Yiddish Words I Don’t Use

Image: Wooden letters spelling “WORD.” Art by exopixel/shutterstock.

There are some words in Hebrew or Yiddish that I don’t use ever.

I’ve written about one of them in Who are You Calling Shiksa? – it’s a nasty, unfriendly word, and no amount of “reclaiming” will fix it.

Another such word is shaygitz. It means “varmint,” or “rascal” and it is distinctly unfriendly.

Like shiksa, shaygitz has its roots in the Hebrew word sheketz, meaning “abominable,” “filth,” or “blemish.”

My colleague Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr pointed out to me today that the word goy needs to join the list. Its original meaning in Biblical Hebrew was innocent, meaning “nation,” or “people,” – there are places in the Torah where it actually refers to the Jews! But it has come to take on a pejorative meaning in Yiddish and even worse, it has been co-opted by white supremacists as a badge of honor for anti-semitic chants, etc. I don’t use the word, and now I will gently correct people who use it to me, even when it’s supposed to be a joke.

Some words can be salvaged. “Queer” is one such word. It had a neutral meaning until someone chose to use it hatefully to taunt LGBTQ folk. We took the word as our own, and defanged it. Shiksa and shaygitz are hateful in their core meaning; they can’t be repurposed without dragging along the stigma.

Goy is a little different. It hasn’t always been used to disparage. I look forward to a day, someday, when we can use the word as Isaiah did:

Lo yisa goy el goy cherev
V’lo Yil’m’du od milchamah!

Nation shall not lift up its sword against nation
Neither shall they learn war anymore” – Isaiah 2:4

But for now, not in my vocabulary.

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Chanukah Greetings!

Image: A chanukiah with five candles lit. Photo: Public Domain, altered by Ruth Adar.

You have a Jewish friend, and you want to say something nice. You want it to be right. But what do you say?

Happy Chanukah in Hebrew: Chanukah Sameach!  (kha-noo-kah sah-MAY-akh)

Happy Chanukah in Yiddish: A Fraylichen Chanukah! (ah FRAY-leekh-en KHA-noo-kah)

And if someone says one of those to you? Say it right back!

What’s a Bentcher?

Oy, oy, oy! First there is the question of spelling. Is it a bencher, a bentcher, or a bentscher? Answer: I’ve seen all three.

And no, it isn’t a piece of furniture, although that’s what it sounds like.

NFTY
My favorite bentcher

A bentcher is a little book or folder with the text of the blessings said after a meal, the birkat hamazon. It comes from the Yiddish word bentch, which means “to bless.” (Thanks to both Anne and Jeff, readers who corrected me on this.)

Bentch – to say or sing the birkat hamazon (blessing after meals.) Some may say, “It’s time to bentch,” meaning, the meal is over already, let’s bless and be done!

Bentch gomel – to say a blessing of thanks for delivery from danger. Always said during the Torah service.

Bentch lulav – to say the blessings that go with waving the lulav.

Bentcher is the book with the birkat hamazon in it. In a household where they bentch after every meal, it will likely be one of a half-dozen stuck in a napkin holder on the table. Some bentchers also have zmirot (zmee-ROTE) which are Shabbat songs for the table.

Some Jews carry a mini-bentcher that folds up to credit card size, to use when eating away from home.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, Hebrew for “blessing” is brakhah.

 

What’s an Aufruf?

A few days ago I mentioned that friends who were getting married “had an aufruf.” I gave a link to definition, but thought this was a nice opportunity to say more about Jewish wedding customs.

Aufruf is Yiddish for “calling up.” Ashkenazic synagogues often call the groom up for an aliyah to the Torah on the Shabbat before the wedding. In liberal congregations, the couple is usually called up together. They have an aliyah, which means that they chant the blessings before and after a section of the Torah reading.

After the reading, the rabbi may offer a mishebeyrach (literally “May the One who blessed,” a prayer) for the couple. Usually then there’s singing and clapping. The YouTube video above is the usual song “Siman Tov uMazal Tov,” often sung at simchas (happy occasions).

Siman Tov uMazal Tov  uMazal Tov uSiman Tov (3x)
Hey lanu, y-hey lanu, y-hey lanu, uv’y’hol Yisrael (3x)

Translation:

A good sign and good luck, and good luck, and a good sign (3x)
May this be on all of us and on all of Israel! (3x)

In Sephardic and Mizrachi congregations, this is done on the Shabbat after the wedding.

So if you are invited to an aufruf, know that (1) it will take place in the middle of a Torah service and (2) If you clap along with the song, that’s good enough!

 

 

A Little Yiddish?

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Nu, you’ve noticed that around your shul they use a bissel Yiddish?

(So, you’ve noticed that around your synagogue they speak a little Yiddish?)

Yiddish is the language of Ashkenaz, the Jews of Eastern European descent. It sounds a little bit like German, a little bit like Hebrew, and it is written in Hebrew letters. At one time there were Yiddish theater, Yiddish radio programs, Yiddish newpapers, and it was the language for a flourishing culture. That ended with the Holocaust in the 1940’s. But still there are people keeping the language alive, and it survives in words and phrases around many American synagogues. Here are 25 words you may hear from time to time:

A bi gezunt – “So long as you’re well.” Meaning: “Don’t worry so much. You still have your health.”

Alter cockeran old person, not a compliment. “I’m just an alter cocker, don’t listen to me.”

Brucha – a blessing, a prayer. “We asked the rabbi to say the brucha, so we could eat.”

Bubbe – grandmother  – “Sarah was delighted to be a bubbe at last.”

Bubbemyseh – Old wives’ tale. “Hey, the healing power of chicken soup is no bubbemyseh!”

Feh! – An exclamation to express disgust. “You let the cat walk on the table? Feh!”

