staff, clientele, and a cast of animated puppets of bagels and other Jewish foods. The song offers a Yiddish-inflected digest of Ashkenazi American popular culture, including a roster of Ashkenazi cuisine (“babka, brisket, homentashen, pickled herring you can nosh on, Kreplakh, kugl, mandelbroyt, gefilte fish”); the décor of the Jewish home (“a lot of tchotchkes in the mix”); and Jewish stereotypes (“overbearing mothers”). In “Let’s Make a Seder,” Virginia visits the grocery store to plan her first Passover seder, and the staff provides her with a lesson on the holiday and Jewish tradition. In the number, Virginia’s abrupt entry into Jewishness is expressed through her use of Yiddish: she calls herself “just a silly shiksa” and says, “I’ll shlep this stuff back to my house.” The third lavishly choreographed song appears the evening before the Bar Mitzvah, when Burt panics about his capacity to follow through. Jimmy encourages his disheartened father in “Rock the Torah,” a lavish parody of John Parr’s #1 Billboard song, “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion, 1984),” featuring the show’s entire cast:

They’re gonna lift you up high on a chair
While we sing and dance the hora
You’re gonna know all the words and all your prayers
you ain’t no shmendrik
You’re gonna rock the Torah
Cause a mensch don’t stop once he starts (chorus).

The humor derives from visual incongruence (e.g., drumkits with Stars of David, a magic carpet ride on a Torah scroll) as much as the lyrics. The song amounts to a rock anthem for American Jewishness, delivered by a cast of non-Jewish characters.

In the episode, the distinctive Jewish linguistic repertoire is represented as an indexer of Jewishness as well as growth, both for the characters and for the genre of television comedy more broadly. Burt and Virginia’s journey from outsider to insider is measured via Burt and Virginia’s struggles to pronounce Hebrew and Yiddish words, which form a running gag throughout the episode. Burt intones, “l’tshayum,” a mangled version of “lechayim” (Hebrew, drinking toast: ‘to life!’); Virginia triumphantly declares “Molotov!” in place of “mazeltov.” In a scene where Burt joins a synagogue class of boys preparing for their Bar Mitzvahs, his inability to pronounce the fricative “kh” causes the exasperated rabbi (Jason Kravits) to declare, “you’re gonna get schmutz everywhere.” Not unlike Frasier’s rendering of the blessing at his son’s Bar Mitzvah in Klingon, textual Hebrew is presented as impenetrable for Burt, who mangles every word of his Torah reading. However, Burt perseveres. When his parents confess that the event was a scheme to raise funds from their friends for a cruise vacation, he nevertheless completes his Torah reading in a multi-hour sweat-soaked struggle. His temporary Jewishness, expressed via Yiddish borrowings and intonation, and, finally, Hebrew text, affords him important emotional growth. Further, the episode indexes the integration of Jewish themes on network television via metatextual references that celebrate the representation of Jewishness and its linguistic repertoire on screen. At one point, a confused Burt shouts, “I haven’t shlemieled or shlimazled; I have no idea what Hasenpfeffer Incorporated even makes!” This is a reference to the opening credits of the iconic sitcom Laverne and Shirley (ABC, 1976–1983), which cites a nostalgic children’s rhyme chanted by the show’s two non-Jewish titular characters: “One, two, three, four, / Five, six, seven, eight! / Shlemiel! Shlimazel! / Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!” In its original iteration, this line offered a rare example of Yiddish on television in the 1970s and 1980s. Burt’s comment recalls a moment in television history when Jewish characters were virtually non-existent and Jewish references appeared obliquely, if at all. In contrast, “Burt Mitzvah” revels in American Jewishness and its linguistic repertoire.

