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New Yorker Accused Of ‘Cultural Appropriation’ For Using Yiddish Words Without Being Jewish

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Redditor sdadqwqd is a non-Jewish New Yorker who grew up in a “very Jewish neighborhood” and has subsequently picked up Yiddish “loan words” from family and neighbors to use in everyday conversation.

When confronted by an individual who had a problem with the Redditor’s use of words from the language, historically spoken by Ashkenazi Jews, the Redditor responded in a way that caused a polarizing debate amongst her friends.

Seeking an outsider’s perspective, they visited the “Am I the A**hole?” (AITA) and asked:

“AITA for increasing my use of Yiddish after a Jewish person asked me not to?”

The Original Poster (OP) explained:

“I grew up in a very Jewish neighborhood in New York, and I am neither culturally nor religiously Jewish (I’ve got some distant Jewish ancestry but it’s not matrilineal so it doesn’t ‘count’ and regardless, that had no bearing on my upbringing) and picked up a lot of Yiddish from my parents, neighbors and even classmates growing up.”

“I firmly believe that Yiddish loanwords are part of my local dialect and culture. Often, I’ll use a Yiddish word without thinking; ‘verkakte’ instead of ‘crappy’, ‘schnorrer’ instead of ‘mooch’, etc.”

“My friend group is very ethnically diverse but it’s pretty irreligious, and while I have many secular Jewish friends, none are religious.”

“However, one of my friends recently started dating a woman who is more observant. One night while we were all having drinks she seemed to be very uncomfortable, and after a few hours of conversation she told me that it was ‘hurtful and offensive’ that I’m speaking so much Yiddish and asked me to stop.”

“And my response? ‘What are you, meshugganer?’ This lead to a surprisingly heated argument among us where it was clear that I would pause and select a Yiddish loanword where applicable. After a while, she and my friend both left.”

“I was out for drinks with my friends another day and someone had invited them again. Apparently as she was walking into the bar she heard me say ‘l’chaim’ and instantly turned around, forced my friend to leave, and is now demanding that he not hang out with me anymore because I’m engaging in ‘cultural appropriation.'”

“My friend group is split down the middle about who’s the a**hole; some people believe I should’ve acquiesced to her out of desire to keep the peace or because, since she’s Jewish, the words mean ‘more’ to her so I should respect that and stop.”

“Others believe that Yiddish is part of my cultural tradition (most of who think this are native New Yorkers themselves of various ethnic backgrounds including but not limited to Ashkenazim) even if they’re not Jewish and that it’s extremely offensive for her to try and police my language.”

Strangers online were asked to declare one of the following:

  • NTA – Not the A**hole
  • YTA – You’re the A**hole
  • NAH – No A**holes Here
  • ESH – Everybody Sucks Here

The responses in the thread were just as mixed, with some siding with the OP while others argued in defense of the offended woman.

“My question for the entire sub. Is the actual language relevant? What if, instead of Yiddish, he was using Spanish words, and the offended party was of Spanish descent.”

“The argument is exactly the same, but would anyone care? I am curious.” – goodwithsalt

“No. Everyone’s saying ‘buenas noches’ now and no one’s getting mad.” – Springheeledjacklyn

“My rule of thumb has always been as long as they’re not mocking my native language when they speak it idgaf, if they pronounce something wrong unintentionally I may correct em, but never in a condescending way. OP is using a language he grew up with and the girl needs to get off her high horse and stop acting like she owns the language.” – darkoopz43

“yeah i dont get any of the YTA votes.”

“who the f’k is making language cultural apropriation now?”

“am i not allowed to learn french like i did in college now?”

“can i say ‘howdy’ without apropriating texas?”

“f’king stupid. at least the whole ‘wearing their clothes’ thing might have some merit, but this is just dumba** sh*t.” – labree0

“I think ‘cultural appropriation’ is a real problem that’s gotten blown out into meaninglessness. To my mind, if person A would be punished for doing something from their culture, person B can’t do the same thing to get clout or money.”

“Black hairstyles are a great example– black people get sent home from school, fired from jobs, because they hand traditional hair styles, but on white people the same hairstyles are ‘trendy’ or ‘edgy.’ THAT is cultural appropriation.”

“A language could qualify. Like, if your people were forbidden from speaking your language, and your parents and grandparents got beat at school for speaking it, but then suddenly on Instagram everyone was wearing shirts with phrases from your language. But…… that’s suuuuuuper not what’s happening here.” – Ralynne

“NTA: as a Jew who actually has fairly limited Yiddish knowledge, I see no issue here. You weren’t doing it to mock her, and there’s nothing sacred about Yiddish. That she got so offended is silly in the extreme.”

