The Yiddish name for grandmother is bubbe. Since Hebrew uses a different alphabet from English, making transliteration necessary, words often exist in several different spellings. Variations of bubbe include bube, bubbie, bubbeh, bobbe, bobeh and bubby. Some add a -shi to the end to show affection, resulting in a name that is usually spelled bobeshi.
Some Jewish families prefer the Hebrew savta, but bubbe is the more traditional choice and is chosen by some non-Jews for its warm connotations.
Things a Bubbe Might Say
Here are some common words that you might hear from a Yiddish grandmother:
- Naches means "pride" or "joy," often the pride or joy associated with a child or grandchild. A common blessing spoken to new parents is some variation of, "May this child bring you much naches." The "ch" is pronounced similarly to the "ch" in challah.
- Mazel tov is the common congratulatory expression in Yiddish. The literal meaning is "good destiny." It is also appropriate for the birth of a grandchild.
- Shmutz (or schmutz) means a little dirt that needs to be wiped off, as off a grandchild's face.
- Tchatchke is a knick-knack or small gift, such as a grandchild might give to a grandmother. This word has several variant spellings.
A Yiddish grandmother might also impart these jewels of wisdom:
- "If grandma had wheels, she would be a wagon." Don't expect people to do things they aren't equipped to do. It's something like the expression, "If a frog had wings ...."
- "Show her the rudder, but don't steer the boat." Teach others how to do things for themselves.
- "Don't throw away the old bucket until you know whether the new one holds water." Don't discard something until you know you have something better.
What Is Yiddish, Anyway?
Yiddish is a Germanic language traditionally associated with the Ashkenazi, Jewish people living in Germany and nearby areas. Ashkenaz is an early Hebrew name for Germany.
The Ashkenazic Jews spoke German but included Hebrew expressions in their speech. In the 1200s they began using the Hebrew script to write their language, known academically as Judeo-German. Gradually, Judeo-German developed into a distinct language and became known as Yiddish, which means Jewish.
The Mother Tongue
Yiddish was sometimes described as the "mother tongue," contrasting with Hebrew, known as the "holy tongue" and studied only by men. Yiddish gave women a way of connecting with their religion and their culture. Jewish women began to write in Yiddish at a time when most women worldwide were unable to write in any language.
Decline of Yiddish
The use of Yiddish was criticized by many Jews during the 1700s and 1800s on the basis that its use was a barrier to acceptance by the culture at large. It survived this challenging time, however, and in the early 1900s Yiddish language and literature was thriving. That came to a halt with the Holocaust, when many Yiddish speakers were killed and the survivors were widely dispersed.
When Jews began to work toward a homeland, much discussion was devoted to the choice of language. Yiddish was considered but rejected, possibly because it is closely tied to eastern Europe, whereas Jews all over the world have some knowledge of Hebrew. Today Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel.
Current State of Yiddish
Both the United States and Israel still have a significant number of Yiddish speakers, especially in communities of conservative Jews. There has also been a small but significant body of writers who create literature in Yiddish, the most famous being the Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer. Another of this group was Singer's older sister, was Esther Kreitman. Kreitman is said to be the model for the main character in Yentl, written by Singer. Like the fictional character, in her younger years Kreitman yearned to study the Talmud.
Her books are available in English and Yiddish.