Photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr
Today Yappn goes In Search Of Yiddish-speaking Spock, in memory of Leonard Nimoy who passed away two years ago yesterday.
While everyone on Planet Earth, regardless of age, knows Nimoy as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, Yappn knows him as a bilingual, and no, his second language wasn’t Klingon. Born to an Eastern European immigrant family, the primary language spoken at home was English but he became fluent in Yiddish at an early age in order to speak with his grandparents. His world-famous Vulcan greeting sign is actually an Orthodox Jewish gesture he witnessed as a small boy in his Boston synagogue. He wasn’t supposed to see it. The congregants were reciting the prayer to Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of God, and one was supposed to keep one’s eyes covered as the light from the Deity could prove damaging. This expectation didn’t go far with a curious little boy and so he looked from between his fingers and saw them making the sign with their hands that would one day become the most famous geek salute in the Milky Way, if not necessarily the United Federation of Planets.
The Vulcan greeting and farewell is actually a Jewish blessing. Live long and prosper, indeed.
You don’t need “Deck The Halls” or “Jingle Bell Rock”
‘Cause you can spin a dreidel with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock – both Jewish! – Adam Sandler, “The Chanukah Song”
While hardcore Trekkies might know the spiritual origin of the Vulcan gesture, it may be less well-known (to the rest of us anyway) that in Nimoy’s BS days (Before Spock) he received a master’s degree in bilingual education. He also worked to promote the Yiddish language and to keep it alive for Jewish children who might not necessarily learn it at home as he did. He once employed a Yiddish-speaking psychiatrist and paid her regular hourly fee not to work on emotional issues but to speak Yiddish with him so he wouldn’t lose his bilingualism. He also audio recorded the children’s book Too Young For Yiddish (not one he wrote himself) about a young Jewish boy who wants to learn the language but keeps getting told he’s too young.
Leonard Nimoy recites Shakespeare in Yiddish:
Yiddish is actually a fusion language derived from Hebrew. When the Jews settled in what is now Germany in the ninth and tenth centuries, they spoke Hebrew for spiritual purposes as well as a mixture of other languages including Aramaic which was a Semitic subfamily of the Afroasiatic languages and more commonly known as the language of Roman-occupied Judea. Later, that lingual synthesis incorporated some elements of the Germanic languages developing out of the region. The emerging language was called Ashkenaz and later Yiddish, which became the language of common speech as Hebrew was deemed too holy for such a purpose.
Today Yiddish is largely two dialects: Eastern and Western Yiddish, the former being the more widely-spoken. Yiddish is the primary language of most Haredi Jews and is commonly spoken in Orthodox communities around the world.
Yiddish has been kept alive by the Haredim after experiencing a steep decline due to the Holocaust. Before World War II there were about ten million Yiddish speaking people worldwide; 85% of the Jews who were killed during the war were Yiddish speakers. There are about 178,000 Yiddish speakers in the U.S. and in Canada there are only about 15,000, mostly among the Hasidim.
On a final note, only people of a certain age will have gotten the reference in the first paragraph of this post which references In Search Of, which is what our bilingual non-Klingon-speaking friend My Yiddishe Spock got up to in the late 1970s. He narrated the weekly stories of tales of the paranormal, mysterious disappearances, alleged obscure creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster and the stories and myths behind ancient historical sites. He even wrote the episode on the tortured mental life of French Impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh. If you’re a fan of the original series or a younger person who’s never heard of it, you can go In Search Of all 174 episodes in their entirety on Youtube.
Don’t worry; you won’t need a Vulcan’s two hundred-year life span to watch them all.
Yappn Corp is an enhanced machine translation company offering translations in dozens of languages including Hebrew and Yiddish, and who will never kvetch over a perfectly braided challah, potato latkes or a pan of freshly-made kugel. For more information please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at +1.905.763.3510 x246.
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Written by Nicole Chardenet, Sales Development Rep at Yappn