Shmoozing With the Word Mavens

A Graceful Exit
August 26, 2014, 11:34 am
Filed under: culture, holidays | Tags: , , , ,

The nice people of the world think you have to say goodbye to everyone at the end of a party. You can’t just say goodbye to the host and hostess or sneak out entirely. We’re here to confess that, in this arena, we are not nice. We have snuck out of many a Bar Mitzvah or wedding that lasted hours and hours past our bedtime.

On the way to the affair, one of our husbands is wont to ask: “What time does this party end?” We remind him that unless it’s a 5-year-old’s birthday party and the magician will be done by 2 p.m., the end time isn’t specified.

Invariably, the follow-up question is: “How long do you want to stay?”

Good question. “When is it appropriate to leave?” and “To whom do we have to say goodbye?” are two big existential questions that we are still pondering after years and years of exiting family picnics, graduation parties, business dinners, college reunions, fancy weddings, and teenage Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. You need to look for your signal to leave.

We’re friendly. We like to socialize. But how long is too long to for a second cousin’s wedding? We’ve never met the lucky bride; we don’t know her family, yet we chatted with her Uncle Earl from Boston for 20 minutes. We heard all about how the food was really wonderful on his recent riverboat cruise.

We’re happy to see our cousins and catch up with them, but we find that we are giving the same spiel when they ask what’s new. No, we don’t know if he’s ever going to marry that girl or what she’s going to do with that degree.

After a while, our feet hurt, we’re stuffed from the hors d’oeuvres, and we’ve caught up on all the news. It’s still the cocktail hour.

How long does a good guest stay? We don’t ever want to be the first to go, so we keep our eyes peeled for the signal. We point out, “Oh, look, the Goldbergs and the McCormicks are leaving.”

While Ellen will be close behind those two couples, Joyce considers dessert — served and eaten — her signal. No matter if midnight rolls around and the waiters are just serving the sirloin, she stays planted until the lava fudge cake with three strawberries makes an appearance.

If it’s a wedding, she’ll wait to see the couple cut the cake, but she doesn’t have to stay around to catch the bouquet or to sway in a circle on the dance floor to the final song, “That’s What Friends Are For.” Been there, done that.


When you gotta go, you gotta go.

Some people sneak out really early. When the waiter carrying two extra plates of salmon points to the empty spots at our table and asks, “Are they coming back?” we know in our hearts that they are not in the bathroom. They snuck out without saying goodbye to us.  Another moral dilemma: Do we tell the waiter they’ve left or keep quiet in case we want extra mashed potatoes?

Ellen is married to the one of nicest guys in the world. He is considerate to everyone. The downside of this is that he thinks you can’t leave a party until you say goodbye to everyone. That’s why Ellen is often seen in the hallway yelling, “Come on; just go. No one will even care. They won’t miss us.”  They usually compromise by saying goodbye to the hosts only before rushing out of the room without making eye contact with the rest of the family.

It’s easier to say goodbye when you know only a few people. When it’s time to leave, you give a general wave to the room and skip out.



In fact, the whole party can be more fun when you only know a few people. You can take as many pigs in the blanket as you want, speak only when spoken to, and not worry about looking silly on the dance floor.

Sometimes you don’t know anyone and you still can’t leave. That was the case recently when Ellen and her son, Andy, had to go to a college “meet and greet” at a stranger’s home. Walking up the driveway, Andy said, “Let’s just sneak out as soon as we can.” After all, he’s his mother’s son. But with parents sequestered outside and teens trapped inside, there was no way to coordinate an escape plan. They were stuck to the bitter end. At least they got dessert.

This article appears today on the very nice website of Philadelphia’s Public Radio station WHYY. You can  click here to see it on their site.

There’s a Word for That
August 15, 2014, 11:15 am
Filed under: culture | Tags: , , , ,

Guess who’s coming to dinner? The machetunim.

That’s the Yiddish word you’ll probably use soon after your daughter has announced her engagement, when you’ve invited her fiancé’s parents to your home for the first time.

