Yiddish Names

*Note: The informant, Laura, is my mother. She’s a Jewish woman who identifies with Yiddish aspects of Jewish culture.


INFORMANT: “A lot of the jokes were based on misunderstandings of Yiddish words, because there was a lot of that. There were a lot of things like… my great uncles were three brothers, and in Russia they were Levenbuch, and when they came through Elllis Island, they each went through separately, and the people at Ellis Island just wrote down what they thought they heard them saying, and so when they started their life in America, one was Levenbook, one was Levenbrook, and one was Levenburg. So there was a lot of that, but the story that they like to tell was about a nervous Jewish guy coming through Ellis Island, and he was so flustered when he got there that they asked him his name and he said in Yiddish: “Jin fergessen,” which means “I forget,” and they wrote down “Shane Ferguson.” Which couldn’t be any less of a Jewish name if you tried. There was a lot of that, making fun of the language, because Yiddish is not a written-down language, it’s a spoken language, so pretty much everything we did in terms of calling things … speaking in Yiddish, calling things Yiddish names and the Yiddish jokes were all based on this language that developed over time that wasn’t really a written language but it was more like a cultural language. so it’s very rich in, you know, this is the cultural part of Judaism that we’re imbued with.”


Yiddish is an interesting case of folklore because it’s a language that’s almost completely carried by oral tradition – Yiddish is not a written language like Hebrew, and it’s hard to peg down agreed-upon spellings for many Yiddish words. Yet, Yiddish is carried on by the Jewish people and even by non-Jews, because several Yiddish words have been adopted into the general English vocabulary. People use words like “shmutz,” “shmuck,” and “nosh” on a regular basis, without really even realizing they’re using Yiddish words!

These stories are also significant to folklore because they exemplify the hilarity resulting from cultural differences. Americans at Ellis Island couldn’t quite grasp the Jewish last names of the incoming immigrants, so Jewish people often lost their names to more Americanized surnames like “Ferguson” in the case of the Shane Ferguson joke. It’s a moment of cultural mixing.