Santa Rosa fridge-magnet company keeps Yiddish cool

Oy vey! Yiddish has come out of the deep-freeze, creating a big tsimmes in the American kitchen. And if that seems mishuga, can we shmooze over a glass tea?

The Yiddish revival, jumpstarted on the Internet, in classes and with language tapes, is taking a haimish shtick — refrigerator magnets.

Fridge Fun, a Santa Rosa-based refrigerator magnet firm, produces Yiddish Talk: a pack of 301 rubber magnets nearly half an inch high printed in capitals with such words as "Shlep," "Shmooze" and "Maven." Half the magnets in the set are printed with English words. When arranged and rearranged, the magnets can produce countless phrases and sentences.

How about, "You Don't Know From Bupkes" or "Who Will Shlep the Boychick?"

Or "A Fancy Shmancy Bar Mitzvah."

"By Me, It's Yinglish."

So can Yiddish Talk actually help people learn the mamaloshn?

"Can We Talk?"

Ken Blady, a Marin Jewish educator and Yiddish scholar, said the magnets can help if the words printed on them are practical terms used in everyday language.

Although terms like "klutz" and "putz" are known by many Americans, Blady said the problem is that, by emphasizing derogatory terms, the product "caters or panders to the worst aspects of the Jewish language."

On the other hand, learning 150 new words couldn't hurt.

Enough already with such higher goals. Magnet maven Michael Powell, president of Fridge Fun, said, "Pure fun is the purpose behind Yiddish Talk…People should buy our products for fun."

In fact, most families will enjoy putting together whimsical phrases.

Like "What A (pick the word of your choice) Mish-Mosh, Shlimazel, Yenta, Kvetch."

Jeff Graham, who teaches Yiddish classes in West Marin, said the magnets can be used as an educational tool between parents and children. But he will not use the product in his own classes since the magnets are printed in the Western alphabet instead of Hebrew letters.

Graham warned against using Yiddish Talk for teaching young children, because many of the terms and the ideas behind them are too complex. But he said the magnets could be useful in a language-study workshop, for seniors' groups and teenagers.

Yiddish Talk was created in January 1996, after Fridge Fun's New York regional sales manager, Perry Shore, said he needed a special product that catered specifically to the Jewish population in his surrounding area. After brainstorming, the New York salesman thought up Yiddish Talk, which has sold 60,000 sets.

Other Fridge Fun products include Cat Talk, Dog Talk Sweet Talk and Dirty Talk.

Cat Talk offers words like "finicky" and "purr." Sweet Talk brings visions of "Romance," "Moon" and "Dinner." German Talk and French Talk are other Fridge Fun language products.

So nu?

How about mixing Yiddish and French? Or Yiddish and Cat Talk? You just might wind up with a "Finicky Kosher Maven" in your kitchen. Or try Dog Talk and you might wind up with a "Cockamamy Hydrant."

Can't find the word you want? No big whoop. The kit includes a pencil and a few blank magnets.

"No one just speaks Yiddish. They mix Yiddish and English," said Powell, a non-Jew who grew up in Salt Lake City, far from the center of American Yiddishkeit.

Still, Yiddish has a way of penetrating the American heartland — and the heart.

"People speak Latin ad nauseam," he said. "The same goes with Yiddish. Look at [the TV program] `Laverne and Shirley': They say, `Shlemiel, shlimazel.'"

So even if you don't know from bupkes, try playing with these magnets. It couldn't hurt.