In contrast, there is no single word in the English language to describe one’s relatives by marriage.

Yiddish is filled with many hard-to-translate words that have no equivalent in English, words that convey a whole range of emotions.

Another is mechayah, literally “resurrection,” a feeling of pleasure, delight and relief. You might experience this when you loosen your belt after a big meal or stand in the surf and splash yourself on a hot day. In English, it could take three sentences to convey the sentiment: “Aaaah! Now that the bar mitzvah is over, I can peel off these Spanx. I can finally breathe again.” In Yiddish, you need just three words: “What amechayah!”

It’s no surprise that other languages have untranslatable words, too. As self-described word mavens, we couldn’t resist taking a closer look at some farkakteh foreign words through a Yiddish lens:

Badkruka is a Swedish word that describes someone who is reluctant to jump into the water outdoors. No wonder they are reluctant: In Scandinavia, there are all those freezing cold fjords. Who would want to jump in and freeze their tootsies off? In Atlantic City, we’re only badkruka when the ocean temperature dips below 68 degrees. Of course, that means we probably won’t wade in until mid-August.

At the swim club, when we see a bunch of women glued to their lounge chairs, we don’t think they are badkruka; we know they don’t want to get their hair wet.

Zapoi is Russian for two or more days of drunkenness, usually involving waking up in an unexpected place. There’s no Jewish equivalent for this kind of drunkenness; we like to wake up in our own cozy beds. The only thing that comes to mind is the custom on Purim when Jews are supposed to drink until they can’t distinguish between Haman and Mordecai. Sometimes people down shots of whiskey in the back of the synagogue to fulfill this minhag (custom), but it’s no zapoi unless you wake up on the bimah.

Kabelsalat is German for tangled-up cables. It translates as cable salad. Klaus might say, “When I keep my earbuds in my pocket, they come out all kabelsalat.” For this word, there is a Yiddish equivalent: “When we tried to move the surge protector, all the cords were ongepotchket (disorganized, cluttered, thrown together).”

Uitwaaien is Dutch for going out for a walk in the countryside in order to clear one’s mind. Our uitwaaien is going down to the basement to put the wet clothes in the dryer and realizing that it’s so nice and cool and quiet down there that there’s no reason to hurry back upstairs.

Ikigai is the Japanese term for a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to live. We’re Jewish mothers. Our word for ikigai is “children.”

Then there’s the Inuit word iktsuarpokIt’s described as the feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’ve arrived yet. It’s curious that the Inuits, the native people of the Arctic Circle, coined this word. Isn’t it too cold to leave the igloo and stand out on the tundra waiting for the dogsled?

We iktsuarpok all the time–waiting for the school bus to drop off the kids, the UPS guy to deliver the coffee we ordered, and the plumber to show up. We love this word so much that we have adopted it. Since the English language has appropriated so many Yiddish words, we think it’s only fair that we add one word back in.


Mavens Note:

This column was also published on the blog of Moment Magazine… we were waiting for them to post it before we did.

When the Weather Outside Is Sweaty

Northeast on Fire! Massive Heat Wave Bearing Down! No Relief in Sight! When summer comes, TV weather people shout these teasers at us, warning us to take shelter in air-conditioned libraries, avoid caffeinated drinks, and check on our elderly neighbors.

Screen Shot 2014-07-24 at 1.25.55 PMIt has to hit 90-plus degrees for three days in a row to be labeled an official heat wave, and we’ve had two so far this summer. It’s been sticky, steamy and stormy and we’ve lost our Internet service, but as the weather people keep reminding us, it doesn’t compare to the Snowmageddon of 2014.

We really shouldn’t kvetch about the heat, but we will because we’re shvitzing, which is the Yiddish word for “sweating heavily.” Shvitzing isn’t perspiring or having a moist glow; it’s sweating so much that you need to reapply your deodorant or change your shirt before dinner.

