The Nus Of The Weak

One Jew said to another: ""They say a poor man has no mazel. Do you believe that?''

""Yes! If he had mazel, would he be poor?''

BY THE MILLIONS THEY CAME TO America, huddled masses of Jews from Russia, Poland, Germany and Hungary, with not much more than recipes and language: a language rich with nuance, glistening with irony, bristling with the variety and inventiveness of its scatology. A language as suited to the expression of humor as German is to command. A language that would leap 3,000 miles to Hollywood and eventually bestow on the rest of America the gift of schmoozing, of chutzpah and yentas, of schlemiels frozen forever in the posture of dropping a bowl of hot soup into the laps of the hapless shlimazels. And so it came to pass that on the same day last week that Leo Rosten, the best-known American popularizer of Yiddish, died in New York at the age of 88, Harrison Ford, he should live and be well, paid him the unconscious tribute of describing his share of the profits from the rerelease of the ""Star Wars'' movies as ""bubkes.''

""So, Mrs. Siegel, how's your son?''

""Oy, not so good. He's seeing a psychiatrist. He has an Oedipus complex.''

""Oedipus-shmoedipus! As long as he loves his mother!''

It was Rosten--political scientist, screenwriter, deputy director of the Office of War Information during World War II--who gave America one of its most endearing comic characters: Hyman Kaplan, the self-assured greenhorn whose struggles with English were the despair of his night-school teacher, in a series of New Yorker stories collected in 1937 as ""The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N.'' Thirty years later Rosten published ""The Joys of Yiddish,'' followed by ""Hooray for Yiddish.'' They may have been the only works of lexicography in history to be illustrated almost entirely with jokes. This, says the lexicographer Sol Steinmetz, is because Yiddish vocabulary is inseparable from the attitudes of Yiddishkeit: ironic, detached, self-mocking and occasionally absurd, a language that never had a territory and was rarely spoken by anyone in a position of authority much higher than a shamas.

Actually, not everyone was thrilled by this; serious Yiddish scholars felt that ""The Joys of Yiddish'' overlooked the language's poetry, pathos and drama. But you can't argue with success, as illustrated by the two Jews who were discussing their shul's new cantor:

""He sings like an angel,'' said one.

""What's the big deal?'' said the other. ""If I had his voice, I'd sing just as good.''