I grew up without Yiddish. The parental language in our house, reserved for matters I was not supposed to understand, was Russian. But you couldn’t not hear Yiddish, at least little bit, if the place where you grew up, as I did, was New York.
It initially came from my first serious boyfriend — in other respects a highly literate and scholarly looking youth reading Great Books at the University of Chicago. There was a hiatus during my years in California, where I was married to a man who was not Jewish. But eventually that husband and I returned to the Big Apple, where I earned our daily bread writing copy in advertising agencies with Seventh Avenue clients and therefore at the time heavily Jewish. Then — after a divorce — came movies from Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, and a second husband steeped in what Bill says were badly pronounced Yiddish words. (When really angry, this second husband would stomp up the stairs shouting what sounded like: “Quit ‘hocking me to China!’ ” Bill says what he should have been shouting was “hok a chainik,” which means, colloquially, “talk someone’s ear off, yammer, yak” — although you don’t need to know that, even if I now do.) Finally came Bill, whose grandmother — with whom he lived for several years — spoke nothing but. Which means he understands it. Not as a language imbibed with mother’s milk, but close.
Understandably, over the course of all those years of intimacy with Yiddish users a few colorful Yiddish expressions have crept into my day-to-day discourse. How could they not? There’s nothing like them in English! You can go round and round the bush with your proper Anglo-Saxon circumlocutions till you’re blue in the face, or get right to the point with a choice bit of Yinglish! In fact, lots of people in and around New York and Los Angeles already have. It wasn’t me who made up that word, “Yinglish.” It’s right there in black and white in Leo Rosten’s “The New Joys of Yiddish” (completely updated), as published by Three Rivers Press. Yinglish is particularly rich in deprecation and insult, which is always useful. In addition, it’s handy for philosophic one- or two-word summaries of life. The Rosten book is also fun because it not only shows you how to pronounce whatever it is, but also gives illustrations of its usage, often in humorous anecdotal form.
Feel like dipping a toe in the water? I’m glad. Because here come a dozen vocabulary enhancements right out of “The New Joys of Yiddish.” What follows is not in quotation format only because I’ve selectively abridged each entry, and have also paraphrased in places. However,the content is all Rosten’s. Enjoy.
1. klutz. Rhymes with “butts.” A clod; a clumsy, slow-witted, graceless person; an inept blockhead.
Anecdote: To Mr. Meyers, in the hospital, came Mr. Glotz, secretary of the synagogue, who said: “I bring you the good wishes of our board of trustees, that you should get well and live to be a hundred and ten years old! That’s an official resolution, passed by a vote of fourteen to seven!” Glotz was a klutz.
2. kvell. Pronounced exactly as it’s spelled. (1) To beam with immense pride and pleasure, most commonly over an achievement of a child or grandchild. “Watch her kvell when she reads his report card.” (2) To enjoy, gloat, or crow over someone’s defeat or humiliation. “All right, be charitable, don’t kvell over his mistake.”
Anecdote: (Mrs. Kovarsky is kvelling.) Two ladies met on the Grand Concourse, Mrs. Blumenfeld carrying her groceries, Mrs. Kovarsky pushing a pram with two little boys in it.
“Good morning, Mrs. Kovarsky. Such darling boys! So how old are they?”
“The doctor,” said Mrs. Kovarsky, “is three, and the lawyer is two.”
3. kvetch. Pronounced to rhyme with “fetch.” As a verb: To fret, complain, gripe, grunt, sigh. “What’s she kvetching about now?” As a noun: Anyone, male or female, who complains, frets, gripes, or magnifies minor aches and pains. “What a congenital kvetch!” “Don’t invite him to the party; he’s a kvetch.”
Anecdote: There’s a prized lapel button that reads:
4. mitzva. Pronounced to rhyme with “fits a.” (1) Commandment; divine commandment; (2) A meritorious act, one that expresses God’s will; a “good work,” a truly virtuous, kind, considerate, ethical deed. Mitzvas are regarded as profound obligations….yet they must be performed with a “joyous heart.” If you do something especially honorable, kind or considerate, a Jew may say, beaming, “Oh, that was a mitzva!” or “You performed a real mitzva!”
Anecdote: At the end of a pier in Tel Aviv, a man was about to jump into the sea when a policeman came running up to him. “No, no,” he cried. “How can a man like you, in the prime of life, think of jumping into that water?”
