For the Love of Yiddish- Rosh HaShana, 5773
May all your teeth fall out except one, so you can still have a toothache. May you grow like an onion, with your head in the ground. If you can’t say anything nice, say it in Yiddish.
My dad’s parents, Jessie and Harold, were born, respectively, in Lynn, MA and Bloomfield, CT. My mom’s father, Hyman, was born in Brooklyn, her mom, Grandma Ruth, arrived from Vilna at the age of 2. Consequently, I grew up deprived of Yiddish. I have discovered, however, that simply by virtue of growing up in that certain time and place, I absorbed a basic vocabulary of wonderful, enriching, delicious Yiddish phrases.
A few months ago, I was standing at the nosh, (nosh, by the way, is a perfectly legitimate Yiddish word itself- you can follow along all the vocabulary I reference on your handout), and someone mentioned that they had just returned from a wedding or a Bar Mitzva or some such happy occasion. I responded in Yiddish- “af simchas,” which I understand to mean isn’t it great to travel to a simcha- a happy occasion, and one would hope to travel “nur af simchas,” only for happy occasions. The person looked at me with a blank stare, and I realized that we can’t take for granted this notion of a basic, working knowledge of the mamaloshen, the mother tongue.
So I thought I’d take this opportunity to kvetch about the potential demise of Yiddish, and to offer a little lesson on important Yiddish phrases to know and use, and what they say about Jewish values, though I am certainly no mayvin! I know that this is chutzpah on my part, assuming that you may not know all of these expressions and that you might even be interested. But, we are all landsmen here so I appeal to your Yiddishe kopf. You may think this is just narrishkeit- nonsense- but I’m here to tell you that the richness of Yiddish will add to the richness of your life.
We’ll begin with the mishpocheh- the family. Our families form, ideally, when we meet our beshert- the one intended for us. Beshert, by the way, can also be used generically for anything that just feels like it was meant to be.
Very often when we have batei din for conversion, the person who is choosing Judaism talks about how they were attracted to Judaism based on their experience of the warmth and closeness of the Jewish family. Now, Jewish mothers sometimes get a bad rap- we have a reputation for being, perhaps, slightly overwhelming and maybe excessively involved with the kinderlach, the children. But, the reality is that we should appreciate the fact that our families are involved in our lives and care about what happens to us- this is not something to be taken for granted. Despite the mishugas, the craziness, the mishpocheh is a wonderful aspect of Jewish life.
There IS a lot of pressure on Jewish kinder to excel- Jewish children have been referred to as nachas-machines for their parents, not to mention their Bubbes and Zeydes. Every parent wants to kvell, that is to have that special sense of pride in seeing our children excel. That’s why we resonate with this story- a young mother points with pride to her two children- one walking next to the stroller and one in the carriage. “The doctor,” she says, “is two, the lawyer is four.” No wonder Woody Allen joked that every Jew is either in therapy, just finished therapy, or is a therapist! Or this one- Mrs. Brownstein is talking to Mrs. Goldberg. “So tell me about your daughter?” asks Mrs. Brownstein. “Well,” Mrs. Goldberg replied, “When she was 18, she married a pediatrician and they had a little boy, but after a couple years they got divorced. Then, she married a prosperous dentist and they had twins, but again things didn’t work out and they got divorced. After that, she met a big lawyer and they got married and had a little girl, but that one just lasted three years, too. Now she’s engaged a fourth time, to the President of a bank.” “Oy!” said Mrs. Brownstein. “So much nachas from one child!”
But nachas just means that we value education, and here in the goldene medina, the United States- land of opportunity- Jews have, for the most part, been very successful precisely because we value learning for its own sake, and asking questions is an important cultural phenomenon. In addition to education it’s also good to have some sechel as well, some basic common sense. Otherwise, the term chacham could be applied to you in a slightly sarcastic manner, and you wouldn’t want to be THAT kind of chochem!
There’s the story of one young chochem who tells his Bubbe he is going to become a Doctor of Philosophy. “Nu,” says Bubbe, “that’s wonderful. But what kind of disease is philosophy?”
Family is so fundamental in Jewish life that Yiddish has words for relationships that we can’t really describe in English. Meet the machetunim! In English, it takes a long, convoluted phrase to introduce the parents of your child’s spouse, your child’s in-laws. In Yiddish, these essential folks are known as your mechuten and your machetennister- together, your machetunim! Too easy. Since you will be vying with them for the rest of your life as to where the kids, and, more importantly, the grandkids, will be spending the holidays, it’s good to have a shorthand way to refer to them. By the way, we know that there are two days of yontif due to the exigencies of the Hebrew calendar, but doesn’t it work out great as well to solve these potential conflicts among the mishpocheh?
