Ancient Language Meets Modern Zoo: Group to Take 1st-Ever Yiddish Tour

There have been Spanish (lots), Japanese (more and more), German, French, Cantonese, Mandarin, Canadian (that’s a joke) and Russian.

And now: Yiddish.

Yes, the first-ever Yiddish language tour of the San Diego Zoo is set for Dec. 26. A highlight of the Yiddish by the Sea convention sponsored by the 12-year-old National Yiddish Book Center of Amherst, Mass.

The group, which maintains a library of one million books, is dedicated to keeping the Yiddish language and culture alive. The convention will be five days of lectures, readings, films and theater at the San Diego Princess Resort.


Why a Yiddish-language zoo tour? Why not? asks Pearl-Anne Margalit, the convention director.

What better way, she asks, to give the 120 or so conventioneers a sense of Yiddish as a living, breathing language than a tour of a modern zoo complete with Yiddish names for all the beasts therein?

The chore of translating a list of names of exotic animals has fallen to Prof. Mordkhe Schaechter, senior lecturer emeritus in Yiddish studies at Columbia University.

“It gave me quite a bit of headache,” he said.


Some words were a cinch. Tiger, lion and leopard are easily found in Yiddish stories. Not so boa constrictor. Not a lot of boa constrictors were found in Eastern Europe, where Yiddish developed in the Middle Ages.

Schaechter scoured Yiddish dictionaries, Yiddish thesauruses, early 20th-Century Yiddish zoology texts, and Yiddish travelogues. Finally, success: He found a boa reference in a Yiddish weekly publication from 1867.

Foreign-language tours are not unusual at the zoo. Not with 262,000 foreign visitors a year.

The zoo does not provide translators. Rather, it issues a standard roster of animal names (in English) and lets the groups have at it.


Several of the hundred-plus names have yet defied Schaechter, mostly animals from the equatorial zones. Still, his work continues apace.

He’s patient. Among his works is a complete Yiddish translation of all the fishes at the New York Aquarium.

It’s hard to keep a good language down, he said, or words to that effect.

Jailhouse Reunion


Once, they shared a jail cell, so ex-Rolodex Madam Karen Wilkening returned Sunday to Las Colinas Jail to see Betty Broderick.

It was their first visit in two years, since Wilkening was taken from Las Colinas to state prison, where she served 18 months before being paroled in May.

During their 20-minute visit, Wilkening said Broderick “was obviously trying to maintain her composure, but her voice was high-pitched and her thoughts were a bit scattered.”

On the eve of the verdict, Broderick asked about prison life “especially about how much credit you can get for jail time” already served.


Wilkening said she tried to comfort Broderick with the thought that prison is not as dispiriting as county jail:

“I tried to point out that, in prison, you can make out OK: you can take classes, get a job, actually touch your visitors. In jail, she hasn’t been able to touch any visitors for two years.

“She seemed to like the idea of being able to touch people again.”

All in all, Wilkening said she found her friend in remarkably good shape, although tired and apprehensive about the future. They did not discuss the trial:


“She rallied, as she always does. We are both alike: we were raised as ladies.”

Wilkening had been prepared to testify as a character witness but was not called by the defense, possibly because of the media furor it would have provoked.

Wilkening said she will definitely testify at the time of sentencing.

Empty Thievery


Take a look.

* The grinches who stole the brightly colored packages from the Christmas display near the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park are going to be disappointed.

The stolen packages are empty. It’s happened before, so precautions were taken.

* San Diego bumper sticker: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Plead Guilty.”


* Holiday cheer: The X-rated bookstores along University Avenue are hanging Christmas lights.