July 21, 2024
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July 21, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

I recall a Yiddish maxim of my teenage years which has remained with me. “Az meh hot nit kayn flaysh, redt men veggn flaysh—If one has no meat, one speaks about meat.” Abject poverty of the shtetl aside, there is a variation of that maxim that speaks to me as I see homeowners planting, weeding and tending to their gardens. Being all thumbs—none of which are green—I too, should like to speak about gardening using the following five Yiddish terms:

Ehrd (earth): Having been born and raised in a part of North America, which is arguably the breadbasket of Canada, I know that pitch black earth tends to be fertile earth. The Yiddish maxim, “oif shvahrtzeh ehrd vahkst dee behsteh t’vuah—the best grain grows in black earth,” attests to this. During my four visits to Ukraine, I saw that very same colored soil.

Flahntzn (grow): On non-Tachanun days, we introduce Birkat Hamazon with psalm 126. There, we find the verse, “those who sow in tears reap with in glad song.” The Yiddish language also has a statement to make regarding planting, however whimsical: “Ahz meh flahntzt kahrtoffel, zoll men nit dehrvahrten tzeebeleh—If you plant potatoes, don’t expect onions to crop up.”

Vahzonness (household plants): When I was eight years old, my recently-widowed grandmother went on a trip to visit her other two sons. She was gone for several months. Her chief concern was not a water pipe bursting, but her vahzonness. Twice a week, my father and I got in the car and traveled to her apartment to dutifully water the vahzonness. “Onn gedoold, torr men nit flahntzn vahzonness—Unless you have patience, don’t plant household plants.”

Bloom (flower): Had Fiorello LaGuardia been of Eastern European descent, and had he been a female with the name, “Fiorella,” the apt Yiddish name for him would have been, “Bloomeleh.”

Vohrtzl (root). Flowers and plants aside, the Yiddish term for a “root canal” is “tzonn vohrtzl.” Roots are essential to human life, as well as to plant and tree life. So much so that we find the following teaching: “A boim onn vohrtzlen iz mehr nit vee a shtick holtz—A tree without roots is nothing more than a piece of wood.”

As I pass by the many beautiful gardens each Shabbat—walking to and from shul—I will continue to offer praise to the Master of the Universe for the vohrtzlen (roots), the bloomen (flowers), the vahzonness (household plants), and that people with green thumbs flahntzn (grow) in froochpehrdik (fertile) ehrd (earth).


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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