Apropos of family, my daughters will not forgive me if I don’t include one of their favorite Yiddish words- fershtunkeneh, which literally means stinky but can be used more expansively to deride a plethora of moments- “I’d love to see you, mom, but I have to finish my fershtunkeneh homework.”
I mentioned the grandchildren, poo poo poo. Keyn ayin hara! The evil eye shouldn’t fall on them! As a people, the Jews are well acquainted with tzooris, with troubles and woes of every variety, and we know that you need to have a lot of mazal in life. Mazal, of course, is part of that well-known phrase, mazal tov, which we use as if it meant good luck or congratulations. Literally, mazal is a constellation, so when we wish someone mazal tov we are expressing the hope that all the stars will line up just right for them, that they will be blessed with mazal and not tzooris. The evil eye lurks everywhere, so we must be ever-vigilant- keyn ayin hara! Without a little mazal, gornisht helfen- nothing helps.
A Jewish patriarch was on the witness stand. “How old are you?” asked the District Attorney. “I am, kein ayin hora, 81”
“What was that?” “I said I am kein ayin hora 81.” “Just answer the question!” said the D.A. sharply. “Nothing else! Now, how old are you?” “Kein ayin hora, 81,” said the old man. Now the judge said, “The witness will answer the question and only the question without additional comment or be held in contempt of court.” Up rose the counsel for the defense. “Your Honor, may I ask the question?” He turned to the old man and said, “Kein ayin hora, how old are you?” Said the man, “81.”
You’ve gotta have mazal, because, as is well-known, “Mann trocht, und Gott lacht- Man plans and God laughs.” Things can have a way of not working out, especially if you are a shlimiel or a shlimazal. For the schlimiel and the schlimazel, we have rachmones, compassion.
So who are these poor unfortunates? The schlemiel is the person who never quite gets it right. If something CAN go wrong for the schlemiel, it WILL go wrong. The schlimazel, as the name implies, has no mazal- no luck. The classic distinction- the schlemiel is the one who spills the soup, the schlimazel is the one he spills it on! The shlimiel, the soup-spiller, might, in addition to being a shlimiel, also be a klutz.
So, you gotta have rachmones. The Jewish people are described in the Talmud as compassionate ones, the children of compassionate ones. While we are not above poking fun at our landsmen, fundamentally we are to have compassion. When God’s nature is revealed to Moses as Moses hides in the shelter of a rock, the first quality ascribed to the Holy One is El Rachum, a compassionate God. Rachamim is derived etymologically from the word rechem, meaning womb. It is an image of total nurturance and caring. Having rachmones for others is a beautiful value and one we should cultivate in our own lives.
So, here we are in shul at Temple Chai. Congregation, synagogue, temple- all nice words to describe our religious home, but I prefer, most of all, shul. Leon Wieseltheir writes that, “”Shul” is a warm word, a Jewish word. I have always found it to be the friendliest of Jewish words, even when I have spurned its friendship.”. I feel that! Shul is also the place where the machers, the big shots, get the appropriate kavod, honor, which they deserve.
Temple Chai, our shul, Chai, meaning, life. A place whose friendship is available to us whenever we choose. There is no more fundamental value than chayim, life, in Jewish tradition. As we read the story of creation in the Torah, each day we read- and God saw that it was good. Life- chayim- is what it’s all about, and thus we toast, “l’chayim- to life.” Chayim is the root of “mechaye,” a hard to translate word that can be ascribed to anything that we find life-affirming and that brings us joy. A glass of water on a hot day- a mechaye! A long talk with a good friend- a mechaye! Mechaye is an important word- it reminds us to be grateful for all the little things that make our lives worthwhile, to appreciate every moment as a gift. We may love to kvetch, but ultimately we know that we should focus on that which is a mechayeh.
Being in shul for the High Holidays is such a mechayeh, it reminds us of the ultimate, transcendent Jewish value, which is, to be a mensch. To be a mensch is the highest compliment we bestow upon each other. What more could any of want when we leave this earth than to be remembered as menschen- as kind, decent, honest, compassionate, caring human beings. The power of the High Holidays lies in the opportunity to remind ourselves of our highest aspirations, and to forgive ourselves and each other when we don’t quite make it. One of my favorite Yiddish words is- fargin, a hard to translate word that implies taking happiness in another’s happiness and allowing ourselves a little indulgence too. On the High Holidays we should fargin ourselves and our friends.
It is a shande that I don’t have more time for this conversation. I know I omitted many, many wonderful Yiddish words and phrases, but I have rachmones and don’t want to keep you here all day!
May all your prayers on these High Holy Days be answered, and you should zei gesund- be well. In the words of the famous Yiddish expression, we understand that God will provide- we only wish He would provide until He provides! May all of your needs go directly fun dein moyl in Got’s oi’eren arein!, from your mouth to God’s ears.
– you may listen to this talk at this link