Phyllis Rose recorded a version of this piece, in which she brings her mother’s Yiddish to life. Listen below.
My mother grew up in a Yiddish-speaking family and spoke the language well enough to bargain for tchotchkes in postwar Paris and Florence, but her Yiddish for me consisted largely of judgments and endearments. It was a vocabulary for a large mammal nudging her cubs, a moral, a motivational vocabulary.
Lovingly, she called me ketzeleh (little pussycat), tzatzkeleh (little toy), hertzeleh (little heart), schatzeleh (little treasure), and zisskeit (sweetness). With a little humor and distance, but still with affection, she called me schmendrik (little rascal).
Her vocabulary was rich with ways for telling me to get lost, which somehow never made me feel any less loved. The most vulgar phrase, but the one she used most often, was Gay kaken ofn yahm!—literally “Go shit in the ocean” but closer to our English “Go jump in the lake” or “Give me a break” and, in my mother’s mouth, no stronger. An even milder version was Gay bach bagels! (“Go bake bagels!”)
I was always being asked to stop hocking her chainik. Chainik means teapot (cf. chai for tea), and to hock it was to bang on it, so someone hocking a chainik was banging on a teapot or bothering someone else. I didn’t know that chainik meant teapot. I only knew that my mother used the phrase—or occasionally “Stop hocking me a chainik”—when she was sick of me. I found the word chainik very ugly, and I think I confused my mother’s chainik with her vagina. We got no translations. We did not even know that the Yiddish was Yiddish; we figured everything out from context. I understood that my mother wanted me to quit bothering her, although I sometimes thought she meant that I was a pain in her vagina and sometimes that I was spewing a stream of nonsense as large as all China, and later, when I learned that hock meant “to pawn,” I understood that I had been vexing her by somehow, metaphorically, pawning her dinner service. Whatever it was, I got the point: stop it, shape up.
Just as the Eskimos are said to have many words for snow, Yiddish speakers have many words for losers: schlemiel, schnook, schmo, schmegeggie, schlub, pischer, nebbish, and putz were just a few of Mother’s many ways to dismiss or disapprove of someone. A person could be a schnorrer, a gonif, a fresser, a chazer, a schtarker, a faygeleh. Some Yiddish mavens distinguish between schlemiel and schlimazel, the former being a klutz and the latter chronically luckless, as in “The schlemiel spilled the soup on the schlimazel.” Schlimazel, however, was not in my mother’s vocabulary. Luck played no part in things. It was your fault if you were a schlemiel, nebbish, schnook, or schmegeggie. Yet these same words could be turned around and used as terms of affection; schmendrik (rascal) was, as I have said, a loving term she used for me, as were schnookeleh and schnookel-pussy—little dope, little pussycat dope. The essence of Yiddish is irony, as I am hardly the first to point out but as, miraculously, I understood quite early on. Children, like other domesticated animals, are extremely sensitive to tones of voice and the underlying emotional states in the large creatures on whom their comfort depends.
Nebbish was the queen of words, and like the queen on a chessboard, was capable of moving in many directions. A person could be rejected as a nebbish, as in “Don’t waste your time on that nebbish.” That’s the simple declarative nebbish. But nebbish was just as often used ironically to mean “poor thing.” Example: “I was picked last in gym class.” “Nebbish! Is this the worst of your problems? Is this the tough world you live in?” Or: “I wasn’t invited to Miriam’s party.” “Nebbish.” Or: “I only got a B on the math test. “Nebbish.” Amplified, occasionally, with, “Poor little fly on the wall.”
Despite this apparent undermining of my self-esteem, my mother wanted each of her children to mature into a mensch, a human being, a caring, loving, responsible person. To be a mensch was the pinnacle of her moral code, and it didn’t matter that it meant “man.” Women could be mensches, too, although she sometimes used the English word lady for the moral perfection my sister and I should aspire to. “Be a mensch” meant: “Live up to your responsibilities. Accept the inevitable. Write thank-you notes. Make the best of things. Strive, seek, find, and do not yield.” It was Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity rolled into three words.
My mother’s values were the values of reason, the wise mind, a yiddische kopf, “a Jewish head” or way of looking at things, although this was a phrase I never heard her use. Yiddische kopf was a lost positive, like the “combobulated” of “discombobulated.” One was never praised for having a yiddische kopf, although many were scorned for having a goyische one. Mother taught by negative examples. A goyische kopf cared about the trappings of the store, rather than the thing bought, and so would pay full price at Bergdorf’s when the same dress could be purchased for half as much on the Lower East Side. A goyische kopf spent lots on liquor for a party but not enough for food. Goyische kopfs had dogs and sent their daughters for baton-twirling lessons. Goyische kopfs, it began to seem to us, had all the fun, while we were taught to be sensible.
My mother’s Yiddish was the Yiddish of American Jews at a particular historical moment, when the experiences of immigration and assimilation to a new culture were not far in the past. A klug zu Columbus (a curse on Columbus, or, damn Columbus) expressed the immigrant’s exasperation with the land of opportunity. Mother said this when her children were being too American, as in:
“I have to have a new dress for graduation.”