A first-season episode of Modern Family introduces a subcategory of the Yiddish Tourist trope, where the language aligns non-Jewish boys with characters drawn from classic Jewish literature and film. In the episode (“Truth be Told,” season 1, episode 7, 2009), Manny is heartbroken because he has failed to win the role of Tevye in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Deeply disappointed, he exclaims about the rival who has won the role, “What does he know from pain?” Manny delivers the Yiddish-inflected English line in a distinctive Yiddish sing-song cadence. The incongruity humor derives from the divergence between Tevye, the impoverished patriarch of a traditional Jewish household in the European shtetl, and Manny, a wealthy eleven-year-old Los Angeles boy of Colombian heritage. It plays into the recurring humor around Manny’s portrayal as a child iteration of the Latin Lover stereotype: melodramatic, exotic, and tempestuous in his pursuit of romance. However, Manny is not as far removed from the family-oriented Tevye as it might appear. Just as Tevye seeks to protect Jewish tradition, Manny is deeply committed to his Colombian identity and honoring the traditions associated with his roots, which forms a source of recurring humor in the show. For example, in the previous episode, Manny seeks to mark the start of the academic year by wearing a Colombian poncho and playing a pan flute accompanied by a traditional dance, only to be dissuaded by his ordinarily supportive mother, who moans, “The poncho by itself is fine. The poncho plus the flute plus the stupid dance? My son will die a virgin!” (“Run for Your Wife,” season 1, episode 6). Like Tevye, Manny seeks to safeguard his heritage; the humor stems from Manny’s negotiation of fervent pride in his tradition as a minority in an affluent Los Angeles suburb. The episode aligns Jewish and Latinx stereotypes associated with mature adults—as emotional and protective of tradition— to derive humor.

The trope of the precocious and overly mature non-Jewish child adopting a Yiddish persona recurs in the sitcom Trophy Wife (ABC, 2013–2014). The show centers around Kate Harrison (Malin Akerman), the titular young wife of a middle-aged lawyer. In the episode “The Social Network” (season 1, episode 4, 2013), Kate observes her seven-year-old Chinese step-nephew, Bert Harrison (Albert Tsai), unexpectedly using Yiddish in their home when he refers to another child as “such a pain in the tuchus.” Bert, who is adopted, comes from a non-Jewish home. Kate observes, “I don’t know who’s been teaching Bert all this Yiddish, but it really needs to continue.” Later in the episode, with his mother, Jackie Fisher (Michaela Watkins), he exclaims, “Oy vey! I don’t want to get schmutz on my shirt” and refers to “My sheyna punim” (pretty face). The incongruity humor is akin to that in Modern Family: a precocious boy of non-Jewish origins spontaneously using Yiddish terms and intonation outside of any recognizable Jewish place or context.

While the reasons for Bert’s Yiddish use remains unexplained within the show, its function goes beyond Mitchell’s observation that “this example attempts to rewrite expectations for ethnic humor in terms of language usage” (2020:28). Rather, the Yiddish signals a narrative shift in Bert’s role in relation to his mother, Jackie, who is portrayed as flaky and new age-y. After she manipulates her way into an opportunity to promote her new homemade jewelry business by arranging a play date between Bert and the son of a store owner, Bert takes it upon himself to craft the jewelry she is unable to deliver. His Yiddish use is aligned with his adopting the persona of the archetypal Yiddishe Momme and stepping into a parental role for his mother. Bert is invoking Yiddish as a modern-day Mamele, the titular “little mother” (Molly Picon as Khavtshi Samet) in the classic Polish Yiddish musical film (dir. Joseph Green & Konrad Tom, 1938), where a young girl is forced to look after her feckless father and unappreciative siblings after the death of her mother. When Jackie explains to her son that children do not have to take care of their parents, Bert’s Yiddish use abruptly ceases. In this episode, Yiddish offers a shorthand for the figure of the nurturing and competent mother figure, an archetype whose reach is vastly extended by its brief invocation by a non-Jewish male child.

The Yiddish Connector

In the trope of the Yiddish Connector, Yiddishisms are deployed by non-Jewish characters to connect to Jewish ones. The semiotic meanings attached to the language are positive as Yiddish is framed as enhancing the lives of the non-Jewish characters in the narrative, sometimes in the form of important emotional development. The non-Jews who deploy Yiddishisms are portrayed as becoming more self-aware, open to others, or resolute.