“It’s not like you are dropping the N word and claiming you grew up in a black neighborhood so it’s ok or freely throwing around the word ‘kike,’ you are using common Yiddish words.”

“If you spoke Hebrew (the actual unifying language of Jews world wide) would that be offensive to her as well?” – BaltimoreBadger23

“NTA. I’m Jewish & Israeli and if I were there I would troll your friend way more than you did. The absurdity of being offended by someone using Yiddish words is truly astonishing.”

“I want to assure you that Jewish people constantly use words from other languages. Modern Hebrew speakers constantly use words from English and Arabic. You are more than welcome to use as many of ‘our’ words as you’d like.”

“Cultural appropriation is when one country invades another country, steals historical artifacts and presents them in their own museums. Using words from another language is definitely not even close to that.”

“It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish or not. It doesn’t matter if you’re a New Yorker or not. Use as much Yiddish words you want.”

“Also, being religious or not has nothing to do with Yiddish. Yiddish has nothing to do with the Jewish faith. It’s a combination of German and Hebrew, it was used purely for day to day life and never in synagogues or prayers.”

“Taking a language that represents secularism and the assimilation of cultures and being a religious and cultural purist about it is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Your friend is a kutter. She’s a nudnik. More than anything else – she’s an AH.” – MemChoeret

Some argued the issue was more complex, and they delved deeper into the West Germanic language.

“I think the fact it’s Yiddish actually does matter, especially since the person who got offended is religious. In more religious Ashkenazi communities (I might be a bit wrong about this since I’m Mizrahi), people use Yiddish as a way to identify themselves as Jewish and also use they Yiddish in a really select way.”

“There’s a level of cultural competency that goes into combining Yiddish and English for more religious Ashkenazi Jews and OP doesn’t seem to have it.”

“Secondly, people’s feelings about Yiddish post-Holocaust can be very touchy. Some people believe it needs to be preserved at all cost because it’s vital to preserving Ashkenazi culture and that it’s a living language, while others believe it shouldn’t continue post-Holocaust and instead people should speak the local language and Hebrew.”

“Also, as someone who’s visibly Jewish, I can assure you that non-Jews can get pretty weird with their usage of Yiddish around more religious Jews. Sometimes I think it’s just a misguided attempt to bond and other times it’s overtly antisemitic and mocking.” – punkterminator

“I think this is a very valuable perspective.”

“From what I’m seeing in this thread, a lot of people are voting n-t-a because they see Yiddish as just a language – when in fact, it’s a language developed and used by a disenfranchised group of people.”

“I don’t think most people empathize with the role and importance that Yiddish has in Jewish culture, or why it would be jarring for a goy to use it.”

“As a Jew, I’m not even sure how to vote, honestly. I didn’t grow up with Yiddish. It makes sense to me why an observant person, maybe a person who grew up with Yiddish as a part of Jewish identity would be bothered.”

“I also see why Jews wouldn’t be bothered. I also think that while it sounds like OP genuinely grew up with Yiddish as a part of their neighborhood life, they’re unaware of the significance Yiddish has for a lot of Jews.”

“Sounds like to them, it’s just a language or slang, rather than a living artifact of a culture that OP is not a part of.” – princesssoturi

One Redditor did not give the OP a free pass based on the fact they exacerbated the tension.

“ESH [everyone sucks here] because you’re not claiming to be Jewish or part of the culture, and you’re not using the words for benefit. It’s part of the environment you grew up in, and you gained the language from positive interactions with Jewish people.”

“But intentionally using the language to piss her off where you wouldn’t have naturally used it is kinda AHish because it makes you look like you’re using the language just to be argumentative.”

“Edit: because a lot of people seem to be misunderstanding me. I am in no way claiming it is cultural appropriation. My vote of OP being partially at fault is because they decided to escalate the confrontation by dropping Yiddish words every chance they got, rather than just going on speaking normally.” – TinyRascalSaurus

While the responses remained somewhat mixed, many Redditors thought the OP was innocent of the accusation that she was guilty of cultural appropriation.

Written by Koh Mochizuki

Koh Mochizuki is a Los Angeles based actor whose work has been spotted anywhere from Broadway stages to Saturday Night Live.
He received his B.A. in English literature and is fluent in Japanese.
In addition to being a neophyte photographer, he is a huge Disney aficionado and is determined to conquer all Disney parks in the world to publish a photographic chronicle one day. Mickey goals.
Instagram: kohster Twitter: @kohster1 Flickr: nyckmo