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A few Yiddish words have crept into the American vernacular; even non-Jews go for a nosh or talk about schmoozing over cocktails. Yiddish hasn't made nearly the inroads in Japanese culture, but don't tell that to Kazuo Ueda, the author of the world's first Yiddish/Japanese dictionary. Reporter Lucy Craft recently schlepped to southern Japan and has this report.
LUCY CRAFT, BYLINE: The hills of Kyushu island in southern Japan are a slow train ride from the nearest city, but it's where linguist Kazuo Ueda quietly toiled for decades in a quest both impressive and quixotic. Professor Ueda has devoted his life to a language few Jews understand and even fewer Japanese have even heard of. His Yiddish-to-Japanese dictionary, published several years ago, marks the first time the Jewish language has been translated into a non-European language other than Hebrew.
Now Japan's leading scholar of Yiddish, Ueda was originally a German specialist. He stumbled upon the Jewish language while reading Kafka, himself a fan of Yiddish theater. Ueda was immediately smitten with the language that is written in Hebrew letters but is a hybrid of German, Hebrew, Russian and other languages.
KAZUO UEDA: (Through translator) Yiddish was full of puzzles for me. That's what I love about it. Reading sentences in those strange letters, it's like deciphering a code.
CRAFT: Ueda made several trips to Israel, but most of his research was a lonely, solo affair. Isolated from actual speakers of the language, he taught himself with the help of Yiddish newspapers and literature. He would later publish a series of books on the Jewish language and people. But he considers all that prelude to his magnum opus, the 1,300-page, 28,000-entry "Idishugo Jiten," or "Yiddish-Japanese Dictionary." His publisher won't release details but concedes sales will be tiny for the dictionary, which costs more than $700.
KAZUO UEDA: (Through Translator) I actually think $700 is pretty cheap, considering.
CRAFT: Cheap, considering it took 20 years to finish the volume and that his doctors say the project may have shortened his life. As his dictionary neared completion, Ueda began to show signs of Parkinson's disease. Now 69, he was forced to retire from the faculty of Fukuoka University in March, and struggles to walk and speak.
Ueda's wife, Kazuko, blames years of desk-bound devotion to the dictionary for aggravating his disease.
KAZUKO UEDA: (Through Translator) Every day, he would sit down to work on his dictionary right after breakfast. He never took any time off. But for him, this wasn't work, but sheer joy. So I thought this is the way things had to be.
CRAFT: Jack Halpern, a Yiddish-speaking resident of Japan, admires Ueda but says his passion often baffles Jews.
JACK HALPERN: When Jews hear about Professor Ueda doing this kind of thing, they say, but why? Why would a Japanese want to do it? It's beyond their understanding.
(SOUNDBITE OF KLEZMER MUSIC)
CRAFT: Just as Japan's population of 120 million is big and affluent enough to support exotic tastes like Klezmer music - performed by Japanese musicians - Yiddish has perhaps a few dozen devotees, mostly those who discovered the language via Hebrew or German, like Professor Ueda.
Halpern, himself a linguist and a publisher who used to teach Yiddish here, describes taking a group of his young students on a field trip to New York, where they tried to mix at a traditional Hasidic wedding.
HALPERN: And they saw the Hasidim with black hats and coats, dancing away to Hasidic music, and they're all speaking Yiddish to each other. So I approached one of the rabbis there and I introduced him to this young man who was speaking fluent Yiddish. And he just couldn't understand, what's going on, it just seemed so out of place for a Japanese person to be in a Hasidic wedding, speaking to him in fluent Yiddish. It's always amazing to them.
CRAFT: By taking on Yiddish, Professor Ueda grappled with a language that defies easy translation, because of its many culturally-specific words.
HALPERN: You can translate it, but you can't translate the connotation, the feeling around the word. There's something about shlimazel that when you say it in Yiddish, it's the right language to say it in.
CRAFT: As for Professor Ueda, who pats his dictionary every night before going to sleep, there are no regrets.
KAZUO UEDA: (Through Translator) I wrote it purely for the pursuit of learning. I don't expect a wave of people to start learning Yiddish.
CRAFT: For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.
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