Joseph Witriol’s Journal – Part 21: Supercalorieflagellisticexhibitiondocious

Wednesday, 4th June 1958 – 9.15am

3rd day of diet – at least one has had sufficient will-power to persevere thus far. I shall probably be able to get down to 13 stone, the problem would be to avoid slipping back. I think the answer might be to get a bathroom weighing machine – if and when funds permit – get down to x lb; and immediately my weight rises beyond x+7lb. ( x+5lb.?) go on a 2-day banana-and-milk diet. “Moderation” all the time I find myself unable to observe.

John Calder wrote asking me for specimens of my translating as they had a book on Janáček for translation. The book, I gather, is not much longer than Brod’s, but more technical. I suppose I ought to try to do it if they give me the job, but I face the prospect with no great enthusiasm. It would mean practically no time for myself and Edith – in that order, because I wouldn’t complain if I didn’t devote enough time to myself, not that Edith really “complains” either, but, well darling – if you read this, please let me explain – and there is the galling feeling that all the work I have done on Brod’s book would be completely wasted. Perhaps not completely though. I sent Calder the MS of the Brod study; perhaps that might be the decisive factor in their decision to entrust the work to me (awful English, I know, but not pleonastic; how should it be re-written?).

All these irons in the fire, nothing seems to come from them. Janson-Smith wrote, in answer to my request for news of my translation of Brod’s Cicero, that Elek had “reluctantly returned” the TS after 6 months because they were unable to find an American publisher to “share the cost of translation.” I’d asked for 2 gns. a thou, Lionel Kochan had previously written to me that they seldom paid more than 1½ gns a thou – I’m prepared to “let down my trousers”, as they say in Yiddish and let ’em have the 100M TS for 75 gns. (I don’t know whether die Hosen nachlassen exists in this sense in German – anyway I suppose it would be die Hosen herablassen. The idiom is coarse, but is the one that instinctively comes to mind. I suppose the idea is: you try to avoid taking down your trousers – I was going to write until you get to the toilet, but if you have to (have to accept the best bargain you can make), then you have no alternative but to “let down your trousers” – but it strikes me the idea is simply: you try to preserve your dignity and keep your trousers up by asking the price you want (2 gn), but if you’re forced to reveal the essential weakness of your position, then you must do so (stand revealed in all the shame of let-down trousers) in order to get the cash. I wonder if I could take this up with Bithell, from whom I have a letter to answer.

This rather unscholarly (flagellate yourself, boy, you can take it) philological excursus leaves me with time for only the bare record: lunched with Paul Hulton & Edith, visited Hazor exhibition at B.M. – Madeleine Blumstein was doing the conducted tour. With characteristic gaucherie I beat a hasty retreat when I saw her as for the life of me I couldn’t remember her name. Edith, strangely (?) enough remembered it – she thought I had had a sudden urge to perform a natural function – and told it to me when she came out to see what had become of me. I must say I thought it was quite a feat to talk for fifty minutes without notes, even allowing for the fact that the exhibits formed points d’appui. Edith surprised at the “deference” I showed Madeleine – silly girl.

Later heard Rabbi Maybaum talking on Franz Rosenzweig. I went chiefly, almost wholly, with the idea of putting another iron in the fire. I had gathered that a group of people were trying to float a translation of R’s works. Maybaum good: a yekke who knows his philosophy, and only a slight accent. Moreover, he remembered my “splendid” humorous articles. His thesis: agnosticism or humanism > Hitlerism could have plenty of holes picked in it (then why didn’t I pick them; politely, elegantly, devastatingly, instead of babbling inconsequentially in the discussion?) but he produced some good phrases from Kant: “the starry heavens above me and the (? ? moral law, I think,) within me” – I’d heard that one before – and ” God is a thought within me.”

Mumme Loohshen, An Anatomy of Yiddish, by Joseph Witriol

Mumme Loohshen, Joseph Witriol’s book on Yiddish, is now “published” at The Yiddish recorded in the book is that spoken by his mother, mumme loohshen (mame loshen being one of several more usual transcriptions). In the few instances where this deviates, or seems to deviate, from “printed” Yiddish he still records what he heard his mother speak. It was the first linguistically oriented book on the Yiddish language as a whole to be written in English.

For non-linguists, his discussion of Yiddish proverbs and sayings and words and idioms would undoubtedly be more accessible than the meaty, text-book like chapters on the HebrewGerman and Slav elements of the language. Many examples that he uses to illustrate words and expressions reflect his own circumstances and experiences as a Jew growing up in London in the 1920s and 1930s as well as his later life as a teacher, husband and father. The final chapter entitled The Tragedy of Yiddish is a moving one, albeit with a concluding opinion that some would reject.

A quote from one of his letters to a publisher:

“…[Mumme Loohshen] is a comprehensive survey of the Yiddish language [with] a strong linguistic bias. The book is discursive in style and, I hope, makes pleasurable reading. Inevitably, however, there are a few parts which are of a text-book nature. The book contains a great deal of solid linguistic information which I believe can be found in no other English book, certainly not in Leo Rosten’s Joys of Yiddish or Lilian Mermin Feinsilver’s The Taste of YiddishGermanisten, in particular, would find the description of the links joining Yiddish with Archaic German and Middle High German of great interest….”

