There are those words that everybody loves, the ones that come from other languages and express concepts that seem at once uniquely characteristic of their culture of origin and universally relevant. The most celebrated, these days, is schadenfreude, but think of some others we’ve assimilated relatively recently: chic, macho, karma. The traffic flows in the other direction, as well. The most successful word in history, it’s said, is okay, an index of the reach of both American power and American sensibility.
I’d like to nominate another term for cross-cultural adoption: the Yiddish word naches. It means “delight,” but it’s used specifically to name the pride and pleasure that parents receive from the achievements of their offspring. “Your son’s a doctor? And he went to Harvard, no less? What naches!” (The word is pronounced with a fricative sound, as in the German nacht, not the English “ch.” The second syllable is “iss.”) The verb that goes with naches is shep, “scoop.” You scoop naches—like a big bowl of ice cream, or maybe chicken soup. And once you’ve had enough, you kvell: beam, glow, gloat. “Your daughter married a doctor? And he went to Harvard, no less? You must be kvelling!”
Let’s just say the word is rather fraught for me. For Jewish parents, naches is the ultimate reward. For Jewish children—well, it’s more like the ultimate punishment, and it reminds me of the one the gods inflicted on a certain disobedient mortal. You push the boulder up the hill, but it never stays put for long. “You went to Harvard? You became a doctor? You married a nice Jewish girl? Nu, so where are the children? I’m not getting any younger, you know.” For the Jewish child, it’s clear from an early age that your job in life is to make yourself into a naches machine. When you fail, another Jewish word comes into play: guilt. Naches-expectation lodges somewhere in your chest. As Saul Bellow said in a different connection, “Ladies, I find it very hard to breathe.”
So why am I recommending the word to my gentile brethren? Because we’re all Jews now, in that respect. There are no hereditary places anymore. Meritocracy decrees that everybody must achieve, achieve, achieve. Status derives from the college you attend and the other institutions to which you are able to attach yourself, then later, the ones your children do. (When I got a job at Yale, my father practically printed up cards to hand out at shul.) Naches-mongering is what they do in Greenwich now, as well, and on Park Avenue and Beacon Hill, not to mention every upscale neighborhood or suburb in the country, the West, the world.
I asked a couple of East Asian friends whether there is an analogous word in Chinese or Korean. They both said no; the operative concept there is filial piety, a bedrock Confucian virtue. We speculated about this. Filial piety is certainly a value in Jewish culture—it’s the Fifth Commandment, after all—and the notion of parental pride, my Korean friend remarked, is “almost too deep a concept to even be reflected in language,” and yet there is that difference in relative emphasis. It seems to come down to anxiety. East Asian parents do not typically worry that the child will fail to do his duty. But naches is forever shadowed by the fear of its absence. Filial rebellion and parental disappointment are major themes in the Jewish imagination, often figured (think of the Golden Calf) through the vexed relationship between the Children of Israel and God Our Father. These kids—such tzuris!
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