Those who live with us might argue that it doesn’t matter what the weather conditions are outside: We’re always complaining that we’re hot and shvitzing. We are women of a certain age, and our internal temperature control is out of whack. That’s probably why we like to sit inches away from an air conditioning vent.
An advertising banner from the Camac Baths.

An advertising banner from the Camac Baths.

The Jewish people have been sweating for thousands of years, and we’re tired of it. When Eastern European Jews immigrated to America, they brought the shvitz – a place to sweat – with them to their new neighborhoods. In 1929, Alexander Lucker opened the Camac Bath House in Philadelphia. (It’s now  the site of the 12th Street Gym. People still shvitzing!) At the bath houses, men would relax and socialize in steam room. Sweating was considered a good thing.

We prefer to sweat in private; we take refuge at home, meticulously following tips from the American Red Cross and the National Weather Service to “slow down, don’t engage in strenuous activities, and drink plenty of fluids.” Although we were reluctant to follow the directive from Homeland Security to make an emergency evacuation plan for the family or the instructions from the attorney to draw up a living will, we have no problem lounging on the sofa drinking ice tea and not cooking dinner – but we still have to provide something.

In the dog days of summer, we look for quick, cold dinner options. Sometimes we do bagels and lox, the traditional, cold brunch that can easily stand in anytime. Or takeout sushi. Or the Seinfeld big salad – with olives, cheese, almonds and whatever else is in the pantry. Sometimes we even say, “You’re on your own. Have a bowl of cold cereal.”

In the days before central air conditioning and microwaves, our mothers had to come up with summer dinners that didn’t involve turning on the oven and heating up the  house. Salmon croquettes, tuna salad and egg salad would make an appearance all too often. On some nights, our moms would cook on the stovetop, and we’d enjoy buttered, boiled Creamettes with those salads.

We’re not complaining. We know we are blessed with central air, microwave ovens and automatic ice dispensers. And we’re grateful not to be among the 2-3 percent of the population that has hyperhidrosis, the medical term for excessive sweating no matter what the weather or physical activity. Hyperhidrosis does not describe your husband when he comes in from jogging. People who suffer from severe cases of hyperhidrosis can be so sweaty that it’s hard for them to “hold a pen, grip a car steering wheel, or shake hands,” according to WebMD.

We read that other causes of excessive sweating include diabetes, hyperthyroidism and a high arsenic level. If someone is slowly poisoning you with arsenic, being sweaty is the least of your worries.

As long as it stays hot outside, writing this essay is enough activity for us for the day. We’re going to pour ourselves a cold drink, sit quietly on the couch, and wait for Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz to announce: Killer Heat Wave Ending!

The Internet Afterlife
June 1, 2014, 9:26 am
Filed under: culture, Current Events, technology | Tags: , , , , , ,

Heaven is often depicted as a place in the sky where everything floats on beautiful clouds and people don’t age.

heaven 8

Is it a coincidence that the Cloud where our electronic footprints dwell is a lot like this place?


On Facebook, it appears that time stands still. When you click through a friend’s albums, you might see photos of a Bat Mitzvah girl smiling shyly with her new braces, a fabulous trip to an Eastern European country, and kids posing by the lake at a summer camp. In reality, that teen just graduated from college, the Eastern European country is now seven independent nations, and that summer camp is a housing development.

In the actual world when time marches on, you can see the Closed sign on the facade of the restaurant and the For Sale sign on the storefront. You notice the occasional abandoned car on the highway. No so on the information superhighway.

heaven 5

In the virtual world –  what’s been abandoned is invisible. There’s no clue that things have changed. Online you’ll still find:

  • reviews of restaurants that have gone out of business,
  • blogs that have lain dormant since the author’s enthusiasm for breeding dachshunds waned, and
  • online stores that appear to be in business until you fill your cart and try to enter your credit card on the last screen.

Likewise, when people die, they live on in cyberspace. This got us wondering: What happens to people’s user names and secret passwords when they are no longer users? Family members will eventual divvy up their possessions, clean out their closets and close their online bank accounts, but will they remove the TripAdvisor review of the bad mule ride down the Grand Canyon and the Goodreads review of Tom Clancy’s spy thriller? Probably not.  Will they take down their loved one’s Facebook page?