I discovered from this hand-written draft of a letter to The Jewish Chronicle’s Publications Department that he first mooted the idea in April 1952 and he wrote

I hope to have the complete typescript ready by 30th September 1953 (sic).

[His sic presumably shows that he meant to write 1952.]

The reply from the Manager is here. The next letter I have – two decades and three kids later – is also to The Jewish Chronicle and in it he says he has completed the typescript!

I have various typescripts and hand-written articles written, I presume, at about the same time. This one is on the Polish and Russian elements in Yiddish.

For the next three years, as he put it with typical self-deprecating candour,

“…like the young man who was thrown out of some of the best Jewish houses, [Mumme Loohshen] was rejected by some of the best Jewish and non-Jewish publishers…”

Some of these rejections are here as well as letters to and from at least one vanity publishing outfit as well as “some of the best Jewish and non-Jewish publishers”.

Apart from the customary spousal thanks, the Acknowledgments page mentions Gabriel Richard Stern, a good friend of my father’s, who helped with Polish and Russian words. This document has queries dad sent to him with his responses.

I am happy for the work, or extracts from it, to be published elsewhere, but would appreciate acknowledgement of the author and a link to the original website.

First Jewish Chronicle article

This is my father’s first article in The Jewish Chronicle. At least, it is the first one in the cuttings book in which he preserved his published articles and reviews. He noted that he was paid three guineas for it.

I have uploaded it in this post as a pdf file from the JC archives which may take a little while to open.

It summarises some of the key points he makes at greater length in Mumme Loohshen – an Anatomy of the Yiddish Language I note he used a different transcription in the article, namely mamme lushen.

Translations from German and Hebrew

The penultimate part of Journal entries relating to Hasmonean are here.

As well as his personal Journal,  unpublished autobiography and Yiddish book,  he also had two significant translations published.  These are two sites which a quick and unacademic Google search brings up:’s_wilderness

God’s Wilderness Discoveries in Sinai
Beno Rothenberg ; in collaboration with Yohanan Aharoni and Avia Hashimshoni ; [translated from the Hebrew by Joseph Witriol].


Heinrich Heine : the artist in revolt / by M.Brod. Trans. from the German by J.Witriol

Serendipitously I spotted the latter book in a Magg’s catalogue of books for sale from Yehudi Menuhin’s library – see also here. It’s worth a look at their site – they are one of the most renowned antiquarian booksellers in the world.

Mumme Looshen – An Anatomy of Yiddish

Over thirty seven years ago my father, Joseph Witriol (1912 – 2002), typed up the 200 page manuscript of his work which he called Mumme Loohshen, An Anatomy of Yiddish.

In the preface he wrote:

 “This is the first linguistically oriented book on the Yiddish language as a whole, as opposed to monographs on specific aspects of Yiddish linguistics, to be written in English.”

This was researched and written in the pre-internet era and typed on an electric typewriter, with its limitations. Eight and a half years after his death in March 2002 and I have still not managed to completely retype it on computer. But I am nearly there.

I still have to decide whether to ‘publish’ it directly onto the net or first try traditional publishing.

I also want to use this site to give some sort of background and context to the work. I have changed as little as possible in the text as I do not want to alter a work that reflects my dad’s style and personality as well as recognising that it was written in the 1970s.

There are technical, specific aspects – for instance some references will be dated, e.g. referring to the Ukrainian SSR. Some – at that time – unpublished works may have now been published and so on.

My dad sometimes used complex and lengthy sentences which need careful reading. This is particularly true – and harder to avoid – when one is discussing the interplay between three or more languages.

He also uses ‘difficult’ words and – usually difficult by definition – foreign words and tags. This was not an affectation, but a natural aspect of his impressive vocabulary and literary knowledge. And they can be whimsical, useful words like borborygmus.

In today’s world of beyond-parody PC gold standards, some references will fall short. So sue.

Punctuation, spelling and other stylistic conventions have sometimes been kept – again, this means deviating from today’s norms.

In part intentionally, partly for practical reasons, the work was written only in English so neither Yiddish or Hebrew words are in Hebrew characters.

There are references to other pages in the text, but I will probably let Ctrl + F do the work.

I’m still mulling over whether to include the comprehensive word lists and index that must have entailed many hours of tedious toil on my dad’s part.

My editing and typing up has been somewhat haphazard. For example, I usually ignored stress marks for the first hundred or so pages before deciding I should keep them. I may tighten that up eventually.

Some passages baffled me but as I have no knowledge of German and very little Hebrew, I have not changed anything as it is as likely to be my misreading as it is my father’s miswriting. Again, I may well go back to these, once I have published.

I will also add entries about the background to the book, the research, the writing etc. And from that to my dad’s other articles and translations from Hebrew, Yiddish, German and French.

And then to his life (including his, also unpublished, ‘autobiography’ and Journal which he regularly wrote for over 40 years) which, inter alia, provide fascinating insights into both the domestic mundane as well as the wider and tragic events he directly witnessed or lived through.

July 2012 update: Mumme Loohshen, An Anatomy of Yiddish is now online here and I have scanned “Also Lived” The Autobiography of a Failure.