April 11, 2024
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Words That Refuse to Define Our History

With February having been designated as Black History Month, a good question to ponder is why is there no Jewish History Month? There are those who would say that every month is Jewish History Month. Others would argue that Jewish history defies time. Then there are those who whimsically offer the following view of Jewish history: “The enemy hated us; the enemy tried to kill us; the enemy failed miserably; we overcame the odds; now, let’s eat.”

On a more serious note, because our past is unlike the history of any other people, I see Jewish history as refusing to be defined by the following five Yiddish words:

Fahrfallen (hopeless or doomed): It was the Yiddish poet, Hirsh Glick, who intimated that “fahrfahllen” is a word that is taboo if used to describe the Jewish people. Having participated in the Vilna ghetto uprising and having survived two different concentration camps, Glick expressed his unfathomable experiences through poetry. His “Zog nit kaymoll ahz doo gayst dem lehtztn vegg—Never say that you are on your final journey” has become the de facto anthem at annual Holocaust commemorations. For Jews, hope springs eternal.

Farhrtzoggt (despondent): Most will be more familiar with the Hebrew word “meyahaysh” which has long been incorporated into the Yiddish language. The great chasidic master Reb Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) reminded us that “the entire world is a narrow bridge.” The main thing is not to fear. The Breslover Rebbe added in Yiddish, “Gevald Yidden! Zeit zich nit meyahaysh!—For heaven’s sake, Jews! Don’t despair!” Despair and despondency are antithetical to thousands of years of defying the enemy.

Oontehrgebbn (surrender): From time immemorial, Jews have been able to distinguish between surrender in body and surrender in spirit. Over the centuries, countless Jews have surrendered to the enemy. True to their Judaism, they chose life over death. Rarely has it happened, however, that Jews have surrendered spiritually to the enemy. Spiritually, Jews have defied the enemy from the moment of capture until the moment of liberation or death. Rabbi Akiva—who remained silent while being tortured to death by his Roman captors—continues to serve as our inspiration when it comes to “never surrender.”

Nekommeh (revenge): Like “meyahaysh,” “nekommeh” is a word that has long been incorporated into the Yiddish language. Jews believe that “nekommeh” is best left to Hashem. We so much as say so at the end of Shacharit services, each Wednesday—when we include psalm 94 as psalm for the day. The psalm refers to Hashem as “God of vengeance.” As Jews, we seek justice. At times, we pay a high price for justice. And while we pursue justice, we ask Hashem to pursue vengeance. Should it happen that pursuing justice is not within our means, we still ask Hashem to pursue vengeance.

Hahss (hate): Israeli soldiers receive intensive training out of necessity, given the region where Israel is located. One thing the Israeli army does not imbue in its soldiers is to hate the enemy. Hatred of the enemy is an anathema to the Jewish people. Instead, we use phrases such as “yemach shemo” (may his memory be erased) when speaking about the enemy. We don’t hate the Egyptians for enslaving our people. We don’t hate the Babylonians or the Romans for destroying the holy temples in Jerusalem, as well as what ensued afterwards. We don’t hate the Ukrainian Cossacks or any other mass murderers. This doesn’t mean we love the enemy. But we realize that hatred is self-destructive because it depletes energy that is best channeled elsewhere.

If there is one thing that “fahrfahllen,” “fahrtzoggt,” “oontehrgebben,” “nekommeh” and “hahss” share, it is that they are behaviors that we as a people have constantly endeavored to eschew.

What better way of explaining why we continue to thrive as a people, despite centuries of enemies who plotted otherwise? What better way of explaining words that refuse to define our history?


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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