It turns out that Facebook has a set of guidelines for this eventuality. When someone passes away, his or her Facebook page can be memorialized. This is different from closing your account or creating a Facebook alias because you’ve posted too many photos of your drunken self-holding a red plastic cup. According to Facebook, memorializing a page means it can be viewed but it can’t be logged into or changed. However, “anyone can send private messages to the deceased person.” Facebook notes, once a page is memorialized, they will take care of the awkward possibility that you’ll get a birthday reminder or a suggestion of “people you may know” for someone who is deceased.

All this playing online makes us realize that we’ve left quite a trail on the Internet. In fact, when we Googled ourselves, as we are wont to do, we got 22,500 results in 0.55 seconds – 8 pages documenting 14 years of writing. Our Passover reminiscences, parenting advice, and musings about kugel are filling up quite a few clouds out there in cyberspace. For writers like us, this is heaven.

P.S. We are proud that we are still blogging as The Word Mavens. This is our 106th post. You’re reading this, and we’re still here. We have not gone out of business or lost our enthusiasm for kibitzing with you.



Be Careful What You Click For
May 8, 2014, 5:02 pm
Filed under: culture, technology, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

We prefer shopping solo. Sometimes we drag our husbands along and it’s not as much fun as we think it’ll be. They have a shorter attention span, and we don’t like anyone looking over our shoulder at the price tag. We’re not fond of shopping in small boutiques where enthusiastic saleswomen assure us that “it looks fabulous on you.” We don’t even go into those fancy stores that put you in the dressing room and bring you a few precious items one at a time. We’ve stood naked while the sales woman hollers to the front of the store, “Do we have it in an extra large?”

We used to think that shopping online was a boon to us solo shoppers – where we could in peace at any hour of the day or night, but it turns out someone is always watching.

We were in the market for a new food processor last winter – and yes, we visited a few websites to compare features and prices. We bought one. For six months after, we were targeted by ads for jumbo-size food processors, battery-powered food processors, and mini-chop food processors. It wouldn’t stop nagging us to make a choice.

When you shop online, every click indicates interest. The computer doesn’t differentiate between window shopping and serious shopping. It doesn’t know that we already made our purchase. How many food processors do we need?

Screen shot 2014-05-08 at 4.58.04 PMWe don’t always remember what’s in the back of our closet. We’ve been known to walk into a department store, pick up a purple shirt and buy it because we liked it. It was perfect. We’d come home and find that we already owned one exactly like it. There’s less chance of this happening when we shop online. That electronic reminder that tells us that “customers who bought this also bought…” is a clue to us not to purchase the same shirt again.

In the old days, dress shopping for an occasion meant making many trips to specialty stores, where we’d decide if what looked good on the hanger looked good on us. Now we wonder if what looks good on the laptop will look good on us – and if the color described online as “dove grey” will be more “mud brown” when we take it out of the FedEx package.

We have a friend who bought a fancy dress from She felt a little guilty paying full retail price, but look what she saved on gas. The purchase was complete and gone from her mind – until her computer thought otherwise. The next day, a targeted ad offered the exact same dress at a lower price. Our friend couldn’t resist. She bought it and planned to return the first. The nightmare continued the next day when her computer offered up a third dress at an even lower price. She took the bait. She’s now busy printing out return labels, filling out the forms, and driving to the post office to mail Dress 1 and Dress 2 back. It would have been easier to say yes to the dress at an actual brick and mortar store.

Screen shot 2014-05-08 at 4.58.18 PMDon’t make the mistake of shopping online for something sketchy. We thought we were searching privately with no one looking over our shoulder, but we were wrong. We asked Google how to skirt the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba, and now we’re inundated with offers to join the Communist party, buy Cuban cigars, and purchase cases of rum. We peeked at our daughter’s screen and saw that her targeted ads were Victoria’s Secret bras, fancy chocolate, and tickets to Coachella. And we thought she was studying for finals.