The trope of the Yiddish Connector emerged in the iconic hit comedy sitcom The Nanny. Modelled on her own experiences, Fran Drescher created, wrote, produced, and starred in the show as Fran Fine—“the flashy girl from Flushing” (theme song)— an unambiguously and unapologetically American Jewish woman who speaks in a nasal Yiddish-inflected English that is peppered with Yiddish words and cultural references. A key plot element is the encounter between Fran’s overt Jewish ethnic culture and the non-Jewish Sheffield family, where she finds herself employed as a nanny to three children. Widower Maxwell Sheffield (Charles Shaughnessy), a successful Broadway theater producer, is presented as a reserved, upper-class British gentleman whose New York apartment houses a butler. Beginning in the show’s pilot, the upbeat Fran imposes her Yiddish worldview on the Sheffield household, with positive outcomes. For example, within the first minute of the show, Fran refers to the priceless art pieces in Maxwell’s home as “tchotchkes.” The show’s non-Jewish characters soon come to deploy Yiddish terms as well, signaling Fran’s beneficial influence in the household. For example, when the butler, Niles (Daniel Davis), brings Maxwell a sandwich and is asked what it is, he states, “I believe Ms. Fine calls it a light nosh.” He goes on, “Just what you needed,” referring not only to the sandwich. This compels Maxwell to present himself at Fran’s family home to ask her to stay on as nanny. The casting of Fran’s world in Yiddish terms underlines the disparity between her cultural identity and the Sheffield household as a plot device for the show. It offers both a source of laughs and a commentary on contemporary America as a productive space for intercultural encounters. As Fran Fine, Drescher introduces not only the non-Jewish household but American viewers more broadly to her Jewish world via Yiddishisms. She translates the Yiddish words by explaining them to the other characters in the show, and in the process, to mainstream American audiences (an intradiegetic translation technique). The increasing number of Yiddish words throughout the series, which mark Fran as Jewish and working class, posed a challenge when translators attempted to render the show into languages such as Italian (Ferrari 2021:61).

The Nanny’s use of Yiddish offers a counterpoint to Seinfeld. Whereas in Seinfeld, connections between the sounds of Yiddish and Jewish identities remain ambivalent, The Nanny frames the sounds of Yiddish as a positive contribution to broader American culture. Seinfeld created and popularized hybrid Yiddish-English neologisms such as shiksappeal (the appeal of non-Jewish women to Jewish males, “Serenity Now,” season 9, episode 3, 1997). The Nanny imparted authentic Yiddish terms from Drescher’s own Jewish upbringing in Queens, New York. One example is an episode titled “The Nuchshlep” (season 1, episode 4, 1993), where Fran is designated as chaperone for the family’s fourteen-year-old daughter on a date at the movies. Fran pouts, “Oh why do I have to be the nuchshlep?” When Maxwell asks, “The what-shlep?” she responds, stretching out the fricative, “The nukkhhhhhshlep, the tagalong, the pathetic loser living on other people’s lives.” The term derives from the Yiddish verb נאָכשלעפּן זיך nokhshlepn zikh ‘to trail behind,’ with the “nuchshlep” as one who trails behind; the familiar “schlep” in the term has entered American English with a connotation of dragging, as noted earlier. The episode transmitted this Yiddish term, and many others, to primetime television audiences.4

The use of Yiddish as a vehicle for Jewish connection is most fully interrogated in the sitcom 2 Broke Girls (2 Broke Girls, CBS, 2011–2017), which devotes an entire episode to the encounter between its titular non-Jewish characters and a Hasidic family in Brooklyn. The episode offers a rare, though not unproblematic, depiction of the contemporary Yiddish-speaking Hasidic world. The show follows two women in their twenties, working-class Max George Black (Kat Dennings) and riches-to-rags Caroline Channing (Beth Behrs), as they work as waitresses in a Brooklyn diner while raising funds to start a cupcake business. The episode “And the Kosher Cupcakes” (season 1, episode 17, 2011) contains Yiddish in spoken as well as graphic form in a wall poster, which is a rarity on screen. When Caroline is experiencing flu-like symptoms, she visits a local pharmacy run by a Hasidic doctor, Dr. Anshell (Jay Willick), and his wife, Esther Rochel (Mary Testa). Realizing that they are Jewish, the non-Jewish Caroline draws on her knowledge of the Jewish linguistic repertoire, which stems from an older Jewish family acquaintance who used to say that she was a “bissel (little bit of a) Jew” and cared for her when she was ill. When she announces “Shalom” (Hebrew: ‘hello’), she is rebuffed by Esther Rochel, who suggests that they dress more modestly and mimics pirate-inflected speech: “Wow, you’re as bad as me trying to be Irish at the Blarney Rose for a free beer,” and noting, “You might wanna start peppering in some English.” In contrast, she observes that the dark-haired and curvaceous Max reminds her of a younger version of herself—“It’s like looking in a mirror”—which marks the beginning of Max being invited into the Jewish fold.

