July 6, 2024
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July 6, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

For Jews steeped in their heritage, there are two mountains of significance: Mount Moriah and Mount Sinai. The former evokes Abraham’s faith in Hashem; the latter evokes Hashem’s faith in Abraham’s descendants. To past generations of Jews in this geographic area weathering the stifling and oppressive heat that blankets New York’s five boroughs and beyond, there was a period of time in American Jewish history when the term “mountains” took on an additional meaning. Meaning no disrespect to the aforementioned two mountains, the Catskill mountains became a new and welcome addition to the vocabulary of immigrant Jews to this country going back over 50 years ago. Given their Eastern European accents, the Catskill mountains were simply referred to as the “muhntns.” Although the resort hotels and kochalayns (lit. cook yourself) summer cottages where you cooked your own meals) have been relegated to nostalgia, with summer vacation soon beckoning, it would behoove us to recall the following Yiddish vocabulary associated with a world that once was.

HEETZ (heat). What’s worse than 90-degree days? Ninety-degree days with ninety percent humidity. Once air conditioners were introduced, it took a few decades for them to become a household item. Initially, air conditioners were limited to movie theaters. The heetz was so unbearable that New York apartment-dwellers took to sleeping on the fire escape or in the park. The Yiddish lament was meh kenn dehrshteekkt vehren (one can suffocate) in that the air was too saturated with humidity making it difficult to breath.

SHVAYS (perspiration). In verb form, shvays becomes shvitz. Of interest, “parilka,” the Russian word for steam bath, never found its way into Yiddish. Why the Yiddish language did not adopt shvays bohd and chose shvitz bohd to mean steam bath is beyond me as well. The remedy for the unbearable heat of the city was to head to the “muhntns.” Dortn kenn men zich opprooen oon zich oppkeeln (There, one can relax and cool off).

OIF DAHTCHA (on vacation). Dahtcha (summer cottage) is borrowed from the Russian language. Less than a decade ago during this time of year, I received a phone call from the revered Rabbi Nota Greenblatt ZT”L of Memphis. I was still in the parking garage at Newark Airport in the rental car I had just picked up, as I had arrived from Dallas for a short visit back to NewJersey. Rabbi Greenblatt and I always conversed in Yiddish. I explained that currently I was not in Dallas. When Rabbi Greenblatt asked for clarification, I answered, “Ich bin oif dahtcha” (I’m on vacation). I knew that the term was not new to Rabbi Greenblatt. I also knew that it had been some time since Rabbi Greenblatt last heard it being used. My hunch is that “in the muhntns” supplanted oif dahtcha for most Yiddish-speaking New York Jews.

BORSHT (borscht). Did you know that borscht comes in two varieties? There is beet borscht and sorrel borscht. Some might even say that there is winter borscht (beet) and there is summer borscht (sorrel). The Ukrainian word for sorrel is “schavel,” hence the summer borscht being known as schav, served chilled with a dollop of sour cream. My father, a”h, would add diced cucumbers to his schav. At the resort hotels in the “muhntns,” it was a given that chilled glasses of schav would greet the diner as a forshpeiz (appetizer). This gave rise to referring to the “muhntns” as the “Borscht Belt.”

SHPILLEN IN KORTEN (play cards). Not everyone vacationing up in the”muhntns” had chilled schav waiting for them when they sat down at the table. Not everyone could afford a week or two at a resort hotel. Most made do in a kochalayn. Schlepping their own dishes, pots, and pans, families ate home cooking at every meal. For those vacationing up in the “muhntns,” there was one activity however that knew of no class distinction. And that was shpillen in korten. Men would while away the time as they got together for a friendly game of gin rummy or poker.

Alas, the heetz remains, but borsht is no longer the forshpeiz served to refresh. Shvays has been consigned to history, thanks to air conditioners. For many of us, Israel has replaced the “muhntns” when going oif dahtcha. As far as shpillen in korten, we no longer need worry about munchies and cold drinks. Computers are easy guests.


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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