“A new dress? What’s wrong with the old dresses?”
“Everyone is getting a new dress.”
“A klug zu Columbus!”
How many times must my grandmother have said to her own American-born daughter “A klug zu Columbus” and wished she had not had to leave Minsk? When Philip Roth published Goodbye, Columbus in 1959, the title sounded familiar, and I suspected that he too had heard his mother curse the explorer, making the book’s title, which ostensibly refers to an Ohio State University drinking song, a punning rebuke of our whole brave new world. The protagonist’s name is Neil Klugman.
Yiddish was largely derived from Middle High German, and the irony of ironies is that the language that united Jews is so close to the language of Hitler. Many German verbs begin with the prefix ver–, which has different meanings but is most often intensifying, such that loosely, ver– = “very.” Hungern is to be hungry. Verhungern is to starve to death. Salzen is to salt. Versalzen is to oversalt. My mother had a whole repertoire of words beginning with the Yiddish equivalent fer– (sometimes written far–), and most of them were used to denote a very bad situation.
Ferblondjet was lost, as when, in the middle of knitting a scarf, she would drop a few stitches and say, “I’ve gotten all ferblondjet.” And when I changed my mind about going to medical school, she said, “You don’t know what you want. You’re all ferblondjet.” There were ferschtunkeneh (something that stinks), ferkakte (screwed up, ridiculous, literally very shitty), and ferschluggineh (pathetic). There were ferschvitz, fermischt, and ferschlept—very sweaty (schvitzy), very mixed up (mischt), and very much a burden (schlept). There were many ways to be confused: ferdrayt verged on congenitally ditsy, and fertoutst, too upset to think straight, was said of someone who was usually sensible, like oneself.
I loved the fer– words, with their passion and exasperation. “What a ferschluggineh idea” or “What a ferschtunkeneh movie.” “What a ferkakte excuse.” “We have to go out to a ferkakte dinner party.” “Write that ferkakte thank-you note already.” My favorite fer– word these days is ferschlepte, as in “Spare me that whole ferschlepte krenk” or “Enough with that ferschlepte krenk already.” Krenk is sickness. Ferschlepte means chronic or long-drawn-out, so ferschlepte krenk means a long drawn-out disease—metaphorically, whatever my mother was fed up with hearing about. “Still talking about getting a job? What a ferschlepte krenk!” “Still reading War and Peace? Ferschlepte krenk! Why don’t you read something you can finish?”
My mother devoured novels but was hard on them. They were schmaltzy, literally fatty, but meaning sentimental. She had many expressions for sentimental trash, because that’s the kind of book she liked to read—before casting it aside as too sentimental, just a bubbe meise. I misheard that as “bubble meise,” and thinking that meise meant masterwork, I invented the definition “soap opera,” when the actual meaning was “old wives’ tale.”
The creative ways in which I made sense of her Yiddish led me astray, but not far. For instance, whenever my mother referred to someone who had died, she said, “Oliver Shullum,” as in, “Your grandfather, Oliver Shullum, would have loved to be here to see you go off to kindergarten.” At first this expression was bewildering, because I knew my grandfather’s name was not Oliver Shullum but Meyer Davidoff. Slowly I deduced the notion of a class of people, deceased people, to which my grandfather belonged, and when my mother referred to one of them, she always invoked this Oliver Shullum: I took this invocation to be pious and respectful. Alev ha sholem means peace be upon him, but to me, Oliver Shullum was a good guy, kind of like God or Santa Claus, who watched over the dead.
The opposite of Oliver Shullum was Kinna Horah. Kinna, a female deity, looked after the living. Mother never mentioned a piece of good news about someone without invoking Kinna Horah. “Your brother made the Dean’s List, Kinna Horah.” “Your cousin Sara, Kinna Horah, is getting married.” I realized in the fullness of time that Kinna Horah (kinehora) was pronounced postpositively to ward off bad luck. I realized that I should be very very careful about mentioning anyone’s happiness or success, because forces out there are eager to destroy it whenever their attention is drawn to it. But not until recently did I understand the exact words and their translation—kein ayin hora, meaning “may there be no evil eye,” a startlingly primitive phrase, I find, more reminiscent of blue Turkish amulets than Talmudic scholarship.
Another Yiddish misunderstanding may have wrecked my religious instinct.
Schmei means to stroll or window-shop. For Mother it was a sport like skiing or skating. “Let’s go schmei-ing in Cedarhurst” meant let’s go check out the different stores, see what’s in style or on sale, and maybe stop for an ice cream soda. Schmei-ing was freestyle shopping, the higher shopping—not materialistic—a way of exploring the good things of the culture, the life of the city. Everyone in my family pronounced Shema, Yisrael, the holy Hebrew words for “Hear, O Israel,” as Schmei, Yisrael, and I don’t think we saw anything strange about a sacred invocation of shopping.