When Max hears that the baker for the son’s Bar Mitzvah is unavailable, she secures the job of baking the cupcakes. Caroline purchases kosher ingredients, new bowls, and modest “appropriately sad schmattes” for them to wear, whereas Max resists the requirement to make the cupcakes kosher. As they deliver them, Caroline once again draws on her Jewish linguistic repertoire with a sprinkling of borrowings: “Mazeltov to the family. What a mitzvah to be part of this day. How bashert,” and “All 100% kosher and so gorgeous you could plotz.” She is again rebuffed by Esther Rochel: “Oh, we’re still on that ride?” and “This one’s seen some Streisand movies, yes?” Here I pause to reference Benor’s large-scale survey of variation within the American Jewish linguistic repertoire and her finding that non-Jewish speakers were less likely to employ loanwords associated with older speakers, with bashert as one example (152). Caroline’s hackneyed overuse of Yiddish loanwords, especially those associated with the older generation, helps to explain Esther Rochel’s dismissive response within the narrative. It also contributes a further element of incongruity to the language-based humor when the young Caroline unwittingly speaks like a cliché of a much older Jewish woman.

The episode subverts expectations of the linguistic repertoire of American Jews. Rather than Yiddish or Yiddish-inflected English, the Bar Mitzvah boy, Shmuley (River Alexander), and his friend David (Jake Elliott) speak an exaggerated caricature of male American hiphop culture: “Yo, today my boy became a man. That’s right. Got my bar mitzvah done, son. Preach!” and “Yo, yo, yo, what up cupcake bitches? I’m fixin’ to marry me a beeyatch who bakes like this, son … Damn, sweetness, your lips are moving but your ass is doing all the talking.” A confused Caroline responds, “Uh … Is that Yiddish?”

Despite her efforts to respect Jewish tradition, including deployment of Yiddish and Hebrew borrowings, the blonde and blue-eyed Caroline is introduced to Esther Rochel’s mother, Hinda Fagel (Renée Taylor, playing a mother reminiscent of her role as Fran Fine’s overbearing but loving Jewish mother in The Nanny), as “the shiksa.” In an aside Hinda Fagel comments: “She looks like the people that stole my grandmother’s good hutch.” This coded comment deploys the dark Holocaust humor that has become a feature of television sitcoms (Slucki 2020). However, when Hinda Fagel greets Max, she exclaims, “It’s like looking in a mirror.” When they discover that Max’s forehead is burning, they tuck her into bed with a cold compress and care for her: “You just have to rest, Bubbela.” Esther Rochel and Hinda Fagel accept Max, who grew up without a loving family, into the fold and proclaim her Jewish.

Esther Rochel: Ooh, you need a kiss. Oh, good, your soup is ready.
Hinda Fagel: Es a bissel, tateleh. (‘Eat a little, darling.’)
Max: Bissel? I know bissel.
Esther Rochel: Of course you do. You’re Jewish.
Max: Okay, I’m Jewish, what the hell.

As Hinde Fagel blows on her hot soup and says, “Call me Bubbe,” Max replies, “Thanks, Bubbe. No one’s ever blown on my soup before.” When Max later confesses that the cupcakes are not kosher, she and Caroline are ejected from the home, and Max is given the compress as a memento. At the end of the episode, Max brings Caroline chicken soup:

Max: Hey, Bubbe. I brought you some chicken soup for taking care of me the last couple days.

Caroline: I enjoyed being your Bubbe. I guess you were wrong, Max. You and I do have family: each other.

Although their ruse is revealed, Caroline and Max’s encounter with the Yiddish-inflected matriarchs Esther Rochel and Hinda Fagel gives rise to a newfound appreciation for family in each other. In this episode, Yiddish signifies not only belonging to a cohesive Jewish community but the positive value of family, as expressed in the repeated use of the term “Bubbe.” The sounds of Yiddish are associated with doting mothers and grandmothers, and with comfort and caring.