Goyishe – Adjective for not-Jewish. Goy means “Nation” in Hebrew, but in Yiddish it means “Non-Jew.” Non-dairy salad dressing may be perfectly parve (neither meat nor dairy) but if you put it on pastrami, someone might mutter about your goyishe tastes.

Kvell – To beam with pleasure or pride “They kvelled over their grandchildren.”

Macher – An important person. “He thinks he’s such a macher, driving that car.”

Maven – An expert. Sometimes used sarcastically, but not always. “Mike is a real financial maven.”

Mensch – A person of high character and a big heart. “Abe is a true mensch, you can always count on him.”

Mishegas – insanity, nonsense. “I’m sick and tired of this Daylight Savings mishegas.”

Mishpocha – Family. “Don’t be shy – we’re mishpocha!”

Naches – Joy. “A brilliant daughter like Susie must give you such naches.”

Nu? – It can be translated “So?” It can also be used as a greeting, “What’s up?”  In general, it’s a particle that calls for a reply: Nu, so you are learning a little Yiddish?

Nosh – can be a noun or a verb, means “snack” – “Are you noshing on the salad before I’ve even put it on the table?”

Oy vey – Short for “Oy vey iz mir!” – “Oh woe is me!”  An all purpose response to anything bad.

Punim – Face. A shayneh punim is a pretty face. “I saw Rivkeh’s baby: what a shayneh punim!

Saykhel – Good sense, wisdom. “We would not have survived the recession without Bob’s leadership and saykhel.”

Shabbes – Sabbath, Shabbat. “Goot Shabbes!” is a common greeting meaning, “Have a good Sabbath.”

Shmutz – a little dirt. “He had a little shmutz on his shirt, so I put a fresh one on.”

Tsuris – Serious trouble. “It broke my heart, to hear they had such tsuris.”

Yuntif – Holiday. On a Jewish holiday, someone may greet you with “Goot yuntif!”

Zayde – grandfather

Zai Gesunt – May you be well, good health to you


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Who are You Calling Shiksa?

שיקסעWords matter. Words have power. Judaism establishes its reverence for words in Genesis 1, when God creates the world using the power of words.

I know that the word shiksa is a word many people have come to use ironically in English as a fun little word to use for gentile woman. It sounds cute. It’s crisp and appealing to the ear: shiksa!

But in Yiddish, shiksa means “filth” or “abomination.” It means the stuff you clean up out of the cat box. It means something you don’t want on your shoe, much less in your house. And yes, it came to be used to describe gentile women. It expressed disgust for women who were outsiders, women who were sources of contamination. It’s an ugly word.

The fact that it has become common via pop culture doesn’t change that history. It doesn’t change the fact that in Yiddish, that’s still what it means: filth.

But perhaps you say, no, I’m using it to take back the power of the word! I understand that idea – I am a lesbian, and I use the word “queer” to describe myself sometimes. But “queer” originally meant “odd” – the nasty connotations came later. There are words I would never use about other people, because those words were designed to convince both speaker and listener that a human being was sub-human. The word shiksa is such a word: it was coined to demean and denigrate a woman, to express nothing but disgust for her.

So when I hear a young woman describe herself as a shiksa, I cringe. Maybe her friends agree that it’s cute and sassy. But there is deep ugliness in that word, a hatred aimed at women. I  don’t want anything to do with it.

I know that my little blog post is not going to stop someone who likes the word shiksa.

I just want you to be perfectly clear what it means.

Passover Vocabulary 102

Matzah Ball Soup
Matzah Ball Soup (Photo credit: mhaithaca)

After I posted Passover Vocabulary 101, my friend Ely Zimmerman offered some great suggestions, and I thought of more words and phrases a newcomer to Passover might want to know.  Here’s a new list (if you think of more, leave me a comment and I’ll add 103 to the blog!)

קנאַידעל – (NAY-dle) Knaidel  or kneydel is a matzah ball. That is, it’s a dumpling made of matzah meal and eggs, usually served in chicken broth. It’s also yummy. (Yiddish)

אפיקומן – (af-ee-KO-men) Afikomen is a piece of broken matzah, eaten at the end of the Passover meal. It is the last thing consumed. Often, if there are children present, the afikomen is hidden from them and a prize is given as “ransom” to the child who finds it. The seder cannot be finished until the afikomen is eaten.

מא נשתנה הלילה הזה – (Ma nish-ta-NAH ha-LYE-lah ha-ZEH) – Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh is the beginning of the part of the seder called “The Four Questions.” It means, “How is tonight different?” Many things in the seder are done in odd ways in order to get the participants to ask questions or to stimulate curiosity.

אליהו – (ee-LYE-jah or EH-li-AH-hu) Elijah is the name of a prophet during the reign of King Ahab of Israel. According to the Bible, he did not die but was taken up into heaven on a fiery chariot. (2 Kings 2:9) Since Elijah’s mysterious disappearance, legends have circulated that he sometimes visits Jews, and that someday he will come to announce the arrival of a messiah.  Towards the end of the seder, we open a door just a bit, in case Elijah might visit our home.

חרוסת – (cha-RO-set or cha-RO-sis) Charoset is a mixture of chopped apples, chopped nuts, and a little wine (and sometimes other things, too) that we eat at Passover. It is a reminder of the mortar that the Hebrew used to make bricks. It is also a sweet taste to contrast with the bitter herbs.

געפילטע פיש – (geh-FILL-teh FISH) Gefilte Fish is traditional Passover and Shabbat food among Ashkenazi Jews. It’s usually served as balls of poached ground fish, and eaten with horseradish. (Yiddish)

מרור – (mah-ROAR) – Maror is a bitter herb, which we are commanded to eat at Passover. Often horseradish is served as maror; sometimes romaine lettuce or celery are used.