CHAP. VII WORDS AND IDIOMS

To duvven is to recite the prayers of the Hebrew (and) Aramaic liturgy; which is about as helpful in conveying the meaning of duvv’enen to someone who does not duvven as is the statement that an elephant is a large pachydermatous quadruped to someone who has never seen an elephant.

All duvv'(e)nen is prayer, but not all prayer is duvv’enen. Private petitionary prayer, in one’s own words and not those of the sidder, Hebrew siddur “prayer-book”, literally “ordering”, is simply beyten, German beten “to pray.” Duvv’enen includes both petitionary prayer and doxology. Outside the framework of the liturgy, as a spontaneous reaction to joyful tidings, for example, the latter is simply loiben Gott, German Gott loben “to praise God.”

Duvvenen must be done (in the morning) with a tulliss, Hebrew tallit “prayer-shawl”, and tfillen, Hebrew tefillin “phylacteries”, though a tulliss is not essential for a bookher, Hebrew bachur “bachelor”, provided he is wearing tsitse (Hebrew tsitsit “fringes” kunfes, the four-cornered fringed under-garment (Hebrew arba kanfot) enjoined in Numbers xv,38. If one can, one should duvven betsibber, Hebrew betsibbur, with a congregation. Shoklen, a rhythmical rocking or swaying of the body, is not essential to duvv’enen, though usual among the Orthodox. (German sich schaukeln, Yiddish shoklen zekh, to rock backwards and forwards.) You can duvven all day, as notably on Yom Kippur; but a prayer, such as the prayer of Moses for the healing of Miriam, can last only a few seconds.

Many are the suggested etymologies of duvv’enen. From d’avot, Aramaic-Hebrew “(prayers) of the fathers?” From English dawn (because the Jew should rise at dawn to pray)? From Turkish divan (because you rise from the divan to pray)? From French Divin? Such etymologies, though not inconceivable, are hardly plausible, I had always thought Latin devovere “to devote”, to be the likeliest source, particularly in view of the fact that in the Yiddish of Alsace another word of Latin origin, oiren, from orare “to pray”, is used for duvv’enen. However a paper (in Yiddish) by Mordecai Kosover, “Gleanings from the Vocabulary of a Fifteenth Century Yiddish Manuscript Collection of Customs”, in For Max Weinreich on His 70th Birthday, The Hague (Mouton & Co.), 1964, pp. 355-368, has established for me the derivation from Middle High German doenen (New High German tönen) “to sing, play, sound”, beyond – or almost beyond – cavil. The author quotes other instances of phonetic change comparable to that occurring in doinen (the Yiddish form of doenen)/duvv’enen, e.g. in the Southern (Polish) dialect boien/buvven “to build” (Middle High German bouwen, New High German bauen), and the past participles geboit’/gebuvvet. Although I do not, in fact, ever recollect my mother ever saying anything other than boh’en, geboht’, I find support for the epithetic v in duvv’enen from doinen in my mother’s pronunciation of the Yiddish word for pleasure enoovve, Hebrew hana’ah, as opposed to the henoo’e of the literati, as well as in Polish ratować from German retten, Yiddish rutt’even, “to rescue”, and in Yiddish kheyn’evdik “gracious, charming” from Hebrew chen. Max Weinreich in his Geshikhte fun der Yiddisher Shprakh, I, 27, says: “Grandad/grandma may perhaps have said doinen instead of duvv’enen.”

Both doinen and oiren occur in the MS studied by Kosover, with the significant difference that doinen is used exclusively for the chazan’s utterances, while oiren is restricted to the congregation’s responses. Kosover dismisses, en passant, yet another ingenious etymology, propounded by no less an authority than Judah A. Joffe, that seeks to derive duvv’enen from Lithuanian dovana and Lettish davan, meaning “gift”, the reason being that one duvvens minkhe, afternoon service; Hebrew minchah means “gift,” Q.E.D.

Closely linked with duvv’enen is bentchen. To bentch is to say grace after meals, something which even the epicure does:

Serenely full the epicure will say,

Fate cannot harm me, I have dined today

(I say “even” the epicure advisedly, since Yiddish eppikoi’rres, Hebrew epikoros, from Epicurus, the philosopher, denotes a sceptic or atheist.)

