Episode 77: Word of the Week: Yenta

[Theme music plays]

Nahanni: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous, here with Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history and Jewish culture meet.

[Theme music fades and jingle music plays]

Nahanni: Welcome to Can We Talk’s Word of the Week, a brand-new mini-series where we dig into one word and explore how it relates to Jewish women. First up: Yenta!

[Clip from Fiddler on the Roof play]: Oh Yente Yente Yente!

[Jingle music plays]

Judy: I'm definitely a yenta.

Miriam: I don't know if it's positive or negative, but it's sort of got this, like, all-knowing, gossipy figure who really knows everything about what's going on.

Lizzie: I love to yenta. I am always yenta-ing.

[Jingle music plays]

Nahanni: You may have noticed that yenta is being used here as both a noun and a verb.  But Yente started off as a name.  And the most famous Yente of all time is Yente the Matchmaker, from Fiddler on the Roof.

[Clip from Fiddler on the Roof movie]

Shprintze: Mama, mama, Yente the matchmaker is coming! 

Chava: Maybe she’s finally found a good match for you, Tzeitel! 

Golde: From your mouth to God’s ears.

Nahanni: How did the name Yente leap from the screen into popular culture and take on a life of its own? We’re about to hear from the person who literally wrote the book on that. But first, we wanted to know what people think about this word—so we asked! Jen Richler talked about it with some very cool Jewish women: author Lizzie Skurnick, TikTok star and Torah commentator Miriam Anzovin, and comedian Judy Gold.

[jingle music plays]

Jen: What about the word yenta?

Lizzie: I actually love the term yenta because I just am a huge yenta.

Miriam: I think sometimes people proudly self-describe as yentas when they have all the juicy gossip they can share. They're trying to make matches in the community and trying to, uh, hook you up with somebody they think will work out.

Judy: I mean, I think you can use a yenta, uh, to get the word out. But also, do you trust a yenta? If you're talking to a yenta, you know that person's a yenta and you're going to stop at a certain point.

[Jingle music plays]

You're at a bar mitzvah, you're at a wedding, you're at the sisterhood thing. And you're at your table and you're all talking and then yenta walks over…you don't continue your conversation if everyone knows that person's a yenta, right? It's like, okay, everyone stop, you know, yenta’s coming over.

Jen: And you think you’re one? You think you're one of these people?

Judy: I think I am…I think comedians are. I mean, we go out in public and talk. But there’s a fearlessness about a yenta.

Miriam: They're all up in everybody's business, but there's also something a little bit endearing about it as well, because it's indicative of the fact that they care.

Lizzie: I actually think chattering and gossiping and catching up are really, sort of, you know, fundamental, very important parts of the human experience.

Judy: I don't think all yentas are gossips. I think that there are some yentas that will stand up for what's right.

Nahanni: That was Judy Gold, and before her, Miriam Anzovin and Lizzie Skurnick, on some positive and negative associations with the word yenta. But what does our resident yenta expert Jan Lisa Huttner think?

Jan: I accepted yenta as a noun, just like everyone else. I'm sure I called people a yenta, I'm sure that I worried that people might call me a yenta. Yenta is, in Yinglish, a very pejorative word—busybody, gossip, not flattering to any woman.

Nahanni: But it turns out, Jan says, that’s not what yenta means at all.

Jan: So where did this whole yenta-the-noun come from? And that really was the beginning of a quest that lasted a decade. 

Nahanni: Jan has been studying and writing about Fiddler on the Roof for most of her career. In her book, Diamond Fiddler, she explains that the characterization of yenta as a meddler and blabbermouth is a distortion. Yente started out having positive associations.

Jan: The name Yente turns out to be an extremely venerable name of very long origin coming from the Italian root, and it's the same root word that gives rise in English to genteel, to gentleman and gentry.

Nahanni: Yente was a common name in the shtetls of Europe, but when Jews came to America, it became less popular. People thought it sounded old-fashioned.

The first well-known character with the name Yente comes from a story by the Yiddish folklorist and author Sholem Aleichem called The Little Pot. In the story, Yente the Poultrywoman goes to her rabbi to find out if she can still use her meat pot after some milk has splashed on it.  She wants the answer to be yes, so she tells the rabbi a sob story in the hopes of getting her way.

Jan: The next major appearance in the United States is in this series of stories called Yente Telebende. Was Yente Telebende a gossip or a busybody? No, she was not. She was just a woman in the United States, a Jewish woman, trying to make the best of her lot.

Jen: So most people don’t know Yente the Poultrywoman or Yente Telebende. They know Yente as the matchmaker from Fiddler on the Roof. Is it because of Fiddler that the name Yente comes to refer to a gossipy woman?

Jan: It’s very much… but again, it's a more complicated story. One of the major points that I address in my book, Diamond Fiddler, is the difference between stage and screen. So I talk a great deal about who the Yente character was in 1964, when Bea Arthur played her on Broadway under the direction of Jerome Robbins, and how radically different that character is in 1971, when Norman Jewison releases Fiddler on the Roof on screen.