The episode’s humor hinges on the incongruity between language, identity, and viewer expectations. Caroline is labelled non-Jewish despite her extensive borrowing from the Jewish linguistic repertoire; Max is identified as Jewish and embraced as an insider, although she initially eschews religion and is ignorant of all things Jewish: when Caroline pronounces herself as having a “bissel Jew,” Max asks if she was referring to “a Jewish vacuum cleaner.” Once she is treated as a Jewish daughter, Max begins to employ Yiddish borrowings, whereas the Hasidic teenagers use hip hop argot. While critics and fans maligned the episode’s stereotyped representations of the Jewish community (Burstin 2012), the episode offers a provocative interrogation of the complex dynamic of language as a marker of insider versus outsider status.

A final example of the Yiddish Connector appears in the dramedy Grace and Frankie (Netflix, 2015–2022), which centers on two older women, savvy businesswoman Grace Hanson (Jane Fonda) and new-age artist Frankie Bergstein, née Mengela (Lily Tomlin), as they forge a close friendship after their husbands reveal that they have been lovers for the past twenty years. As Robert Hanson (Martin Sheen) and Sol Bergstein (Sam Waterston) leave their wives to pursue their romance, the very unalike Grace and Frankie find themselves living together and navigating life’s challenges. In the season finale, Yiddish signals a significant moment of narrative growth for both the Jewish Sol and the non-Jewish Grace. The use of Yiddish adds levity to an otherwise dramatic season finale, while also adding nuance to the narrative.

In “The Vows” (season 1, episode 13, 2015), Grace, who is portrayed as a stereotypically non-emotional and self-declared WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), begins to integrate Yiddish into her English as she evinces emotional growth and increasing empathy in her friendship with the emotionally demonstrative and intuitive Frankie, who was born non-Jewish but raised her sons in a Jewish home with Sol. Yiddish is represented as part of Grace’s journey to greater sensitivity and openness, which includes her capacity to offer sage advice that resonates with others. Early in the episode, both Frankie and Grace are surprised by her spontaneous use of Yiddish when describing her ex-boyfriend:

Grace: He was a total mensch.
Frankie: I don’t think I’ve ever heard you use that word before.
Grace: I don’t think I ever have.

In a dichotomy not unique to the show, Sol and Grace establish the Yiddish polarities of mensch and schmuck to articulate Sol’s conflicted moral compass after he confesses to Grace that he has slept with Frankie and not told Robert, whom he is about to marry.5 As Grace struggles to find the best term to call Sol—”You are such a sh …”—he interjects to frame his own identity in Yiddish terms: “Schmuck, is that the word you’re looking for? Cuz that’s what I am. You know what it means? Contemptible person, from the Yiddish for ‘penis.’ A long time ago, I used to think I was a mensch. That’s a person with integrity.” Grace interrupts, “I know what it means.” Grace, whose initial iteration of the sh-word may have been another non-Yiddish pejorative term beginning with that sound, adopts Saul’s Yiddish framework by pointedly asking, “So what are you going to be for the rest of your life: a mensch or a schmuck?” Sol’s Yiddish-inflected speech and his overly spontaneous emotionality and difficulty managing adverse situations mark him as a Nebbish. Grace instrumentalizes Sol’s Jewish linguistic repertoire to call him accountable for his actions in terms that resonate with him. The result is an epiphany for Sol as he accepts responsibility for his behavior and the repercussions. This use of Yiddish stands in contrast to an episode earlier in the season (“The Invitation,” season 1, episode 9, 2015), in which Grace critiques an exuberant Robert’s efforts to learn Yiddish:

Robert: Sol said it was bashert. That means ‘meant to be.’ I’m learning some Yiddish.

Grace: You’re butchering it.

Raging and not yet prepared to accept her husband’s betrayal, Grace dismisses Robert’s adoption of Yiddishisms, which he employs to describe his passionate love for Sol. In contrast, in the season finale, both Grace and Sol grow emotionally. Grace becomes more expressive and a more devoted friend. Sol becomes more decisive and mature.