The etymology of bentchen, from Latin benedicere “to bless”, is not disputed. [i] In Yiddish bentchen means both “to bless” (Gebentcht’ zollt eer zaan “May you be blessed” – but “to make a blessing” is mukhen u brookhe, Hebrew berachah) and “to say grace”, because ve-achalta ve-savata u-verachta “you shall eat and be satisfied and make a blessing.” (Deuteronomy viii, 10.)

You bentch after a meal. This does not stop your having a nush, say biscuits or cake, a couple of hours later, provided you make the appropriate berachah before your nush. Yiddish nushen, from German naschen “to nibble, have a sweet tooth”, has become ensconced in colloquial British English. Philologists might like to enquire why it has become Anglicised in the form nosh (“We had a good nosh-up”). The vowel shift is the same as that occurring, for example, in the speech of Cockney Jews in mozzel, for muzzle, Hebrew mazzal “luck”, mottse, for muttse, Hebrew mattsah “unleavened bread”, and kholle, for khulle, Hebrew challah “loaf.” On reflection, I fancy that the “Why?” is unanswerable. Philologists (linguisticians, to use the more modern term) can state that in certain circumstances certain sound changes take place, but they cannot say why they take place. [ii]

It is rather sad that a good many members of the Anglo-Jewish community never even hear bentchen, except at simchahs, usually barmitsvahs or weddings. On these occasions bentchen, as often as not, becomes a “performance” “rendered” by the Rev. Belcanto. Indeed at one simchah at which I had the temerity to lend my own voice – which I am the first to admit is more powerful than mellifluous – to that of the cantor, the reverend gentleman pointedly paused in his delivery, making me feel like the subject of a latter-day Bateman cartoon: The Man Who Joined in during Bentchen at a Simchah. However, khob es nisht ohss’gelozzen (German ausgelassen) tsem khoohssen kulle, I didn’t take it out of the bride and bridegroom, but wished them a hearty mu’zzeltoff! Good luck! (Hebrew mazzal tov).

The official Jewish attitude to “luck” seems to be ambivalent. Although the Talmud says Ein mazzal le’yisrael, Jews do not believe in astrology, yet the New Moon is greeted with Simman tov umazzal tov lanu ulechol yisrael “May it be a good sign and a good constellation for us and for all Israel.”

Anyway, there is no doubt that popularly muzzel was considered all-important. The bridal couple are greeted with simman tov umazzal tov. The ketubot, marriage certificates, of the Tel-Aviv-Yaffo Beth Din, in fact, carry the superscription: Besimman tov umazzal tov. It was felt that Uzz mot nisht ken muzzle konn men zekh begroobben leybbedikkereyt’ (German begraben “to bury”, lebendig “alive”; compare ley’bbedik, Chapter IV, Section 3, and for the -ereyt suffix, Chapter IV, Section 6). If you had a finnster or shvaarts (German finster, Schwarz) muzzel, a “dark” or “black” luck, it was beshehrt, decreed by fate. Middle High German beschert has this meaning, but Modern German employs bestimmt (von Gott, in Gottes Rat) in this sense.

A baar (Aramaic bar “son of”) muzzel is a lucky person, this particular phrase not being patient of gender distinctions. Ziz geveyn‘ u baar muzzel, voohss ziz nisht gehaarghet gevorren “She was lucky not to have been killed” (of someone involved in an accident). A phrase frequently used by my mother, but which I cannot find in the dictionaries or listed by Taviov, is u merookhe, as in U merookhe dost sech dermunt’ “It’s lucky you remembered”. It is evidently a much abraded form of Ashkenazi Hebrew (e-l) molley rukhemeem “God full of compassion”, a phrase which would have impressed itself on women listeners by reason of its solemn utterance in the memorial prayers in the synagogue and in the prayers for the deceased during the shivve, Hebrew shiva “seven”, the days of mourning observed in the home.

