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Jewish Journal

Assembly Yiddish

by Tom Tugend

June 21, 2001 | 8:00 pm

For the benefit of the 90 percent of Assembly-members who are not Jewish, and for other Yiddish-challenged lawmakers, Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) has published a 36-page booklet, appropriately titled "Yiddish for Assemblymembers."

It contains a selection of words drawn from the mameloshen, with examples of their use in the legislative process, as well as a brief guide to Jewish holidays.

Hertzberg succinctly explained the purpose of the literary effort in a press release. "I want to make sure members don't get farblondjet when us alte kahkers of the Assembly make a megillah about our bills," Hertzberg wrote. (A sanitized translation would read: "I want to make sure members don't get mixed up when us fussy old guys make a long story about our bills.")

Hertzberg told The Journal that he owed his own Yiddish vocabulary to his maternal and paternal grandparents, who came to America from Latvia and Odessa. He said that he had received numerous thank-you notes from fellow legislators, who can finally figure out what the speaker is talking about and have begun using selections from the vocabulary in their own speeches.

Another enthusiastic reader has been ex-vice presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who has been known to drop a Yiddish exclamation here and there to good effect.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the booklet.

Klutz: Clumsy person.

Example: I'm such a klutz; I smashed my finger when I banged the gavel for order.

Mitzvah: commandment; a meritorious act.

Example: You did a mitzvah when you passed the family health insurance bill.

Hertzberg credited his assistant Barbara Creme and community activist Jonathan Zasloff for much of the research on the publication, which was funded with campaign, not public, money.

While Hertzberg's booklet signals the advance of Yiddish in the legislative branch, its increasing use in the judiciary was noted some years back in the August Yale Law Review in an article titled "Lawsuit, Shmawsuit."

The authors, Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, noted, for example, the growing use of the word "chutzpah" in legal pleadings and opinions.

"There are two possible explanations for this," state the authors. "One is that during recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the actual amount of chutzpah in the United States -- or at least in the U.S. legal system.

This explanation seems possible, but unlikely.

"The more likely explanation is that Yiddish is quickly supplanting Latin as the spice in American legal argot," they add.

Kozinski and Volokh append an illustration of chutzpah:

"A man goes to a lawyer and asks, 'How much do you charge for legal advice?'

'A thousand dollars for three questions.'

'Wow! Isn't that kind of expensive?'

'Yes, it is. What was your third question?'"

With the legislative and judicial branches thus increasingly attuned to Yiddish, it remains for the executive arm to weigh in. In a hopeful sign, Hertzberg reports that he gave a copy of his booklet to Gov. Gray Davis, who shortly thereafter declared publicly that he needed the state's energy crisis like a "loch in kop" (a hole in the head).

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