April 17, 2024
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Presidents’ Day Does Not Get Lost in the Translation

If the lives of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln—whose birthdays we observe this Monday—have for the longest time failed to evoke much interest, then, perhaps, it behooves us to turn to the Yiddish language to provide the necessary recognition and respect that these two leaders have earned and deserve.

Bahtziung (relationship): Few are aware that in addition to writing to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, President Washington penned the following words to the Savannah Georgia Hebrew Congregation: “May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors planted them in the promised land … still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people … ”

Dehrtziung (education): Despite the same suffix, bahtziung and dehrtziung share nothing in common. Unlike the presidential aspirants of today, scant attention—if any—was paid to educational credentials, even though both Harvard and Yale were already well established. George Washington’s education amounted to seven or eight years of tutoring by his father and half-brother Lawrence, while Abraham Lincoln was largely self-educated. Apparently, neither high grades nor Ivy League colleges were a precondition for electability in those early years of this country.

Milchomeh (war): Taken directly from the Hebrew with an allowance for Ashkenazic pronunciation, milchomeh played a decisive role in the lives of both presidents. For Washington, it was the War of Independence that instantly made him public enemy number one in England and, eventually, made him the first president of our nascent country. For Lincoln, it was the Civil War that made him persona non-grata in the eyes of many southerners, and turned him into a national hero as far as most northerners were concerned.

Dershossen (shot/assassinated): The sixteenth president of this country was 56 years old when he was felled by a bullet fired from John Wilkes Boothe’s pistol. Abraham Lincoln was the first president of this country whose life was cut short through assassination, but not the last. It is precisely for these reasons that the United States Secret Service—established in 1901—following the assassination of President McKinley, goes to such lengths to secure zeechehrkeit (safety) for the one holding this nation’s highest office.

Ohndenk (keepsake/memento/souvenir): It would be a fabrication to say that most Americans carry President Washington and President Lincoln in their hearts. They do, however, carry both presidents in their pockets, purses and wallets. Overlooked by many, it is the portrait of George Washington that appears on the one-dollar bill and the portrait of Abraham Lincoln that adorns the five dollar bill.

Given the value of the dollar, many would consider the Lincoln and Washington banknotes to be small change. The legacy of President Lincoln and President Washington—whose birthdays we celebrate on Monday—is priceless.


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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