Another phrase frequently occurring in my mother’s idiolect, but which I have never seen in print, or heard elsewhere, was shlemuezzel goirel, Hebrew shelemazzal goral, literally “which (was) the luck of fate”, in the sense “As luck would have it”. Khob gevollt kimmen tsen aakh (German zu euch), shlemuzzel goirel iz missiz hoobbergrits eraan mit de boots (rhyming with English puts) “I wanted to come to you, when Mrs Hoobbergrits came shtomping in.” Incidentally, Mr Leo Rosten’s veto on shlemozzl, in The Joys, seems unnecessarily harsh. There is a case for confining  shlemozz(e)l/ shlemuzzel to the meaning, well established, but not given by Mr Roseten, of “mess-up, snafu”, and reserving shlimmezulnik/shlemeel for the perpetrator/perpetratee of the mess-up or snafu (infra).

The concept of the “evil eye” too, was very strong in popular Jewish belief, and is reflected in Yiddish. Ehrz u voil (German wohl “well”) yeenghel (German Junge)! “He’s a lovely boy!” you said, but you took care to add: ken/kenn (German kein “not a”) or oohn (German ohne “without”) enorre, Hebrew. ein hara “evil eye” or imbeshree’en, German unbeschrien “(may the evil eye be) uninvoked”. Euphemistically, an evil eye was u git oik, German ein gutes Auge “a good eye”. If you yawned, somebody had given you u git oik. I have memories, too, of lying in bed with some childish ailment or other, and my mother bending over me with a:

Yossinyooh ot u git oik soll feylen

(German Fehlen “to be lacking”),

Yossinyooh ot u git oik soll feylen,

Yossinyooh ot u git oik soll feylen

And then with what I imagine was a token spitting – the tongue shooting backwards and forwards between the teeth with pt-pt-pt –

Sot shoyn gefeylt!

Yossinyooh (hypocoristic form of Yosef “Joseph”) has the evil eye, may it go away,

Yossinyooh has the evil eye, may it go away,

Yossinyooh has the evil eye, may it go away –

Gone away!

Counting was held to be an open invitation to the evil eye. Rashi (1040-1105) ad Exodus xxx,12 states that Moses was commanded to take the census by means of a poll count because of the evil eye, ein hara. And lehuvdal, Hebrew lehavdil “to make a distinction”, si parva licet componere magnis, my mother always used to shoo me away if I attempted to count the krepplekh (Chapter VI) she was making, with a Me toohr nisht tseylen (German zählen) “one mustn’t count”. One “tells” a minyan with the rather lovely ten words: Hoisha et ammecha uvarech et nachlatecha ure’em venasse’em ad haolam “Save thy people and bless thine inheritance: feed them and tend them for ever” – Psalms xxviii, 9 – much better than the device of nisht eynss, nisht tsvey, nisht drai, etc. sometimes adopted.

Mu’zzeltoff is what is shouted at the happy couple when the bridegroom crushes a goblet beneath his feet under the wedding canopy. (The last time he can put his foot down, as the late Rev. A. A. Green of the Hampstead Synagogue used to observe.) The crushing commemorates the destruction of the Temple, but as it comes at the conclusion of the marriage service, when the nuptial knot has been finally tied, it seems an appropriate moment to wish the protagonists good luck.

Analogously one says mu’zzeltoff whenever a piece of crockery or glassware “comes away” in one’s wife’s – or husband’s – hands. If your spouse is very upset at seeing the vase Auntie Pearl gave you as an engagement present lying in smithereens on the floor, you console her with a Zoll zaan de kepoohrre “May it be an atonement”, Hebrew kapparah, an allusion to the custom of offering an “atonement” on the day before Yom Kippur. If it’s a vase you’d been wanting to get rid of, anyway, you may say U sheyne reyne (German schöne, reine “fine”, “clean”) kepoohrre, or even, elliptically, u sheynne reynne. The kapparah used to be a fowl, hence the expression kepoohre heendel (German Huhn “fowl”) “scapegoat” (sic). The scapegoat, se’ir la’azazel, of Leviticus, xvi, 8, has left no trace in Yiddish, but in Modern Hebrew Lech la’azazel corresponds to Yiddish Gey in drehrt (see Preface).

