Last night, watching sports, I was shocked to see a Gatorade ad in which Harvey Keitel as a first-base coach counsels Derek Jeter to steal second and calls pitcher John Lackey "a schmendrick." (Here’s Lackey’s comment). Shocked because schmendrick is one of my all-time favorite words to describe a loser. According to Leo Rosten’s classic, Joys of Yiddish, it means a grandiose shlemiel, a child, or a penis. Yesssss!
The mainstreaming of schmendrick brings up my favorite subject: assimilation. Yiddish evolved (I believe that Slezkine says this in the classic The Jewish Century) as a language that protected and preserved Jewish difference in Europe. Jews had an extra-societal role, as merchants, financiers, priests, per Slezkine, and this mixture of Hebrew and German was part of their separateness.
When I was growing up, my grandparents and parents all used Yiddish, a little or a lot. At times it functioned as shibboleth: it set our tribe apart. Though as time went on, words like oy and shlemiel and chutzpah and schmatte and shlep got mainstreamed. Rosten wrote his bestseller about Yiddish in 1968. Of course, Saturday Night Live used f’klempt to great effect.
I don’t think the mainstreaming of Yiddish is a casual event. It got mainstreamed because it carried different ideas, many of them psychological, that the culture willingly accepted. Where would we be without chutzpah and shlep and yenta? We wouldn’t be America.
My theory of assimilation is that America accepted Jewish gifts because it needed and liked them (like last night’s Seinfeld rerun, all about a "butchered" nosejob). America changed in untold ways with the cultural influence of Jews, and almost all for the better (this isn’t about neocons!). Just consider the hours that big lawyers work in New York now compared to the white-shoe days–a Jewish cultural change. Jews changed and betterized journalism, too; I watched that happen.
I love American pluralism. As a Jewish assimilationist, it is my contention that you can’t give a country gifts and hold on to them at the same time. To think that you can change the culture as much as we have and not be changed yourself is absurd.