In both cases, the show’s characters explain the Yiddish terms to the non-Jewish Grace, which fulfills two narrative functions. First, the in-scene translation underlines Grace’s assumed distance from the Yiddish linguistic repertoire embodied by the Jewish Sol and his family, an assumption that she subverts by deploying those same terms against Sol. Second, as in other twenty-first century television shows, the episode’s writers can no longer assume that contemporary audiences are familiar with Yiddish borrowings, and so the characters explain the Yiddish terms via intradiegetic translation.

Conclusion

Yiddish spoken by non-Jews has become increasingly common on comedy television as a source of humor as well as narrative development. In addition to offering winks to savvy viewers, characters deploy Yiddishisms to signal Jewish literacy or authenticity; to build rapport; or to underline aspects of their personalities that align with Jewish archetypes and stereotypes. The incongruence of Yiddish being spoken by a character who is far removed from Ashkenazi Jewishness has come to form its own series of tropes. No longer can viewers assume that a character who uses Yiddish is Jewish, or that Yiddish functions as an indexer of Jewish identity. The use of Yiddish by characters who are neither explicitly nor implicitly Jewish extends indexes of Jewishness beyond simple binaries.

The use of the Jewish linguistic repertoire by non-Jewish characters on television mirrors trends within broader American life. My findings corroborate Benor’s discussion (2011:145) of the use of the American Jewish repertoire by non-Jews in the prevalence of “crossover Yiddish loanwords” such as kvetch, schmutz, and mensch, especially within Jewish social networks (e.g., friendships with Jews), and relatively fewer terms from religious life, or from Israeli Hebrew. Benor (152) finds that non-Jewish speakers were less likely to employ loanwords associated with older speakers (e.g., bashert), an association that I found employed to deliberate ends. As indicated in the opening example of this study, I also noted the innovative use of the syntactic construction “enough already,” as in “oy with the poodles already,” to indicate impatience. I agree with Benor’s refutation of the suggestion that a Yiddish-origin resource employed by non-Jews removes it from the “distinctively Jewish linguistic repertoire,” and her assessment that this usage suggests new trends in the indexing of ethnic identity. She writes: “Using Yiddish loanwords with distinctive meanings is yet another resource Jews (and non-Jews) have as they align themselves with some people and distinguish themselves from others” (149). These semiotic meanings inform the Jewish linguistic resources that are heard on comedy television, especially in their incongruent use by non-Jews.

Whether by mask, tourism, or connection, as non-Jewish characters employ Yiddishisms as part of the distinctive American Jewish linguistic repertoire within television narratives, they index elements of their own moral and emotional identities. This usage additionally signals the extent of Jewish integration into the American mainstream, which carries with it its own set of anxieties around identity maintenance and assimilation: to what extent have Yiddish loanwords, syntax, and intonation simply become stand-ins for New York, or for America as a whole? For example, in The Big Bang Theory, the first Yiddish utterance in the series comes not from the show’s overtly and stereotypically Jewish main character Howard Wolowitz, but from a non-Jewish main character, Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar), who is a Hindu character raised in India. During a buffet to welcome their new department head in “The Luminous Fish Effect,” Raj praises America and turns to Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki), bagel in hand, and says, “shmear me” (Season 1, episode 4, 1998). Raj is not marked as Jewish; rather, his use of Yiddish underlines his desire for integration into American mainstream culture, as epitomized by the exemplary New York food, the bagel with “shmear” (Yiddish for ‘to smear,’ with the cream cheese implied).

Despite the variety of Jewish and non-Jewish speakers who employ Yiddish borrowings or intonation, Yiddish use on American comedy television indexes a very limited iteration of American Jewishness that assumes ancestry in the mass Eastern European immigration to New York. Jewishness is correlated with familiar family archetypes or stereotypes, and the use of Yiddish, and the distinctive Jewish linguistic repertoire more broadly, tend to be relegated to a specifically Jewish ethnic place: a Jewish deli, Jewish food aisle, or a synagogue. The tropes offer a stable iteration of Jennifer Caplan’s generational analysis of Jewish humor in America, which posits a shift away from “prioritizing Jewish peoplehood to protecting Judaism” (2023:3) among baby boomers and Generation X, to a humor that values Jewish religion and tradition. Further, the three tropes associated with Yiddish voiced by non-Jews tend to reflect a reductionist representation of American Jewishness, especially the stereotyped caricature of the Nebbish, as expressed in David Baddiel’s bestseller, Jews Don’t Count: “It’s JewVoice, JewExpression, JewStoopandShruggingBody. It’s NebbishBeing” (2022:65).