Of something “that isn’t much kop” you say Es toig (German taugen “to be fit, suitable”) ef u kepoohre/kuppoohrre, or ef kepoohrres, it is fit only for a kepoohre, since, wrongly no doubt, but understandably, a bird which was choice you would reserve for your own consumption and not use as a kuppoohrre. If your watch is kaput, won’t go, toig es ef u kuppoohrre, from which German kaputt may derive – but then it may not; it’s the old story; it may be from French capot, winning all the tricks at piquet (the loser has suffered the loss of not getting the capot).

Don’t think, just because you have junk voohss toig ef kepoohrres, that you can offload it on to a shnorrer “beggar”(German Bettler). Inflation shminflation, the shnorrer still prefers cash to shmuttes. A little “straight” shnorring goes on even today, though the Welfare State and the Jewish Welfare Board render it, in my view, unnecessary. A favourite gambit of the “appeal” personality is something along the lines of: “I’m not a shnorrer and I don’t want you to fob me off with a few pounds as if I were…” The word derives from Middle High German schnurren, to make a humming or buzzing noise on an instrument (schnurrer); the medieval (non-Jewish) beggar announced his presence by sounding his schnurrer.

You may have to be a shnorrer, but you don’t have to be a shlokh, a slattern or slut. This is a word the etymology of which had puzzled me, but the answer to which I think I have found s.v. shlock (sic) in Leo Rosten’s and Lillian Mermin Feinsilver’s books. There shlock is stated to be “junk, shoddy merchandise”, and the etymology suggested by Leo Rosten is from (Lithuanian) Yiddish shlog, German Schlag “a blow”, (goods which have been “knocked around”), which makes sense. The form I have always heard, and still hear from English-cum-Yiddish speaking sources is shlokh, shlokh’edik (“His windscreen wiper wasn’t working. He’s such a shlokh, it took him three weeks to get it seen to”.)

Shlock was new to me, but a few days after looking it up in Rosten and Feinsilver I encountered it serendipitously in Dermot Purgavie’s Column from America (Daily Mail, 30 March 1974): “You are not talking to any old shlock, you know…underneath this cultured veneer lurks the sort of shlocky mind that wants to know what he’s getting before he coughs up £1,160.”

A shlokh is a slommicky blighter; a yold, from Hebrew yld “to give birth” is an uncouth blighter. Synonymous with yold which, like gullekh (Chapter III, Section 3), is a Hebrew lexical innovation within Yiddish, is poh’er, German Bauer, Middle High German bûr meaning a peasant. (compare the cognate English boor.) Poh’er, incidentally, has a Hebrew plural, poh’erim and an Aramaic feminine Poh’erte.

What the poh’er, in the boorish connotation of the word, and the yold both haven’t got is dekhehretts, manners. In Mishnaic Hebrew derech erets, lit. “(the) way (of the) land”, meant a) “secular occupation, trade, craft”, as opposed to study of the Torah – the combination of the two was and is the ideal, see Pirkei Avot, II,2, b) “sexual intercourse” and c) “respect”, “the way of the world”, which is the only sense in which it is used in Yiddish. Haant’ighe kinnder obben ken shim dekhehretts nisht “Present-day children have no respect at all” – my mother’s lament and the eternal lament of the generations. Fin kibbed oov iz oop’gerett. As for parental respect (Hebrew kibbud av “honouring of father”) – you can forget it. Oop’gerett, there’s no point talking about it, German abgeredet, which, however, is not used in this sense.

One’s only consolation, if such it is, is that in the fulness of time our own children will have to put up with the same lack of dekhehretts from their children that we have had to put up with from ours and it will serve them right. Tsrik’geghibben broit, lit. “returned bread”, compare French pain béni. Perhaps to hear our grandchildren calling their dad a twit is tse derleyben u nekoome (Heb. nekamah “revenge”) legitimately, a nice way of getting one’s own back.