We try to keep our online personal information to a minimum, but our husbands might feel bad if we didn’t tag them as our spouses. Likewise, we won’t get invited to the reunion if we don’t list our high school graduation year. The downside is that we are getting ads for teeth whitening, 55-plus communities, and loan consolidation. Our computer has figured out that we are women of a certain age.

We used to have real friends – just a handful – not 367 Facebook friends. We would see them in person and talk to them using our voice, not 140 characters. If we told a friend that we liked her new glasses, it was simply an exchange of pleasantries – without a paper trail. Today, if we click “like” on a friend’s Puerto Vallarta vacation photos, we’re inundated with ads for Mexican hotels.

We don’t enjoy being typecast as middle-aged moms who drive Subarus to Macys to buy Spanx, so we’ve been trying to figure out how to outsmart our computer. Technical advice, like clearing our cache and giving back our cookies makes us nervous.

So once in a while, we click on some things that are out of character. Just yesterday we searched for youth hostels in Hamburg, Germany, and thong underwear in size XS. We can’t wait to see what our computer wants us to purchase tomorrow.


We Won’t Be Caught Short
April 19, 2014, 2:23 pm
Filed under: culture, jewish food | Tags: , , , , , ,

In a recent Passover article, The New York Times reported that gefilte fish was in short supply this year. During this past harsh winter, the Great Lakes – where gefilte fish roam free – were frozen with four feet of ice that was slow to thaw, making it difficult for fisherman to catch white fish.

Large companies like Manischewitz were spared any shortage because it buys its fish up to a year in advance, freezing it to mix later with fresh fish. But delis and small gourmet purveyors, who don’t have the buying power, had trouble meeting their customers’ demand for their ubiquitous Pesach appetizer.

In our last blog, we wrote about the abundance of products in the supermarket. It’s ironic that this week we’re writing about products that are in short supply.



In the run up to Rosh Hashanah, when noodle kugels are on the horizon, no one wants to get caught without the 12-ounce bags of fine egg noodles that their family prefers. God forbid we should have to use wide noodles. We ensure our kugel’s integrity by stocking up on ingredients way ahead of time. (Maybe that’s why we always have a spare jar of crushed pineapple in the pantry).

Sometimes having too many choices creates a shortage. There are 12 varieties of bagels at the local store, but when we come up to the counter, why is the bin of poppy seed bagels always empty?


“They’ll be out of the oven in 7 minutes,” the cashier tells us. We can’t wait, so we’ll buy “everything” bagels and scrape off everything but the poppy seeds.

We were tempted to scrape the salt off the bagels this past winter to melt the ice on our driveways. Rock salt is another commodity that can be in short supply. During the recent polar vortex, hardware stores ran out and news reporters were kept busy, telling us where to run and buy the few remaining bags. Then they televised the crowds rushing to grab that last bag of salt – like the moms who line up at Toys R Us before Christmas to snag a Sparkle Eyes Barbie.

Other items are in short supply because we’re the only ones asking for them. We’re not looking for typewriter ribbons or film for cameras. We know these items are obsolete. We’re talking about products we’ve been using for a long time, which are suddenly hard to replenish. They’ve gone out of fashion right before our eyes, just as we use up the last drop.

Luckily, we can still go online and search.  We just need our reading glasses to shop for mothballs, roll-on deodorant, shoe polish, and a certain brand of men’s tightie-whities that are the kind “that fit the best.” That husband won’t be tempted by Calvin Klein’s athletic-fit, pro-stretch boxer briefs.


When we googled “food shortages” to find out why the supermarket was low on chocolate chip cookies, we ended up on websites run by survivalists. They warned all good Americans – in supersized font and red, white and blue type – to stockpile seeds and water purification tablets and build backyard shelters to prepare for the coming apocalypse.

