Religion & Beliefs

Missionary Yiddish

When I worked in the Jewish world, I was at first surprised, then annoyed, and eventually amused to find that my motives for being there were often suspect. People sometimes wondered if I was some kind of missionary, which to … Read More

By / January 22, 2009

When I worked in the Jewish world, I was at first surprised, then annoyed, and eventually amused to find that my motives for being there were often suspect. People sometimes wondered if I was some kind of missionary, which to me was the greatest laugh of all, since if I was to convert anyone it would only be to the restless, wishywashy agnosticism that was my creed at the time. As far as I was concerned, I was a harmless novelty, harmlessly enjoying a novel experience. Except I wasn’t so novel. I didn’t know it then, but I had stumbled into a long and fraught history of Christians mucking about in Jewish linguistic waters. Not too long ago, "Missionary Yiddish" was a common term used to refer to the attempts of Christians to use the language of Eastern European Jews in their evangelizing efforts. In the 1920s, the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago even began offering its own program in Jewish Studies. No strictly scholarly pursuit, the program was created for the purpose of educating evangelists in the basics of Jewish culture and language. The missionaries’ hope was that the first voices Jewish immigrants heard as they entered the New World would missionary voices speaking in Yiddish – stilted, classroom Yiddish, but Yiddish nonetheless.   If there is a funny part to all this, it is that these missionaries had no idea that the language they were appropriating to spread the gospel had already inoculated its speakers against the faith.

In Yiddish as in no other langauge, the basic assumptions of Christianity were undercut. By the time Moody began teaching it, Jesus had long been a figure of both fear and derision in the Yiddish speaking world. The savior was regularly referred to by dismissive nicknames like Yoizel, Getzel, and most creatively Yoshke Pandre. The layers of meaning in this last name are amazing: Using the diminutive Yiddish suffix "-ke," Yoshke might be translated as "Little Joe," tweaking Jesus’s non-biological relationship to the credulous husband of Mary. Pandre, meanwhile, is Yiddish for "panther," a reference to the allegations dating to Origen (and repeated in the Talmud) that the father of Jesus was neither God, nor Joseph the carpenter, but a plundering Roman soldier called Pantera (Latin for "panther"). Thus the name slyly makes Jesus’s birth illegitimate and those associated with it either rapists or fools.

Thanks to the multilingual flexibility of Yiddish (and to its capacity to add insult to injury), this nickname was further elaborated upon. Taking the first part of Pandre as the Russian honorific Pan ("Sir" or "Lord"), and adding a letter to the second syllable to form the Yiddish drek, Yiddish speakers spoke derisively of Yoshke Pan Drek, applying to Jesus Christ a name roughly equivalent to a vulgarized version of Joe the Plumber: "Little Joe, Lord of Shit." I’m still not a Yiddish speaking missionary, but I must admit I feel for those hapless fellows speaking about Jesus in Yiddish. The poor shlimazels thought Jews didn’t know about the messiah they were peddling. In fact, Jews knew him well. They just didn’t like him.

Peter Manseau, author of Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and he’ll be here all week.  Stay tuned.