Shlimmuzzel is German schlimm “bad”, plus Hebrew mazzal, “luck”, and corresponds to what in military parlance is known as a foul-up. A shlimmezul’nik (fem. Shlimmezul’nittse) is a chap who tends to foul things up, while a shlemeel’ (fem shlemeel’tte) is the chap who tends to get things fouled up by the shlimmezul’nik. The archetypal shlemeel’ was Shelumiel ben Zurishaddai:

Dieser nun, Schlemihl I.,

Ist der Ahnherr des Geschlechtes

Derer von Schlemihl. Wir stammen

Von Schlemihl ben Zuri Schadday

(Heine Hebräische Melodien)

The innocent Shelumiel, according to Jewish legend, and as recounted by Heine, “got in the way”, nebbekh (infra) of the spear intended by Phinehas for Zimri, the son of Salu, and the Midianitish woman whom he brought “in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel” (Numbers, xxv, 14).

The word Schlemihl gained currency in Germany following the publication, in 1813, of Peter Schlemihl by Adalbert von Chamisso, a French émigré who wrote in German. It is a maudlin boobbe maasse of a pinchbeck neo-Faust who sells his shadow (a symbol for his country) in exchange for untold wealth which brings him only misery. (The father of the sweet girl he intended to marry calls off the shiddekh in high dudgeon on learning that his prospective son-in-law is shadowless.) He encompasses the globe with his seven-league boots, spends a period confined to a sick-bed in a SCHLEMIHLIUM, and ends up working on his magnum opus: Historia stirpium plantarum utriusque orbus.

Mr Leo Rosten writes far more entertainingly, s.v., about the shlemiel, in The Joys of Yiddish. Incidentally, the omission of shlemiel, in whatever spelling, from Webster’s New International Dictionary, second edition, which Mr Rosten understandably found surprising, has been rectified in the third edition (April 1961), and the word also appears in Chamber’s Twentieth Century Dictionary. In Kluge’s Etymologisches Wörterbuch der Deutschen Sprache 20 Auflage, Berlin, 1967, and Das Grosse Deutsche Wörterbuch, C. Bertelsmann Verlag, Gutersloh, 1967, the derivation of Schlemihl is stated to be from Hebrew she lo mo’il “Who is of no use” – an etymology which has little to commend it save its originality. Mo’il has not entered Yiddish in any shape or form, and the tradition recounted by Heine is well established in Jewish folk-lore. One is constrained to comment: Se heypt sekh nisht oohn, se lost sekh nisht ohss “It’s a non-starter and a non-finisher”. German Sich anheben  = “to begin”; ohss’lozzen zekh = “to end” (intransitive). German Sich auslassen = “to speak one’s mind”, a meaning conveyed also by Yiddish ohsslozzen zekh (sopra).

A distant cousin of the shlemeel’ is the goilem. In Hebrew golem denotes raw matter, but “the” golem par excellence was the statue of clay (hence leym’ener, German Lehm “clay” goilem) made by the Maharal (Rabbi Judah Löw ben Bezalel) in Prague in the sixteenth century. The goilem is a dumb – in the British English sense of the word – clot. When he ought to speak up for himself he is smitten with aphasia.

The Maharal’s golem was male, but a woman can be a goilem, too. In fact, I’m always struck by the goilem-like qualities of the Jewish bride as she stands under the wedding canopy. It’s not her fault, I know, and I know also she’ll have plenty to say for herself afterwards, but it seems to me humiliating that she should have to stand there listening to a man proclaiming “Behold, you are consecrated to me”. You’d think, these days, there’d be some kind of reciprocity as there is, lehuvdel (sopra), in the Christian marriage service. No doubt for her to return the ball with a “And you’re consecrated to me, mate”, is halachically impossible, but I feel she ought to be able to say something, instead of just standing there like a – leym’ener goilem.

The antithesis of the goilem is the knukker, the smart boy who knows his way around, from German knacken “to crack, snap” – but the German alter Knacker is an “old fogey”, and the knukker is the reverse of fogey-ish. The last thing the knukker is, is oiver boohtel, Hebrew over “passing”, batel “void”. Old he may be, but senile he is not (compare English “past it”.) A woman, too, may or may not be oiver boohtel “senile, ga-ga”; the Yiddish fossilised expression is epicene. For German Knacker read Yiddish kukker, from Latin cacare, “to defecate”.