“Because I can’t stand it anymore! I don’t want to live!”
“But listen, mister, please. If you jump in the water, I’ll have to jump in after you, to save you. Right? Well, it so happens I can’t swim. Do you know what that means? I have a wife and four children, and in the line of duty I would drown! Would you want to have such a terrible thing on your conscience? No, I’m sure. So be a good Jew, and do a real mitzva. Go home. And in the privacy and comfort of your own home, hang yourself.”
5. naches. Pronounced to rhyme with “Loch Ness” — with the kh sound a Scot would use in pronouncing “loch.” (This is a noun somewhat related to the verb, kvell.) It means proud pleasure or special joy — particularly from the achievements of a child. Jews use the word naches to describe the glow of pleasure plus pride that only a child can give to its parents. “I have such naches: my son was voted president of his play group.” Alternatively, a self-pitying sort with under-achieving grown offspring might complain: “I get no naches from my children.”
6. gonif. Pronounced to rhyme with “Don if.”
- Thief, crook.
- A clever person.
- An ingenious child.
- A dishonest businessman.
- A shady, tricky character it would be wise (a) not to trust, and (b) to watch every minute he’s in the store.
- A mischievous, fun-loving prankster.
The particular meaning depends on context, tone of voice, inflection, and accompanying gestures. If uttered with a beam, a grin or an admiring raising of the hands, gonif is clearly laudatory. Thus, a proud grandparent will say of a child, metaphorically, “Oh, is that a gonif!” If uttered with pulled-down mouth, in a lugubrious tone, or with heartfelt dismay, the meaning is clearly derogatory: “A gonif like that shouldn’t be allowed among respectable citizens.” Uttered in steely detachment (“That one is, plain and simple, a gonif“), the word describes a crook, thief, trickster. Said in admiration, with a wink, cluck, or shake of the head (” I tell you, there’s a gonif!”), the phrasing is equivalent to “There’s a clever cookie.”
Anecdote: The first day home from school, little Milton was met by his mother who ran out eagerly to greet him. “So what did you learn?”
“I learned to write,” said Milton.
“On the first day already you learned to write? Gonif! So what do you write?
“How should I know?” said Milton. “I can’t read.”
7. nudnik. Rhymes with “could pick.” A pest, an annoyer, a monumental bore. A nudnik is not just a nuisance; to merit use of the term nudnik, a nuisance must be a most persistent, talkative, obnoxious, indomitable, and indefatigable nag. A mother often says to a child: “Stop bothering me. Don’t be a nudnik.”
Anecdote: Mr. Polanski complained to his doctor: “Something terrible has happened to me. I try to stop it, but I can’t…. Morning, noon and night — I keep talking to myself.”
“Now, now,” the doctor crooned. “That isn’t such a bad habit. Why, thousands of people do it.”
“But doctor,” protested Polanski, you don’t know what a nudnik I am!”
8. nu. (Or nu?) Pronounced “noo,” to rhyme with “coo,” but with various intonations and meanings. Nu is the word most frequently used (aside from oy and the articles) in speaking Yiddish, and with good reason. It is the verbal equivalent of a sigh, a frown, a grin, a grunt, a sneer. It is an expression of amusement or recognition or uncertainty or disapproval. It can be used fondly, acidly, belligerently. It is a qualification, an emphasizer, an interrogation, a caster of doubt, an arrow of ire. It can convey pride, deliver scorn, demand response. As in the following:
- “Nu?” (Well?)
- “I saw you come out of her apartment. Nu?” (So-o?)
- “Nu?” (How are things with you?)
- “Nu?” (What’s new?)
- “Nu, after such a request, what could I do?” (Well, then.)
- “I need the money…. Nu?” (How about it?)
- “….and he walked right out. Nu?!” (How do you like that? Imagine!)
- “Nu, I guess that’s all.” (I’ll be finishing, or going along now.)
- “….and you’re supposed to be there by noon. Nu?” (What are you waiting for?)
- “Nu-nu?” (Come on, open up, tell me.)
- “My wife was wondering what happened to the coffeepot she lent you….Nu?” (I hate to mention it, but — –)
- “Did you or didn’t you tell him? Nu?” (I challenge you.)
- “They waited and waited. Nu, he finally showed up.” (And so, in the course of time.)
