I was in a gourmet shop in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor when I spotted a Chinese takeout carton labeled “Jewish Fortune Cookies.” Unable to resist, I made my purchase and promptly dug into the carton to open the first one.
“Oedipus, Shmedipus,” it read. “So long as you love your mother.”
I smiled from ear-to-ear, thinking about the colorful expressions that surrounded me growing up in a Jewish neighborhood. My grandparents spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want us to understand them. But their English, too, was sprinkled with animated phrases that crossed over to my generation. Unfortunately, I’ve spent a lot of my life in places with few Jews, so I’m often misunderstood.
When I worked at a newspaper in Michigan, for instance, the newsroom was on the second floor of one of those grand old buildings with high ceilings. Climbing the stairs to my desk was like climbing two flights, not one.
“Oy,” I’d sigh every morning, as I reached the top landing with my heavy work bag.
“Hi,” my fellow reporters would respond, thinking I’d issued a salutation.
That’s when it dawned on me: How do you explain “oy”? It can be an expression of contentment (“Oy, what a delicious dinner”) or dismay (“Oy, I’ve gained 60 pounds since I went off Weight Watchers”) or even abysmal woe (“Oy! My grandson came home from college with more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese. Why on earth does anyone need to fit a pickle through their ear?”)
It can be used in a sentence:
Oy gevalt! (Oy geh vahlt): “May a great power intervene on my behalf!” Use this in desperate situations, like when you discover there’s a 45-minute wait at The Olive Garden.
Oy veh is mir! (oy vay is mir): “Oh, woe is me!”; “I am pain itself!” … an expression of suffering used to describe big horrors, such as finding out someone you love needs open-heart surgery, and everyday miseries like stocking runs and static cling.
Most Yiddish words have no English equivalents:
Yenim’s pipik (Yeh nem’s pip pick): somebody else’s bellybutton. You’re struggling to pay your mortgage, when your teenager hits you up for a new iPhone, because his is so “last generation.” You suggest he look in yenim’s pipik.
Yiddish words can spice up any ordinary sentence. Sprinkle them in for dramatic emphasis:
Ungehpotchkeyed (ung geh potch keed): excessively and gaudily over-decorated … think Liberace’s living room. Your neighbor wears enough makeup to press her face against a canvas and sell it as a self-portrait. Oy! Does she look ungehpotchkeyed.
Verbs are especially expressive, inviting genuine pity from anyone who will listen:
Schvitz (shvitts): to sweat profusely, as in oozing from every pore. “Oy, turn the air up. I’m schvitzing to death in here!”
Shlep (shlep): to drag; not merely to move an object, but to take on a burden to which no human being on earth should be subjected. (“I schlepped all over the city, trying to find shoes that don’t irritate my bunions. Now, oy gevalt, I not only need shoes; I need a motorized wheelchair.”)
Yiddish is packed with wonderful words to describe every moron, idiot and annoying or unpleasant person who’s ever crossed your path.
Yenta (yen ta): a busybody, a gossip … that relative at your son’s bar mitzvah, who asks, “So how much did this shindig cost?” … then wants to know, “If you can afford the Solid Gold dancers and the light-up hats, why aren’t you helping pay for Uncle Izzy in the old people’s home in Miami?”
Alter kocker (oll-ter-kock-er): A cranky old man; an “old fart” … the kind who yells at you from his front porch, while you’re walking your beagle: “Get off my lawn, you hooligans!”
Schlemiel (shluh meal): a born loser; the kind of jerk who wants you to invest your life savings in helping him bring back the eight track. There’s a Yiddish proverb that a schlemiel falls on his back and breaks his nose.
There are literally thousands of Yiddish expressions that can add spice to ordinary conversation:
Schmaltz (shmolts): corny, hackneyed emotionalism. “Feelings” is a schmaltzy tune.
Chutzpah (chuts pah) (The “ch” is a guttural, throat-clearing sound): colossal nerve. Jews often describe this as “Someone who murders his parents, then pleads for mercy in court on account he is an orphan.”
There are hordes of Yiddish physical descriptions:
Shnoz: slang for nose ― usually a large or unattractive nose (This comes from the German word “schnauzer,” meaning “snout” or “muzzle).
Pulkehs (pull keys): large, heavy thighs
Zoftig (zoff tig): soft and springy. Men use this word to describe women with a surplus of epidermis in all the right places.
Tuches (Taw chus) (guttural “ch”): the buttocks; the reason I’m ending this blog and heading to the Y. The tuchas is one of the unfortunate places where a zoftig woman’s epidermis tends to accumulate.