April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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Believe it or not, it was never a foregone conclusion that Hebrew would be the lingua franca of modern-day Israel. A century and a half ago, there were heated debates among early Zionist movers and shakers regarding what the national language would be. It was due largely to the passionate efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, born Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman, lexicographer of the first Hebrew dictionary that Hebrew is the national language of Israel. Yiddish, in Ben Eliezer’s opinion, reeked of the downtrodden Eastern European Jew whose existence was at the mercy of the non-Jew. How ironic then, that the following is a sampling of Yiddish words that found their way into everyday modern Hebrew!

Shvitzer (one who perspires). Here in the United States the shvitz was used by our people to refer to the steam bath. In modern Hebrew, however, a shvitzer is a showoff. Moreover, a Hebrew verb form was also introduced: L’hashvitz means to brag or to show off. How odd, in that few showoffs or braggarts work up a sweat while boasting.

Fahrginnen (harbors no grudge). Typically, fahrginnen appears in the negative as in zay fahrginnen nisht (they begrudge). In modern Hebrew fahrginnen has been transformed into variants of l’fahrgayn (to bear no grudge) Accordingly, “hoo mehfarhgayn lahem et hakol” means “he bears no grudge against them at all.” Alternately, “hoo lo mehfahrgayn lahem shoom dahvahr” meanshe begrudges them everything.”

Shlook (gulp). During one of my many visits to Israel, I watched as my niece asked her brother for a gulp of his cold soda. She implored him to give her a shlook (rhymes with cook). My niece had no way of knowing that shlook, a Yiddish word meaning “gulp” or “swig,” was adopted into the Hebrew vernacular. An uncle of mine, may he rest in peace, could shlook beer with the best of his hollow-legged cronies.

Foileh shtick (lazy antics). Shvitzer was not the only Yiddish word to have undergone a metamorphosis once it made “aliyah.” For whatever reason, in Israel, foileh shtick has come to mean “underhandedness.” Decent people find it difficult to tolerate foileh shtick.

Shtinkerim (stinkers). In order to survive among hostile neighbors, Israel’s security forces must be at least one step ahead of those who seek to murder Israelis. In addition to sending its own people into hostile territory and perilous situations, Israel depends on Arabs who are prepared to divulge sensitive and crucial information regarding impending terrorist attacks. Although proper Hebrew terms exist for such informers, there are those in Israel, particularly in the government, who have been known to employ the slang term shtinkerim. To label individuals as shtikerim is equivalent to referring to them as rats.

How the 100th yahrzeit of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda will be observed later this month, remains to be seen. I pray, however, that Eliezer Ben-Yehuda is able to rest easy, despite the fact that Yiddish words are being used by everyday Israelis in everyday speech.


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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