July 20, 2024
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July 20, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

A little less than two months ago, a prominent newspaper ran an article about travelers kvetching about figuring out how to turn on the lights in their hotel rooms. The article piqued my interest because of the word “kvetch.” Nor was this the first time for that newspaper to use the word “kvetch.” In 2018, it carried a baseball article about the “seventh inning kvetch.” While the Yiddish-English dictionary translates “kvetch” to mean “press” or “squeeze,” common usage suggests “griping” or “whining.” Of interest, “kvetch” joins several other Yiddish words that have enriched the English language thanks to our Eastern European ancestors who immigrated to this country. Having celebrated yet another Independence Day, I offer five other examples of how Yiddish has gifted American English. All the Yiddish words that follow are listed in either The Merriam-Webster Dictionary or Webster’s New World Dictionary.

Bubkes (beans): The Yiddish word for “bean” is either bohb or fahsoliah. “Bubkes” is the diminutive plural of “bohb.” “He makes bupkes” is a perfect way to describe a person who is barely eking out a living. “I’ve got bupkes” is an accurate comment by a poker player who is about to fold. Years ago, the actor Peter Falk was a guest on a weekly television program, “Inside the Actors Studio.” When host James Lipton asked his guest what his favorite word was, without hesitation, Peter Falk said “bubkes.”

Nudnik (annoying person): In the world in which I was raised, it was not uncommon to assign nicknames to people. There was the “nezzeleh,” so-called because of his unusually small nose and the “henteleh” because of a deformed hand. In my family, Stu Kolchinsky (my cousin’s cousin) was referred to as “nudnik” because of his endless questions. Although I have not seen Stu for over half a century, my guess is that he is retired and enjoying his grandchildren but—to my sisters and me—he will always be “nudnik.”

Tchotchke/tzahtzkeh (trinket): Because of regional accents, both entries appear in the Yiddish dictionary. Another one of my contemporaries—although I did not know her personally—was Shirley Feinman. Deserved or not, Shirley did not have a sterling reputation. Until this day, I recall sitting on the bleachers at the YMHA when Jimmy Straifman called out in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “Shirley, get over here, tzahtzkeleh!” Morals aside, “tchotchkes” are usually the mementos we Americans bring back for our friends when we travel abroad.

Schmaltzy (excessively sentimental): Taken from the word “schmaltz” (typically fat from fowl or animals), “schmaltzy” describes a certain type of singing. Recently, Los Angeles-based music writer/editor Laura Stravropoulos had the following to say about Barbra Streisand, “… for some of the unknowing public, she is the singer of schmaltzy torch songs and sweeping romantic films.” While “schmaltzy” made it into American English, outside of delicatessen food, “schmaltz” never did. And that’s quite a shame, because “ahrinefahllen in a schmahltzgroob” (literally to fall into a schmaltz pit) colorfully describes someone who hit it rich.

Yenta (gossip or busybody): “Yenta” is a bonafide woman’s name. It is believed to have derived from the Italian “gentile” meaning “noble” or “refined.” Story has it that there was a woman named “Yenta” who was neither noble nor refined. She gained a reputation—far and wide—for being a gossip. Yenta became so renowned, that when someone would share gossip, that person was admonished for being “such a Yenta.” Of interest, there was once a column that appeared in the Yiddish Daily Forverts called “Yente Telebente.”

May we continue to have “naches” (also found in Webster’s) from the United States as it celebrates its 248th birthday. And may we bear in mind that anti-American drivel from “yenta” political figures of other countries amounts to “bubkes.” Ditto as far as the blather spewed by “nudniks” in this country. At the risk of coming off as “schmaltzy,” let no one ever relegate this land of the free and home of the brave to “tchotchke” status.


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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