Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews  entry 2003
Everything is related to Naples
Number 108 in this series. Link to all items here.

Yiddish & Pizza

There is such an exotic abundance of languages on the busses in Naples these days that you feel as if you have wandered into a workshop run by the Summer Institute of Linguistics, those busy beavers of bible translation who tell us, for example, that there are 8 languages spoken in Sri Lanka, 8 in the Ukraine, 9 in Tunisia, 82 in Ethiopia, and 470 in Nigeria.

I hear some of them, I'm sure, on the busses, depending on the time of day. In the mornings there are loads of immigrant woman from Sri Lanka and the Ukraine on their way to work as maids and cooks (termed COLF in Italian, for "collaboratrici familiari"—family helpers). Later in the day, young African men toting huge sports bags jammed with sundry leather goods such as purses and belts are seen making their way to the bustling pedestrian malls downtown to peddle their wares.

Interestingly, of the 33 languages listed for Italy, I generally hear only two of those on the busses: one is standard Italian; the other is Neapolitan dialect. (Remember: linguists joke that the difference between a language and a dialect is that a language has an army.) There is even a language I had never heard of, much less actually heard:

Judeo-Italian. A tiny number speak it fluently; perhaps 4,000 occasionally use elements of it in their speech (1/10th of Italy's 40,000 Jews). Linguistic affiliation: Indo-European, Italic, Romance, Italo-Western, Italo-Romance. More commonly spoken two generations ago. Used in Passover song. Jewish. Nearly extinct.
I don't think anyone in the small (around 300-400) Naples Jewish community speaks it, but I'll have to ask Aldo, a friend of ours. He is in his 90's and a few years ago became the second oldest university graduate in the history of the Italian state. He was a young man when the Fascists were in power and, because he was a Jew, was denied entrance to a university. He bided his time and years later, at the age of 80, wrote his university dissertation on The Influence of Napoleon on the Liberation of European Jewry. He says he had difficulty even finding a so-called "graduate advisor" for his thesis; that is, some professor who knew enough about the subject to judge what he wrote. They did a short spot on him on national television, where they showed him getting his degree. He sported an elegant blue suit and an enormous smile.

Aldo speaks only Italian, and it is my impression that almost no Italian Jews speak Yiddish. Once, an elderly Jewish gentleman from New York whom I met in Naples asked if there was a synagogue in Naples. Indeed, there was, and I took him down there. He spoke no Italian, but he did speak Yiddish, a disappearing language even among American Jews. He managed to communicate in Yiddish at the Naples synagogue with a single elderly gentleman, a resident of Naples but originally from Eastern Europe. They spoke while the younger generation of Neapolitan Jewry stood around and listened, absolutely transfixed as they listened to the historic language of the Diaspora.

Of border-line relevance in the paper some time ago was a human interest story. There was a photo, taken in Portland, Oregon of a young man and woman —"street people"—  sitting on their bags on the sidewalk. One of them was holding up a sign that says: "Pizza Schmizza paid me to hold this sign instead of asking for money." The caption above the photo said: "The Homeless. New frontiers in advertising". The paragraph below said, simply, that the kids were paid only in pizza and soft-drinks, and that this seemed to be a new record in aggressive advertising. Reading between the lines, they meant, I think, "a new low in advertising". The reason it was featured in a Neapolitan paper, no doubt, had to do with the pizza. Neapolitans are always concerned that the rest of the world is doing something wrong, clumsy, and unorthodox —with an outright potential for true evil— with the real Neapolitan product. (My wife's comment upon eating a Taco Pizza in Honolulu pretty much sums it up: "This is pretty good, but they should call it something else. It's not pizza.")

I even ran into a young Japanese cook in Naples a few weeks ago. He didn't speak a word of Italian, but his sponsors in Kagoshima, Japan, had sent him to Naples with an interpreter (!) to learn how to make real pizza and bring home the bacon (not an authentic topping, by the way) to Japan where he will strut his stuff in a genuine Neapolitan pizza place in Kagoshima. That city and Naples have one of these strange "sister city" deals going. There is also a street named "via Kagoshima" in Naples (click here). There may very well be young Neapolitan cooks running around Kagoshima at this very moment with their interpreters, learning how to make sushi and fugu, the infamous poisonous puffer or blowfish of the family Tetraodontidae, class Osteichthyes, and order Tetraodontiformes, the body of which contains a toxin 1250 times more powerful than cyanide, one serving of which costs $200, and even a slightly imperfect preparation of which will kill you in no time flat. There is, by the way, at least one Japanese restaurant in Naples, and that does not reassure me.

What the paper didn't explain, and what the proprietor of my local morning coffee bar wanted to know, was the name of the restaurant, "Pizza Schmizza". I explained that it was a chain of restaurants in the US state of Oregon. But what was "schimizza"?

"Maybe it's Neapolitan Yiddish," I said.

That didn't do any good, since, as I have said, not even Neapolitan Jews speak or know anything about Yiddish.

"OK, then it's a Yiddish example of what is called, depending on the context,  'echo-word reduplication,' 'linguistic doubling,' 'rhyming reduplication' and, at linguistics department beer-parties, 'phonesthemic doubling'. Some examples in English are drinky-winky, harum-scarum, helter-skelter, higgledy-piggledy, and in so-called Cockney Rhyming Slang, 'loaf' for 'head' (since 'loaf of bread' rhymes with 'head'). Yiddish uses the sound 'schm—' as the PSDA (Phonesthemic Secret Double Agent) for humorous effect."


Farther afield —leaving pizza and schmizza behind, but still in the baffling Neapolitan-Yiddish crossover department— is the Neapolitan song, Oj, Marì! (complete text, here). Italian-American singers are required to sing it wrong (!) in order not to cause giggles since the Neapolitan oy sounds exactly like the Yiddish expression of despair, oy (as in Oy, vey.) If you sing Oj, Marì! to a bunch of people (say, in New York) who are familiar with Yiddish, they'll start laughing and saying things like "Oy, Mary. Why don't you marry a nice Jewish boy?" Thus, singers such as Dean Martin had to sing, Uè, Marì! That expression, (sounds like English way) is, indeed, Neapolitan, but it means "HEY!" whereas the original oj (sounds like O-E) is the vocative O! in Neapolitan —vocative as in O Lord! and, in this case, O Mary! But instead of saying O Mary!, with Uè, Marì! you're saying "Hey! Mary! or even worse, something like "Yo! Mary!" It gets even more confusing since Yo is dyslexic Yiddish for Oy.

I need a drinky-winky.

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