Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker made a mishmash of Yiddish, when a letter he sent to a Jewish constituent regarding Hanukkah was signed off with the phrase “Thank you again and Molotov.” In an undated but recently posted letter about a public Hanukkah menorah display, Walker awkwardly wished someone a “Molotov,” although he most likely meant “Mazel tov.” However, even that would be an odd way to cheer on a Jewish American about his or her winter holiday. Mazel tov means “good luck,” and is typically used to congratulate someone upon a major milestone such as a bat or bar mitzvah, wedding, birth, or an achievement in the scholastic or business realm.
Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that his use of the word “Molotov” was likely a “typo.” But news and media sources are having a biselle (bit of) fun with this misused honorific.
In fact, Molotov is actually a made-up name that was coined by Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Russian politician and Stalinist, who crafted his famous surname from the Russian word “molotok” or hammer. In common parlance a “molotov cocktail” is a crude incendiary device, and the word/name is also the name of a Mexican rock band. (And Molotov, whose surname at birth was “Skryabin”, was married to a Jewish woman.)
American English does incorporate a number of Yiddish words and phrases into its lexicon. Yiddish, a hybrid language largely composed of Hebrew and German words, with a sprinkling (“shpritz”) of others, is typically written with Hebrew letters. Transliterated Yiddish words that are common to English include bagel (that beloved round bread product found nearly everywhere in the US), chutzpah (nerve, audacity), glitch (minor error), klutz (clumsy person), lox (cured salmon slices), nosh (snack, both as a verb and noun), shlep (drag, haul), shtick (comic theme or personality quirk), tush (derriere), among many others.
The number of fluent Yiddish speakers in the United States and throughout the world is relatively small, and linguists thought the Yiddish language would possibly die out, especially after the Holocaust of World War Two. However, there are communities in the US, Canada, Europe and Israel and elsewhere that use it, and dozens of Yiddish words are used daily by Americans, many of whom may not even realize when they “kibbitz” (chat lightly) in Yiddish. And people who mix together their English and Yiddish are gabbing in “Yinglish.”
So, nu, was Scott Walker’s blunder a “shanda” (shame, even abomination) or was it just a hapless utterance of a schlmiel (awkward person)? As my father might say with a laugh “Der oylam is a golem” (the world is a monster).
Ellen is the author of The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn (2009), The Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens (2011) and The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan (2013). (And hopefully a book about NJ ? ?one day, if her publisher gives the green light.)?http://www.avotaynu.com/