The knukker’s wife will usually be a knukkerte, though it can happen, of course, that even a guntser (German ganzer “quite, whole”) knukker can have a consort who is a leym’ener goilem. The knukker goes in for kinntsen, German Kunststücke “dodges, tricks”. Hehr off (German aufhören) mit de kinntsen “Stop fooling around, being so clever.”

The knukker should not be confused with the mukher, German machen “to make”. The (guntse) mukherz and mukhertes are the indefatigable wardens and chairmen and honorary secretaries and committee members of synagogues and societies who come in for some ribbing as a class, but without whose devoted labours the fabric of the Anglo-Jewish community could not be maintained. A mukher is a klul tee’er (Hebrew klal “community”, German Tuer “doer”.) A klul tee’er, you can say, koohlet sekh, engages in communal activity (Hebrew kahal “congregation, public”). My mother, I am afraid, until she became sufficiently Anglicised to adjust to the idea of “committee-ladies”, would describe a mukherte as a kokhleffel “busybody”, German Kochlöffel “ladle”. German Kochlöffel has not the Yiddish connotation; “She’s a busybody” = German Sie steckt ihre Nase in alles.

Where some mukhers/mukhertes get their superabundant energy from is a mystery. Were it not for shubbes their spouses would never see them. Se traapt (German treiben “to drive”) zey dehr impet, (Polish impet, compare English impetus. Their daimon drives them. The cynic may say the mukher only mukhs for the yeekhes “kudos”, Hebrew yichus “pedigree”, but this may be sour grapes. What is certain is that without the labours of the mukhers, whatever their motives, vollten mer blooh beshtunnen (my mother’s phrase), we (the Anglo-Jewish community) would be in a pickle, literally “we would have existed blue”, German hätten wir blau bestanden (not used).

Nebbekh “poor chap”, “what a shame!” is another word of disputed etymology. Taviov, op.cit., has no doubt that it comes from Polish nieboga “poor thing, poor wretch”, and Weinreich, Geshikhte, ii, 201, 202 is equally convinced that it comes from Czech neboh “poor, miserable”, but I have also heard that it is a contraction of (Lithuanian) Yiddish nit bai aikh “(may it) not (happen) to you”. This is at any rate more altruistic than the derivation from Middle High German n eb ich “may I not have (it)” given by Leonard Bloomfield.[iii] Often, where several etymologies are current, no single one can be taken as toirres lokshen (Chapter VI). You read, or you hear, and you take your choice or, what is more likely, you say: Zoll ekh uzzoi’ nisht vissen fin u krennk, vee ekh veyss vellkhes siz rikhtik “May I so not know of an illness, as I know which is right”.

Again the preoccupation with disease and health. Her veyss nisht fin zaan gezinnt’ (tse zooghen) “He hasn’t a clue”, literally “He doesn’t know about his health.” He can’t even tell you about his health, one says of an ignoramus, an ummoohretts, Hebrew am ha’arets, literally “people of the land”. Someone who is “sharp”, on the other hand, who can not only “make the sparks fly”, but who can also make ush en blotte (German Asche “ash”, Polish bloto “mud”) of an ummoohretts “wipe the floor with him”, is flum faier “red-hot”, German Flamme “flame, Feuer “fire”. A similarly inflammatory metaphor is used to denote an enthusiast, a fanatic: Ehrz u fehrbrennter (German verbrennter “burnt”) sotsyulist’ “He’s a fanatical socialist”.

Beeren-Meyer, Meyer-Beer!

Welch ein Lärm, was ist der Mähr?

Thus Heine begins a lampoon on the composer Meyerbeer. The poet, who knew and relished Yiddish, occasionally introduced Yiddishisms into his verse. (Though the syntax of Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten, from Die Lorelei, instead of Ich weiss nicht, was es bedeuten soll, is attributable to poetic licence, and not to Yiddish influence, as has been alleged by anti-Semitic German critics.) Yiddish Voohss iz de mehr? German die Märe “news, tidings,” corresponds to Middle German Was ist los? “What’s the matter?” According to Grimms’ Wörterbuch, Was ist der maer was still (1885) used in German dialect in the sense of “What’s the matter?”

