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 cocker – an 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
Image: Some rights reserved by Contemporary Jewish Museum