May 20, 2024
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Better a Slap From a Wise Man Than a Kiss From a Fool

I was more than a little amused when reading a recent article about J. Robert Oppenheimer, celebrated in 1945 as “the father of the atom bomb.” Less than a decade later, Oppenheimer was in Washington D.C. defending himself on charges that he was a security risk to the government. Albert Einstein, a colleague of Oppenheimer’s, advised him not to go to Washington, but to no avail. Walking back to his office, Einstein remarked to his secretary, “There goes a nahr!” Taken directly from the German “narr” nahr is the Yiddish word for “fool.” Without having to resort to invectives, there are several other words for “fool” that can also be found in Yiddish.

Yold (dolt). I recall a Yiddish professor of mine referring to himself as a yold when it came to renting a suitable apartment for himself and his wife. Blessed with a brilliant mind when it came to understanding leading Yiddish philosophers, yet, when renting an apartment, he neglected to ask about closet space or the terms of the lease.

Bollvahn (dummy). Connotatively, a bollvahn is more than a dummy. A bollvahn is all brawn but no brain. When asking for healing, Judaism differentiates between mind and body. Looking at a bollvahn, one is immediately able to discern a great divide between body and mind.

Tahmevaht (dimwit). Lifted from the four sons in the Passover Haggadah, the tahmevaht is a Yiddishized version of the third son. On a personal note, when the song “Oye Como Va” by Carlos Santana played on the radio over 50 years ago, my sisters and I would deliberately sing it as “Oh you tahmevaht!”

Glomp (yokel). Glomp traces its roots to the world of vegetables. A glomp is a head of cabbage. Just as referring to someone as a “cabbage head” is a deprecation, so too is referring to someone as a glomp. A glomp is a person who just stands there but has no idea why.

Shmendrick (dunderhead). It is difficult to harbor any ill-will against a shmendrik. It is also difficult spending any time in the company of a shmendrik. A shmendrik serves as a reminder of how happy we should be with our lot in life.

A shtik flaysh mit tzvay oigen (a piece of meat with two eyes). By far, the juiciest of all imprecations. Decades ago, I recall a Jewish journalist of renown paying a visit to a Soviet gulag. At one of the entrances stood a guard whom he described as being “a slab of beef with two epaulettes.” Immediately, I sensed that the journalist was hearkening back to a shtik flaysh mit tzay oigen.

It is nothing short of amazing for a people who are admonished to judge others favorably to have a vocabulary consisting of words and phrases such as yold, bollvahn, tahmevaht, glomp, shmendrik and a shtik flaysh mit tzvay oigen. What is even more amazing, is that in no way have I exhausted the lexicon!


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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