Tchotkes … in space!
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Tchotkes … in space!

You might like to think that in the 24th century, Jewish contributions to galactic civilization will include more than bringing a Slavic word for toy into Interstellar English.

But we’ll take our representation, like our toys and trinkets, where and when we can, so we were pleasantly surprised to hear the Yiddish word “tchotke” in a line of alien dialogue in last week’s episode of “Star Trek: Lower Decks,” the animated series that combines character-based drama with sometimes juvenile humor poking fun at life in Star Fleet and Star Trek itself.

The setting: The crew of the decidedly second-tier Starship Ceritos pays a visit to Deep Space Nine, the space station that was the setting for the 1990s Star Trek series of that name. It was a nostalgic return for fans watching at home, and featured the return of two of that series’ characters — Kira Nerys, the former fighter for the Bajoran underground whose stories in the 1990s raised questions of oppression, resistance, and reconciliation, and Quark, the capitalist bar owner whose alien Ferengi race often is perceived, for better or worse, as “Space Jews.”

The catalyst for the episode’s plot was a trade negotiation with the alien Karemmas, who had appeared on several episodes of Deep Space Nine. And as the Karemma delegation walked through the space station, they saw it through a far more jaundiced eye than did the junior crew of Lower Decks, who can be counted on to channel Star Trek fans’ enthusiasm for old Trek heroes and locales.

The Karemma’s sneering evaluation of the station promenade: “A tailor and some tchotchke kiosks?”

Nice use of a Yiddish word that was first sighted in American English back in 1964 and that derives from the now-obsolete Polish “czaczko,” meaning toy or trinket.

But it turns out that Yiddish has gone to Deep Space Nine before: “I need to go schmooze,” Quark’s nephew, Nog, said back in a 1998 episode.

Both Quark and Nog were played by Jewish actors, Armin Shimerman and the late Aron Eisenberg. So it’s possible that that the Karemma picked up the Yiddishism from Quark, their long-time trading partner. And it’s also possible that the bit of Yiddish was a nod to the success of the Deep Space Nine, over its seven seasons, in rehabilitating the Ferengi from their original characterization as antisemitic caricatures. As Dr. Miriam Eve Mora, director of academic and public programs at the Center for Jewish History in New York City, put it in a recent essay in “Jews in Popular Science Fiction,” “the solution to the problem of such insulting Ferengi depictions as Space Jews was to make them more like real Jews. By recognizing, not erasing, the connection the Ferengi presented to Jewish stereotypes, the writers of DS9 were able to transform an anti-Semitic archetype into a positive one.”

Or it could just be that space tchotkes are in the air — or whatever it is that beings breathe out there. Because “tchotcke” entered the lexicon of another geek franchise the week before, as Hasbro’s Magic The Gathering game announced its newest set. “Unfinity” is set in a space carnival (don’t ask) and card #154 is “Tchotchke Elemental.” That’s the first of the game’s more than 20,000 cards to have Yiddish in its title — which is about the ratio of native Yiddish speakers to the global population. At least on this planet.

 

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