- “She accused him, he blamed her. Nu, it ended in court.” (One thing led to another, and …)
9. ongepotchket. Pronounced to rhyme with “Fonda Lodge kit.” (a) Slapped together or assembled without form or sense; (b) messed up, excessively and anesthetically decorated; overly baroque. “She wore her new diamond earrings, a necklace, bracelet, two rings, and a brooch. Oy, was she ongepotchket!“
Anecdote: Mr. Fleishman, a new art collector, bought a painting that was much admired by his friend Meyerson, a self-proclaimed expert. The painting was one large square of black, with a dot of white in the center. A year later, Mr. Fleishman bought another painting by the same modernist genius: a large black square with two white dots. Proudly, Fleishman hung the picture over his fireplace and telephoned his friend Meyerson to come right over. Meyerson took one look at the picture and wrinkled his nose: “I don’t like it. Too ongepotchket.“
10. shmatte. Pronounced to rhyme with “pot a.”
- A rag. “You call that a dress? It’s a shmatte.”
- A person unworthy of respect; someone you can wipe your feet on. “They treated her like a shmatte.” “What am I, a shmatte?” “Stand up for your rights; don’t be a shmatte!”
11. pisher. Rhymes with “fisher.” A vulgarism, meaning ( a) a bed-wetter; (b) a young, inexperienced person; or (c) an inconsequential or insignificant person, a nobody. Literally, a pisher is one who urinates; but in present and popular usage “He’s a mere pisher” means “He’s very young. He’s still wet behind the ears.” Similarly, “He’s just a pisher,” means “He’s a nobody and has no influence.”
Anecdote: In France, an elderly Jew, tired of hearing a young man boast of his ancestry, finally said, “Listen, La Fontaine: I knew your grandfather, who changed his name to La Fontaine from Schpritzwasser [Squirtwater]. And he told me that his father changed his name to Schpritzwasser from what everyone called him, which was Moishe the Pisher! So please don’t put on airs, La Fontaine!
12. Oy. Oy isn’t a word; it’s a vocabulary. It’s uttered in as many ways as the utterer’s histrionic ability permits. It’s a lament, a protest, a cry of dismay, a reflex of delight — the most expressive and ubiquitous exclamation in Yiddish. Oy is often used as lead-off for oy-vey!” — which means, literally, “oh, pain!” but is used as an all-purpose ejaculation to express anything from trivial delight to abysmal woe. Oy vey! is the short form of “oy vey iz mir!“, an omnibus phrase for everything from personal pain to emphatic condolences. (Vey comes from the German weh, meaning “woe.”) As for the difference between oy! and ah!, there is of course a saying to illustrate the distinction: “When you jump into cold water you cry, “Oy!” and then, enjoying it, say, “A-aah.” When you commit a sin, you revel in the pleasure, “A-aah”; then, realizing what you’ve done, you cry, “Oy!”
Oy, accordingly, can be used, for example, to express
- Apprehension. “Maybe he’s sick? Oy!”
- Uncertainty. “What should I do? Oy, I wish I knew!”
- Euphoria. “Was I happy? Oy! I was dancing on air!”
- Joy. “Oy, what a party!”
- Contentment. “Oy, was that a delicious dinner!”
- Surprise. “She heard a noise and exclaimed, ‘Oy! Who’s there?””
- Dismay. “Oy! I gained ten pounds!”
- Regret. “Him we have to invite? Oy!”
- Astonishment. “Oy, how he’s changed!”
- Revulsion. “Feh. Who could eat that? O-oy!“
- Pain. “Oy, it hurts!”
And so forth. Anecdote: Mrs. Fishbein’s phone rang. “Hul-lo,” a cultivated voice intoned. “I’m telephoning to ask whether you and your husband can come to a tea for Lady Windermere—-”
“Oy,” cut in Mrs. Fishbein. “Have you got the wrong number!”
Nu? Enough already? We haven’t even begun on the fine differences in meaning between calling a male someone a shmuck, shnook, shlump, shmo, shlemiel, shlimazel, shlepper, shmegegge, shmendrick or shnorrer — all very useful insults in a well developed vocabulary. (Not to mention momzer and nebbish.) However, anyone who wants a second post delving into these matters has only to ask. “The New Joys of Yiddish” is a very thick book. Oy, is it ever!