“ZAFTIG” — A USEFUL WORD FOR JANUARY

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For those of us living in northern climes (and maybe for everyone else, but probably not so much), January is fat month.  There was all that holiday eating, now settled in nicely at hips and waist.  (You too, guys.)  And now it’s cold outside!  Which means thick warming soups and stews and chile and mashed potatoes with gravy and lasagnas and pot roasts, plus brownies right out of the oven and hot cocoa and ______.  [You fill in the blank.]  Why shouldn’t we live in the moment? Shorts and tank tops are at least four or five months away.

Of course, there’s still the mirror every morning, before all those heavy clothes go on. (Unless you force yourself not to look, or never take them off till spring.) For such trying times, there’s the soothing word: zaftig.

Unfortunately for the guys, men are never zaftig themselves.  Under the circumstances discussed in the preceding paragraph, they get big, or large, or (God forbid) extra-large.  But the word zaftig coming out of a man’s mouth to describe a woman is a life-saver. It means she’s not fat at all; she’s luscious.  I refer to grown men, of course — men with enough experience to reject the concept of embracing skin-covered sinews — not those young ones still yearning to make it with a ballet dancer.

Mind you, the word can’t be applied to just anyone.  By way of example (and I refer to ladies long gone who can no longer have feelings in the matter), if Marilyn Monroe had gained ten or fifteen pounds, she’d be zaftig. If beautiful but straight-up-and-down Audrey Hepburn had gained umpteen pounds, enough pounds to burst out of the top of her Givenchys, she’d still never get to zaftig.

Also if used by a woman about another woman, the word is not so good.  “Is she fat?”  “Not quite.  But she’s sure zaftig.”

However, never mind those catty types.  Lets put the emphasis back where it belongs: male appreciation.  In the days when Bill and I used to spend part of the summer on a small Greek island and I would haul myself out of bed early for a brisk constitutional before it got too hot to do anything but lie around and perspire — I once met a Greek man older than me mid-walk.  He was on his way to let his goats out to pasture or something.  But he could speak a little English.  After we’d said Kalimera to each other, he asked what I was doing up and about so early.  I explained I was atoning for all those ouzos and spanikopitas; I had to go on fitting into my bathing suits at least until we got back home.  “Don’t overdo it!” he warned, smiling with approval at my visible flesh. “A man likes some meat on the bones.”  If he’d known Yiddish, he could have told me that a man likes his women zaftig.

But that’s only my own experience with the word.  I concede my etymological knowledge is far from comprehensive and may even be partially incorrect. Fortunately, a short article from Moment Magazine (Jan.-Feb. 2015 issue) has been brought to my attention at this opportune time by a caring friend. It purports to clarify everything you ever wanted to know about the word zaftig while managing  to be confusing at the same time:

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A Full-Bodied History

by Hilary Weissman, with additional reporting by Sala Levin

For a quick overview of the complexities of the word zaftig, take a look at the Los Angeles Jewish Home’s video, circulating online, in which its residents demystify the meaning of the word.

Charlotte Seeman says that zaftig means “a little bit on the heavy side,” to which the moderator, Marty Finkelstein, asks, “But in a good way?”

“They look a little, if you’ll pardon the expression, appetizing to other people,” adds Yetta Dorfman.

Esther Berlin is less effusive. “It’s a shame because they don’t take care of themselves and do something about it,” she says, prompting the chivalrous gentleman of the group, Irving Rubinstein, to defend the zaftig dame’s honor. “It’s kind of a sexy, plump, attractive woman,” he concludes.

That, in a nutshell, is the debate over zaftig. By most contemporary definitions, zaftig means voluptuous or sexily curvaceous à la Marilyn Monroe or the commanding office manager Joan Harris on Mad Men. Unless it is a polite way of saying fat, in an unsexy way. “It holds both [meanings] depending upon who says it,” says Lori Lefkovitz, professor of Jewish studies at Northeastern University.