For Welch ein Lärm “What a row,” Yiddish would have had Voohsss faar u gevult, German Gewalt “violence,” or Voohss faar u gereeder “commotion, stirring”, Middle High German gerüerde “stirring”, New High German rühren “to stir, move”.” (Or getimmel, New High German Getümmel “uproar”.) Compare the Yiddish folk-song:

Shu, shtill, mukh nisht keyn gevult’,

Dehr rebbe geyt shoin tuntsen (German tanzen) bult!

Shu, shtill, mukh nisht keyn gereeder,

Dehr rebbe geyt shoin tuntsen veeder!

“Quiet, no noise, the rabbi is soon going to dance

he was a chassidic rabbi, and chassidim believed in worshipping the Lord in dance and song

Quiet, still, no hullabaloo, the rabbi is going to dance again!”

Gevult has extended the semantic range of German Gewalt “might, power, violence.” The Yiddish word also means, as we have seen “outcry, uproar”. It is frequently used by way of introduction to intensify a following statement: Gevult! Voohss ot sech oop’geteen! “What a carry-on there was!” Gevult! Voohss faar un imglik! “It was a catastrophe!” (German Unglück  “misfortune.”)

Oi! gevult!  usually refers to some minor misfortune, such as the milk boiling over, or being informed by the shummes, on making your customary belated entry into shool on a Sabbath morning, that you are being “called up”, and leynen is nearly over. (Leynen, from Latin legere “to read”, is used for “reading of the Torah”.) The first recorded utterance of my elder son, accompanied by a violent shaking of the bars of his cot, was Oi gevult’! Which may be symbolic of something or other. Gevul’deven is to make a racket or row.

More or less synonymous with Oi Gevult’! is Oi u brokh! According to Max Weinreich,[iv] brokh must be considered an allomorph [v] related to the past participle, gebrokhen, of Yiddish brekhen “to break” (German gebrochen, brechen), a contention which seems eminently reasonable. The word is used frequently in phrases such as U brokh tse deer! “Shame on you!” U brokh tse de yoohren (German zu den Jahren “to the years”) “A fine pass we’ve come to”, and, in more or less the same sense, the intriguing A brokh tse kelum’besen! Mrs Feinsilver has the version A klug tsu Columbusn “A plague on Columbus!” (Because of him we were fooled into coming to America) to express disillusionment, but as my mother used the expression it indicated, rather, good-natured contempt: U brokh tse kelum’besen, uzz dee lehrnst meer (with the dee and the meer – “you”, “me”, – emphasised). “Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs”.

Note that Yiddish lehren, like Middle High German lërnen, means “to teach” (German lehren) as well as “to learn” (German lernen). Compare French apprendre, and the mums who threaten their wayward offspring with “I’ll learn yer!”. Yiddish ohss’lehrnen is also used: Khob eem ohss’gelehrnt, vee zekh tse benemmen “I’ve taught him how to behave”, German Ich habe ihm beigebracht, wie man sich benehmen muss.

The lehrer, German Lehrer “teacher”, was a teacher of secular subjects and had a higher status than the melummed, Hebrew melammed who, armed with a rubber kuntchik “tawse”, struggled on the pittance he received from their parents to impart the elements of Judaism to the pupils of the kheyder. (Kuntchik epenthetically from Polish kauczuk [compare French caoutchouc]”rubber”.) The melummed’s image is, mutatis mutandis, that of a Dotheboys Hall usher. His clothes are shabby, he is unkempt: Ehrz u hoilekh, Hebrew holech “going” – the word is “irreplaceable”. On starting my teaching career, some twenty-five years ago, at a “tough” boys’ primary school I found myself “on dinners”. Emerging shaken from a maelstrom of shouting, shoving, yelling and rioting urchins (“bubbly” is the technical term), I was greeted by a Jewish colleague with a “Well, how do you like the melummdes?” to which I could only respond with a sickly smile.

