My Yiddishe Momma Told Me...and Other Yiddish Expressions - What A Language!
Author Unknown


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

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 meschmendrik (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, aschtarker, 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, chazerei, 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.