My aesthetic vocabulary has been enriched by a word of my mother’s that I have never heard another person use: ongepotchket. As Mother pronounced it, the word sounded like “ang-ge-potch-key.” She would often enjoin me to go potchkey around outside when she was busy in the house, or to potchkey in the sand at the beach. It meant aimless play, and the judgmental version, “Stop potchkeying around,” could refer to anything from my making crayon marks on a tablecloth to dating a guy she thought was a pischer. Ongepotchket, defined as “messed up, slapped together,” denoted in my mother’s mouth too many styles mismatched, unharmonious in effect. An outfit that I thought gorgeous, because it contained all currently fashionable motifs, like a felt skirt with an appliquéd poodle studded in sequins worn with a sweater trimmed in fuzzy angora, might be ang-ge-potch-key, and rightly so, to my mother. To me, no other word so well expresses the absence of a coherent style in a work of art.
The words my mother did not use are as interesting to me as the ones she did. Although Feh! (Yuck!) is at the heart of many a Yiddish vocabulary, I never once heard my mother use it. I imagine she would have thought it vulgar or lower class. I think pfui was her feh. Another Yiddish word you will see in glossaries that my mother never used was balaboostah, or excellent housewife. Perhaps she had no interest in the concept. She may have been trapped in a balaboostah’s body, but in her heart she was a yeshiva bucher, someone who would have liked to spend all day reading and often contrived to. And although many people I know use ferklempt proudly to mean they are all choked up with emotion, often accompanying the word with a hand on the throat, I never once heard my mother use it, possibly because she had no use for people who were frequently ferklempt and never aspired to that condition herself. A child ferklempt risked being mocked as a “real Sarah Bernhardt.”
My mother rarely approved of me. I had a tuchis and a half (a big backside) as a child and, as a grown woman, a closet full of schmattas (rags). She called me ferschluggineh and even ferschtunkeneh. I was a vants (a bedbug) and a pischer. Naches, which Jewish parents are supposed to be so full of for their children, was not a word she used. I was always noodging her. I was a noodnik. I was a pain in the kishke. I noshed too much and was always hocking her chainik.
Still, however irritated she was at me, I was never a schtarker, never a chazer, never a gonif, never a schnorrer. By definition I was not a shiksa or a schvartze. I was too young to be a yenta, too self-absorbed to be a kockleffel (kitchen spoon, busybody), too restrained to be a schmeikeler. Nor did she think I was quite a meezkeit, though I was no Miss America. Other children’s mothers kvelled over their achievements, but kvell was also not in her vocabulary. Once or twice, however, good news was greeted by “I’m plotzing with joy,” exploding, even if she was likelier to plotz from fatigue, as in, “I’m ready to plotz, I’m so tired.” Nu? I think she was fond of me, but kinehora, one shouldn’t speak of one’s pleasures, only kvetch about the tzuris, the trouble. The worst kind of tzuris was gehakte tzuris, chopped trouble, utter misery. “That ferschluggineh girl got pregnant, and her ferkakte parents kicked her out. Gehakte tzuris!”
Naturally I wasn’t the only brunt of my mother’s Yiddish critiques and rebukes. My father got lots of them, especially about eating. “Eli, enough already. Stop fressing! ” Fressing was a manner of eating less benign than noshing. Fressing was eating like an animal, stuffing yourself. The word for stuffing, incidentally, is schtupping, also used for “fucking,” though it was never used in that context before the children. My mother, however, did use schtup in the sense of “to give,” or to stuff in the pocket of someone, as in telling my father to “Schtup Phyllis $10 for the parking,” when I visited them in the city, or “Schtup the bellboy something.”
Kibbitz, tuchis, tooshie, schlook, bubkis, bubeleh, hazerei, kishka, yahrzeit, shiddich, mishegas, megillah, schmooze, tzimmes, oy gevalt, oy vey, vey is mir, guttenyu—these foreign phonemes were the music of my childhood as much as the songs of the Andrews Sisters and the Pretenders.
My parents belonged to that generation of American Jews, young adults at the time of World War II, who were profoundly uncomfortable with anything German. By the time I was three, the Germans had killed a majority of the 10 million people who had spoken Yiddish in Europe a decade before. Although my parents took advantage of postwar prices to be tourists all over the world, they never went to Germany, and while they were alive I never did either, not wanting to upset them. But when they were both gone, I visited Berlin and was shocked to feel at home. I heard people say to one another in the street, Sei gesund, “Be well,” as my mother said to my father when he left for work, and Gesundheit, when someone sneezed. It was at once comforting and unsettling to find haven where you least expected it, to find, after a lifetime trying to master French, Italian, and Spanish, in this of all countries, how much I wished I’d mastered my mother’s Yiddish. Quickly I remembered that my mother herself had majored in classics at Hunter College, and I imagine she ended up feeling the same way about Latin and Greek. A bi gesunt, she would say: “As long as you’re healthy,” implying “nothing else matters.” If she had a philosophy, that was it, a frail reed to me when I was young, but deeper and deeper in meaning the older I get.