But in traditional Yiddish, zaftig has nothing to do with women’s bodies. It comes from the German word saftig, meaning “juicy” or “succulent. ” (Saft in German means “juice” or “sap”, and in European Yiddish, in which it is spelled and pronounced zaftik, was used to describe food and taste.) It could also be used for more abstract depictions of ideas, says Eddy Portnoy, who teaches Yiddish language and literature at Rutgers University. “You can have a zaftik story, you can have a zaftik piece of gossip, virtually anything that fits the bill,” he says. “It’s a very commonly used modifier that can refer to anything that is rich or pleasing,” much the same way an American might tell a friend that she heard some juicy news at the water cooler.

So how did zaftig make the transition to women? It is likely another example of the common transition that occurs with the Americanization of Yiddish. “We do that a lot with women’s bodies—we talk about juicy bodies and succulent bodies,” says Lefkovitz. “We describe women as food because they’re edible, they’re delicious.”

Sexual undertones are often implicit in the word’s use. In his classic 1968 book The Joys Of Yiddish, Leo Rosten affectionately exclaimed that the word “describes in one word what takes two hands, outlining an hourglass figure, to do.”  Says Yiddish expert Michael Wex, who defined the word in Just Say Nu: Yiddish For Every Occasion (When English Just Won’t Do): “The best equivalent I ever found for zaftig was an old cigarette commercial for Lucky Strike; the Lucky Strike model is ‘so round, so firm, so fully packed.’ That immediately took on a secondary meaning, a sexual connotation. Zaftig might—I can’t say for sure—in that sense have been influenced by that.”

Others have been even more explicit in the erotic implications of zaftig; Hanne Blank, editor of the 2001 anthology Zaftig: Well-Rounded Erotica, says that she chose the word for the title in part because “zaftig sounds like something that’s enjoyable, like something you can have a good time with, where plus-size sounds like you lost your way in Kmart and ended up in the plus-size section.”

Our changing perceptions of female beauty have influenced the use of the word. “Once upon a time, plumpness or curviness and all of those luscious sexual descriptors were associated with health and wealth, and as health and wealth got increasingly thin, zaftig became a euphemism for overweight,” says Lefkovitz.  Harvard professor Marjorie Garber touched on the word’s ambiguity in her essay “Moniker,” which was compiled in the 2001 book of essays Our Monica, Ourselves, dissecting what she argues some saw as Monica Lewinsky’s inherently Jewish seductive qualities. To Monica’s critics, “she was ‘pushy;’ she was ‘ambitious;’she was ‘zaftig;’ she was ‘typical Beverly Hills.’ She was physically mature for her age. She was sexy and seductive…She led a weak Christian man astray.”

What accounts for the word’s seemingly unflagging presence in American English? For one thing, as with so many Yiddish words, there’s no exact equivalent in English. The closest may be “pleasantly plump” or “Rubenesque,” after the women depicted in the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens—but neither has the zing of zaftig. Lefkovitz suggests that another reason is its nostalgic evocation. “It’s a word where we hold both the past and the present, where there was a kind of valorization even for our zaftig grandmothers.”

The word is popular among non-Jews, too. When it came to choosing a name for his brewery, it didn’t matter to Brent Halsey whether his patrons would appreciate the double entendre of Zaftig Brewing Company. “None of us three co-owners are Jewish, but [the word] left a mark on me,” he said, citing as inspiration his high school English teacher’s penchant for quoting The Joys Of Yiddish. For a brewery specializing in full-bodied ales, it seemed the most fitting choice.

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I guess you can take what you like from all that. Personally, I go for the zing of being edible and delicious. Which reminds me, isn’t it time for dinner?

VOCABULARY ENHANCEMENT WITH YINGLISH

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IMG_0743I 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.

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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.

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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.”

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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:

FRANZ KAFKA

IS A

KVETCH.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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!”

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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 …)

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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.

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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!”

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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!

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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!”

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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!