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  • Writer's pictureJane Leder

Can't Find The Right Word? Try Yiddish

I didn't have anything pressing on my schedule for the day so when a friend called to rave about "Lockdown University," a series of lectures that, yes, started up during the Pandemic and has continued, I decided to give the lecture on "The Yiddish Culture That Was Lost--The Writers" a shot.


I remember sitting poolside at one of the popular Miami Beach hotels on Collins Avenue. I was surrounded by seniors speaking Yiddish. Hearing the language touched an emotional button: my paternal grandparents born in Russia both spoke Yiddish--particularly when they didn't want me or anyone else to understand what they were saying. I vowed to pick up a Yiddish dictionary or find a class online.

Sadly, I never got around to it. And now as an almost seventy-six-year-old, I'm having enough trouble staying proficient in Spanish and have forgotten all of my French. I used to be fluent. Not anymore.

Still, there are Yiddish words and expressions that I adore. They are so expressive, and you don't have to be Jewish to appreciate them. Many have made their way into conversational English.

How many times have you been frustrated or perplexed and uttered OY-YOY-YOY? Or Oy Vey for short?

What about PUTZ that literally means penis but is most often used to describe a fool, a jerk?

You might want to add that word to your vocab.

There's no doubt that you've hung out with a friend and SHMOOZED.

And I bet that even though you might look at the spelling or TCHOTCHKE and wonder what the heck it means, try this phonetic spelling: (CHOTCH-kə). Ring a bell? Have you spent time lately at an antique mall or gift store in search of an inexpensive trinket or toy? You were looking to buy a tchotchke.

TSORISS: Suffering, woes.

You may not know this Yiddish expression unless you have a relative who speaks the language. It's a good one. ZIE GA ZINK: Wishing someone good health

And the list goes on:

Kvetch — To complain, whine or fret

Mensch (mentsch)— an honorable, decent, stand-up person

Meshuggeneh — Crazy, ridiculous, insane

I'll wager that in frustration, you've told someone that whenever you've had to carry something or travel with difficulty or maybe shopped until you dropped, you've used the word schlep.

Schmuck (shmuck)—A jerk, or a self-made fool. I hear (and, alas, use) this one more often than I'd like.

Shmatte — A rag or old garment. My younger brother sucked his thumb and carried a piece of flannel around with him at all times. My bebe (grandmother) called it a shmatte.

Tuches (tuchis) — Butt, behind, sometimes shortened to tush or tushy.

ZZ Top was definitely in tune:

I been up, I been down Take my word, my way around I ain't askin' for much I said, Lord, take me downtown I'm just lookin' for some tush

I been bad, I been good Dallas, Texas, Hollywood I ain't askin' for much I said, Lord, take me downtown I'm just lookin' for some tush

The Rolling Stones, too!


All this chitter-chatter, chitter-chatter, chitter-chatter 'bout

Shmatta, shmatta, shmatta, I can't give it away on 7th Avenue

This town's been wearing tatters (shattered, sha ooobie shattered)


Oh, that lecture on all the Yiddish literature that has been lost. I was in uncharted territory. I'd never heard of Mendele Mokher Seforim, I.L. Peretz, Sholem Asch, and so many others. Tragically, I'm not the exception. To lose the rich cultural literature in Yiddish or in any other language is to lose part of ourselves.

Thankfully, Yiddish words and expressions have survived. (And with some dedicated research, books in Yiddish can be found.) Whenever you're stumped for just the right word, give Yiddish (and peace) a chance.


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