Thursday, December 29, 2005

Yiddish in Movies

I rewatched "Blazing Saddles" the other day for the first time in many years, and for the first time since I learned Yiddish. I watched it in part because there is a famous scene with Yiddish in it that I wanted to see. The movie is, of course, a classic, and one of Mel Brooks's best. The Yiddish, on the other hand, ain't so hot. In addition to mixing dialects and switching between formal and informal pronouns, Brooks's character, a Yiddish-speaking Native American, uses the pronoun אים (him) to mean 'them,' and he imports both vowels and adjective endings from German. A bit disappointing, but there you go. What this shows, I think, is how poorly most American-born Jews of Brooks's generation learned Yiddish, and yet how confident they were in their own knowledge. Or perhaps confident isn't the right word, since I think most of these mistakes stem from Brooks's overthinking things. Still, though, he could have checked.

On the other hand, last night I watched "Dirty Dancing" for the very first time (my wife's idea). Not a great movie, but it has some great music, including Solomon Burke's majestic and forgotten "Cry To Me." Imagine my surprise, though, when a bit of incidental dialogue was in Yiddish, and perfect Yiddish at that. In this scene Tito Suarez, a bandleader (played by tap-dancing legend Honi Coles), says to the owner of a Catskills resort:

"?װאָס הערט זיך מיט דיר, מיסטער קעלערמאַן"
(How's it going, Mr. Kellerman?), to which the aforementioned Mr. Kellerman replies,
".פֿרעג נישט"
(Don't ask.)

So what I want to know is why the Blazing Saddles scene, with four mistakes in three lines, is so well known, while this scene is, as far as I can tell from Google searches, entirely unknown. I have a couple of guesses. One is that "Blazing Saddles" is a much-loved movie, whereas I think most people, myself among them, feel embarassed about watching "Dirty Dancing." Another reason is that Brooks draws a good deal of attention to the Yiddish in "Blazing Saddles," whereas you could almost miss it in "Dirty Dancing." A less obvious explanation, though, but a fairly cogent one, is that in the thirteen years between the respective productions of these movies the percentage of movie-goers who understood Yiddish dropped significantly.


Anonymous said...

the yiddish wasn't in the orginal release, but included in a later DVD version that included cut scenes

Anonymous said...

I have wanted to know the Yiddish in Dirty Dancing for years! So glad you posted a translation. Be embarrassed if you want, but Dirty Dancing is a love story and nothing more and that's nothing to be embarrassed about. It's still going strong 25 years later for a reason... but still, thanks so much for that translation! Couldn't find that anywhere!