Apart from Voohss iz de mehr for Was ist los? Yiddish has a number of other divergences from Modern German idiom. “Why?” German warum? is faar voohss from Middle High German Vur waz? “for what?” (compare the English colloquial usage “what…for?”). The Yiddish Vooss mukht eer (German machen “to make”) corresponds to German Wie geht es Ihnen “how are you?” And the follow-up: “What’s new?” German Was gibt’s Neues? is Yiddish Voohss hehrt sekh (German hören “to hear”), to which my mother’s stock reply was: De boobbe yehrt sekh (German Jahr “year”), “Boobbe’s getting older.” Another crack at grandmothers (sopra), but perhaps this is simply an indication of their greater longevity – zeydde “grandpa”, would be shoin (German schon “already”) ef yenne vellt “in the other world”. For German nicht wahr? French n’est-ce pas? Yiddish has u yo? (German ja “yes”.) Kennst zaan breeder, u yo? “You know his brother don’t you?” German Du kennst seinen Bruder, nicht wahr? Ehrz u git kinnt, u yo? “He’s a good boy, isn’t he?” German Er ist ein braver Junge, nicht wahr?

“Do me a favour” is Tee mer u toivve – the German Gefallen “favour” is not used. Toivve “goodness,” Hebrew tovah is one of those “irreplaceable” Hebrew words in Yiddish which we mentioned in the chapter on the Hebrew elements.

Do me a favour, by all means, but don’t rub it in – Mukh mekh nisht raakh, lit. “Don’t make me rich”. You have to do good by stealth, otherwise your beneficiary is likely to reject your toivves with an ungracious (Ekh) bin der moikhel, Hebrew mochel, lit. “(I) forgive you (for not doing the favour you want to do me.”) More emphatically, moikhel, tout court. If, per impossibile, the workhouse inmates on that memorable Christmas Eve when the snow was falling fast had been Yiddish-speaking, they would have rejected the proffered pud with a unanimous moikhel!

“What’s the time?” is Viffel hult (German hӓlt) or iz dehr zeygher? or Vee shpeyt iz? German Wieviel Uhr ist es? or Wie spӓt ist es? Polish zegar “clock,” derives from Middle High German zeiger (pronounced tseygher) meaning “clock,” as well as “clock-hand”, to which latter denotation the Modern German Zeiger is restricted. Yiddish zeygher from Polish zegar or Middle High German zeiger? Half-past eight, nine, etc. is hullbe nookh ukht, naan, etc. (German nach “after”), not hulb naan, hulb tsehn (German halb neun, halb zehn). A quarter to eleven, twelve, is u feertal faar ellif, etc; German Viertal vor elf.

“To come when it’s nearly all over,” is oohn’kimmen tsem ohss-shpaan (German ausspeien “to spit out”), alluding, in the Alenu prayer which ends each of the three daily services, to the passage: “since He hath not assigned unto us a portion as to them, nor a lot as unto all their multitude”, at which the officiant “spat out,” a practice which, of course, has long fallen into desuetude.

“A few minutes ago” is Mit u poohr minnit’ (German paar Minuten) tsrik (German zurück “back”), as well as faar u poohr minnit’, German vor einigen Minuten. “In a month’s time” is In u khoidesh (Hebrew chodesh) erim’/aarim’ (German herum “around”), German in einem Monat. “Every other day” in the non-literal sense of “continually” is ullen moontik en donn’ershtik (German Montag, Donnerstag), the Torah being read on Mondays and Thursdays. Ullen moontik en donn’ershtik vill ze eppes undersh “She’s always wanting something else.” “Evening” is oovent, German Abend, but Friday evening is, of course, ehref (Hebrew erev) shubbes “eve of Sabbath”, and Saturday evening is shubbeysse/shebeysse (adjective formed from shubbes) nukht(s). “Once in a blue moon” is eynmoohl in u yoivel, Hebrew yovel, from which the English “jubilee” is derived.


[i] For the “genealogy” of bentchen see Max Weinreich op. cit. ii,68.

[ii] “Many attempts have been made to elicit the causes of these (the Indo-European and Germanic) sound shifts, but no explanation has yet carried conviction.” Priebsch and Collinson, The German Language, 2nd ed.,London, 1946, p.67.

[iii] Language, London, 1935, p.472

[iv] The Field of Yiddish, The Hague,1965, Mouton & Co; p.74n.

[v] An allomorph is “one of two or more forms that a morpheme has at different points in the language,” a morpheme being “a meaningful linguistic unit.” Webster‘s Third New International Dictionary, 1961)