April 8, 2024
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April 8, 2024
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Recently, my son offered to spare me the time and effort of purchasing the four species for the Sukkot festival. After specifying in a text message what sort of etrog I was looking for, my son texted back one word: “azoy.” Based on the lack of context, I chose to interpret my son’s response of “azoy” to mean “is that so?” I could have easily misread his one-word response because depending on what word precedes it or depending on what follows it, azoy is one Yiddish word that speaks volumes. Permit me to provide five different usages of azoy, appearing both by itself, as well as when coupled with other words.

Azoy (like this). There currently exist rabbis as well as others, who studied Talmud at renowned yeshivas in this country, who will unfailingly make the following introduction when elucidating a passage: “Rashi says like this.” By speaking in such a manner, these rabbis and students of Talmud are unwittingly translating the Yiddish “Rashi zogt azoy” verbatim. While the Yiddish is entirely correct as well as appropriate, the English simply does not pass muster. “Rashi says” would be adequate. “Here’s what Rashi has to say” would also be acceptable.

Azoy (so). Azoy can serve as an adjective or an adverb. When used as an adjective, azoy takes “pretty” and enhances it to “so pretty.” Hence, shayn (pretty) is enhanced to “azoy shayn.” When used as an adverb, azoy takes “quick” and elevates it “so quickly.” Hence, “geshmahk” is elevated to “azoy geshmahk.” Yet, it isn’t only positive qualities that azoy amplifies. “Azoy” augments negative qualities as well. Living in abject poverty in the Russian pale of settlement in constant fear of various iterations of antisemitism, many a Jew of that time and place had to decry his life as being so very bitter by exclaiming “Dos lebben is mir azoy bitter.”

Azoy vee (in that/as though/as…as). Yes, Yiddish grammar has prepositions and azoy vee qualifies as a preposition when it begins a sentence. Azoy vee doo zeetzt azoy shteel, mayn ich ahz doo beest een kahs oif mir (In that you are sitting so quietly, I believe that you are angry with me). Azoy vee can also serve as a conjunction. Ess zeht ois azoy vee zee hott doss nisht alayn gemahcht (It appears as though she didn’t prepare it by herself). Azoy vee need not be joined together. Azoy vee may be intruded upon and separated by an adjective or adverb. Doss keend iz azoy zees vee tzooker (The child is as sweet as sugar).

Azoy gor (Is that so). Oisroof is the Yiddish word for “exclamation,” and “azoy gor” qualifies as an oisroof. Azoy gor is the perfect response when no other response is fitting. Upon hearing someone boasting that he has traveled to Israel ten times last month, “azoy gor” serves as a most appropriate response in that it is non-committal. To avoid being goaded, azoy gor is probably one of the safest ways to defuse a situation. Suppose someone tells you that he’s superior to you in a particular manner, but once you respond with “azoy gor,” you need say nothing more.

Ott azoy (atta boy/way to go/this is the way). Ott azoy nayt ah shnyder (This is the way a tailor sews) was perhaps among the better-known work songs of the shtetl. Available on YouTube, one can hear it sung in an indubitable Lithuanian Yiddish dialect. Ott azoy can serve as a term of encouragement when you see your Little Leaguer finally hit a single, or as a substitute for “brava” when you see your daughter or granddaughter ride a bicycle without the training wheels or jump rope for the first time.

Whether it’s ott azoy (encouragement), azoy gor (an unassailable exclamation), azoy vee (a proposition beginning a sentence or a comparison elsewhere in the sentence), azoy (an adjective or an adverb that boosts), or azoy (a hindrance to proper English because of a literal translation from Yiddish), azoy says a lot, especially when there’s no need to say more, or when there isn’t a lot to say.


Rabbi Shawn Zell has recently returned to New Jersey, after serving at a pulpit in Dallas. He possesses certification in teaching Yiddish. Rabbi Zell is the author of three books.

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