Largely missing from television comedy is the diversity of Jewish experiences that results from successive waves of migration before and after the Eastern European mass migration, including the stories of Sephardi Jews, as well as Jews who arrived in the United States after the Second World War, including Holocaust survivors, Hasidic Jews, Mizrahi Jews from Arab lands, Jews from the FSU, and migrants from Israel. The cultures—languages, foodways, and music—of these American Jews are comparatively absent in television comedy and other popular culture genres. Only recently has television comedy come to include narratives about Hasidic speakers of Yiddish. For example, an episode of the dramedy High Maintenance (“Derech,” HBO, season 2, episode 4, 2018) portrays young Hasidim who are OTD (off-the-derekh, have left the fold), and grapple with integrating into the secular world. The episode features subtitled Yiddish dialogue with full semantic meaning, code-switching between English and Yiddish, and Yiddish loanwords.

With its standardized format (brief, with recurring interconnected characters and resolution in each episode), the sitcom has enjoyed longstanding popularity among American viewers and holds the potential to challenge problematic stereotypes and interrogate intersectionality through subversive humor (Edwards & Esposito 2020:77–97, Aldama 2022:3–24). Presumably as Jews of non-Ashkenazi or non-Yiddish backgrounds make their way into increasingly diverse writers’ rooms in comedy television, the Jewish linguistic repertoire and its associated tropes on screen will broaden and offer more wide-ranging indexes for contemporary Jewish ethnicity, as well as other identities.

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Rebecca Margolis

is the Pratt Foundation Chair of Jewish Civilisation at Monash University. She is the author of Yiddish Lives On: Strategies of Language Transmission and Jewish Roots, Canadian Soil: Yiddish Culture in Montreal, 1905–1945. Her current research project examines film and television with Yiddish dialogue produced in the twenty-first century.

1

This article draws on research supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Canada (SSHRC).

2

The nostalgic and oftentimes tragic figure of the “Yiddishe Momme” was made famous in a bilingual Yiddish English hit song by that name performed by Sophie Tucker on her album I’m the Last of the Red Hot Mamas (1925) as well as on radio and film in the 1930s. Nebbish stems from the Yiddish term נעבעך. As a noun, it refers to an unfortunate or ineffectual person. As an interjection, it expresses sympathy or dismay. Shlemiel שלומיאל and Shlimazel שלימזל stem from Yiddish nouns meaning an unsuccessful, inept, or unlucky person. The distinction is popularly explained this way: the Shlemiel is the one who spills soup on the Shlimazel.

3

These include live-action shows: Northern Exposure (CBS, 1990–1995); Brooklyn Bridge (CBS, 1991–1993); Mad About You (NBC, 1992–1999); Friends (NBC, 1994–2004); Suddenly Susan (NBC, 1996–2000); Will and Grace (NBC, 1999–2006); Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, 2000–present); Big Bang Theory (CBS, 2007–2019); New Girl (Fox, 2011–2018); The Goldbergs (ABC, 2013-present); Transparent (Amazon Prime Video, 2014–2018); Broad City (Comedy Central, 2014–2019); Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime Video, 2017–present), as well as animated shows for adults, including: The Simpsons (Fox, 1989–present); South Park (Comedy Central, 1997–present), Futurama (Fox, 1999–2003; Comedy Central 2010–2013); Bojack Horseman (Netflix, 2014–2020), and Big Mouth (Netflix, 2017– present).

4

For example, the Urban Dictionary (2019) defines the term: “The tag along or the wing. When you’re going on a date and your date has a friend or you have a friend. The friend is the nuchslep [sic]. The word is used in a show called The Nanny.

5

For example, the mentsch-schmuck dichotomy forms the premise of Michael Wex’s popular book, How to Be a Mentsh (& Not a Shmuck) (2009).