[violin music from Fiddler on the Roof movie plays]

Jan:  I want everybody to remember Bea Arthur—and I think a lot of people will—she was Maude on the Maude show. She was Dorothy in the Golden Girls. She's a very well-known character actress, much loved to this day. She was very tall, very imposing, had a loud, booming voice. And at the time that Fiddler on the Roof had its premiere in 1964, she was 42 years old.

[Clip of Bea Arthur as Yente in Fiddler play]

Yente: Avram, I have a perfect match for your son, a wonderful girl!

Avram: Who is it?

Yente: Ruchel, the shoemaker’s daughter.

Avram: Ruchel? She can hardly see, she’s almost blind.

Yente: To tell the truth, Avram, is your son so much to look at? The way she sees and the way he looks, it’s a perfect match!

Jan: What Bea Arthur was capturing in 1964…talking to men, bargaining with men, making these deals, right? You cut to 1971, Molly Picon was 70, she was tiny, and she was kvetchy.

Nahanni: Here’s Molly Picon, kvetching in the movie version.

[Clip of Molly Picon as Yente in the movie version]

Yente: Ever since my husband died, I’ve been a poor widow, all alone, no one to talk to, nothing to say to anyone. All night, I lie awake, thinking of him… and even thinking of him… gives me no pleasure.

Jan: She never speaks to men—she only speaks to women.

[clip from movie]

Yente: What does that poor skinny tailor want with Tzeitel?

Golde: They’ve been friends since they were babies. They talk, they play.

Yente: They play?? What do they play?

Golde: I don’t know, they’re children.

Yente: From such children come other children.

Jan: It's exactly in 1971 that yenta takes off and explodes as a term in Yinglish. So it's definitely the Molly Picon character in the film that gives rise to gossip and busybody.

Jen:  I mean, I think if you asked a lot of people today— and in fact we have asked some people how they think of the word yenta, how they use it and how they hear it used—and they do have that association. Um, so it sounds like it's been enduring.

Jan: Nobody wants to name their child Yente anymore.

Jen: [laughs]

Jan:  I mean, you may have a grandmother Yente, you may have a great- grandmother Yente. You would never name your child Yente today.

Jen: Maybe we can reclaim Yente.

Jan: That's a large part of my mission in fact.

Jen: As much as some women I informally polled about this word have that association with gossip and being in people's business, several of them self- identified as yentas quite proudly…and I think—maybe in the spirit of what you're trying to do—have kind of reclaimed it as a source of pride in being someone who really is interested in what's going on and who’s sort of trying to connect different people and…who's using her… powers for good.

Jan: Well, I don't know if it's for good or evil, but certainly all of us know that networking is a critical part of getting ahead in the modern world, right? She's a businesswoman. And I think what you're saying is that you're connecting the idea of being successful in business with having some of these feminine skills.

[Clip from movie]

Yente: Golde! Golde! I have such news for you. And not “every day in the week” news —“once in a lifetime” news!....Such diamonds, such jewels. I’ll find a husband for every one of them. But you shouldn’t be so picky! Right? Of course right!

Jan: I also think that there's a benefit from the Me Too movement. Women's speech has been mocked and suppressed for centuries, and much of women's speech, as we learned in the Me Too movement, was finally saying one woman to another, “Watch out for that guy” or whatever. The speech that had been suppressed, what they were told was lashon hara—forbidden speech, gossipy—turned out to be true facts.

[Jingle music plays]

Nahanni: We’ve traced Yente from a fashionable name meaning “genteel,” to a character that was a savvy businesswoman, who morphed into a kvetchy busybody, which then became a word to describe any woman who had her fingers in too many pots.

Jan: So this is the moment when, after 20-plus years of research on my part, I'm in a position to say to you, here's the truth about the etymology of this word. Here's the way in which a very venerable word was polluted and sent into popular culture to shame women. And here's the moment when we take it back. And if someone calls you a yenta, I think you should wear it with pride.

[Clip from movie]

Yente: What’s the use complaining? Other women enjoy complaining—not Yente.  Not every woman in the world is a Yente! Well, I have to go home now, to prepare my poor Sabbath meal.  So goodbye Golde, and it was a pleasure talking our hearts out to each other.

Nahanni:  Always a pleasure, Yente! And that’s our Word of the Week.

[jingle music plays]

Thank you for listening to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive.  Our team includes Jen Richler and Judith Rosenbaum. Special thanks to Jenny Sartori. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. Thanks to Alicia Jo Rabins for letting us use her tunes for our new Word of the Week jingle. You can find Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk or wherever you get your podcasts.

I’m your host, Nahanni  Rous. Tune in next time for another Word of the Week: gaslighting!

 

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 77: Word of the Week: Yenta." (Viewed on May 18, 2024) <http://jwa.org/episode-78-word-week-gaslighting>.