Forget canned goods and jugs of water. If we’re going to stockpile anything, it’s our favorites. We know what we love and don’t want to run out. In fact, we’ve already put in a supply of coffee and coffee filters, jars of hearts of palm (a favorite snack food in our house), Trader Joe’s chocolate bars with cookie and cocoa swirl filling, large bottles of Pinot Grigio, and Kelloggs Shredded Mini-Wheats. We may not have drinking water when the apocalypse comes, but we’ll have good snacks.

Pesach’s Coming: We Have Way More Than Four Questions…

We remember when macaroons only came in vanilla and chocolate. Now the supermarket display is stocked with chocolate almond, chocolate dipped, chocolate chip, chocolate chunk, and “doubley chocolate gluten-free.”



Choosing one is almost as confusing as deciding whether our teeth need the toothpaste with “advanced whitening” or “tartar protection.”

We’ve been known to stand before the drugstore shampoo display paralyzed with indecision. Is our hair fine or limp? Do we need “Truly Relaxed” or “Curl Control?” Mostly, we’re just glad to wake up and find that we still have hair. We should probably go with “Age Defy,” which promises to “turn back the strands of time.”

These days, there are more choices than ever –and it’s both wonderful and exhausting. We understand how Russian immigrants, for whom shopping used to mean standing in a bread line, felt when they entered an American supermarket for the first time and were bewildered by the variety and abundance of consumer goods.

Shopping requires some soul-searching. To buy chicken broth, we have to weigh the relative evils of fat, salt, chemicals and chickens that haven’t been allowed to roam free. The problem is solved when we find a box that promises none of the above – at twice the cost. We also have to debate the merits of tried and true vs. something new. That turns out to be easy: The brand-new, “light whole wheat Bran Matzos” don’t even tempt us. We’ll stick with the plain kind.

After we navigate the grocery aisles, we realize that with Pesach coming, we have waaay more than four questions:

1. Do we have enough room to include Uncle Harold’s “lady friend” this year?
2. Where exactly should we put that orange on the seder plate?
3. Will our family want the same-old haroset or would they enjoy an exotic Sephardic version?
4. Should we finally buy new haggadot or use the raggedy old ones.

There are thousands of haggadot in existence – from an ecological haggadah that asks us to think about the four trees to a feminist haggadah that focuses on the contributions of Miriam, Sarah, Rachel and other women in Jewish history. Other haggadot themes include LGTB, interfaith, and hip-hop (for those who want their Jewish tunes written by rap artists). The 30-Minute Seder haggadah caters to those who want to nibble the gefilte fish sooner rather than later.

There’s even a new edition of the Maxwell House Passover Haggadah, which more than 50 million people have used since it was first printed in the 1930s. It’s considered the longest-running sales promotion in advertising history. On the inside cover it asks three questions: Do we want Master Blend, Breakfast Blend or Original Roast? Dayenu.

While we’re all in favor of diversity, we prefer to stick with the haggadot we pieced together through the years. We copied pages with our favorite passages, added in catchy songs from preschool, and deleted the parts we didn’t like. We’ve always disliked reading the section about the “four sons.” How dare they call one of the kids simple!  There is one chief advantage to hosting the seder: We get to choose the haggadah. As the most famous Pharaoh, Yul Brenner, said, “So let it be written; so let it be done.”

When we were young, the choices – both secular and religious – were few. Watching TV meant walking over to the set and turning the channel from ABC to CBS to NBC. Three channels not three hundred. Buying sneakers meant choosing between Keds and Converse, and buying coffee meant instant or perked. For jeans, it was bell-bottom or straight leg.

Now we can’t buy sneakers until we decide if we are going to use them for tennis, running or walking. (Go for cross-trainers if you’re indecisive.) Buying a cup of coffee requires weighing the merits of venti vs. grande, cream vs. nonfat soy, and fair trade vs. exploitation. Shopping for jeans demands self-assessment: How do we know if we would look better in high-waisted, hip-hugging or low-rise? The online site we turned to for help asked us if we were shaped like a pear, apple or banana. At least we’re not an ugli fruit.

Passover was simpler then, too. There seemed to be just one recipe for haroset; it had apples and walnuts, not dates and pistachios and ginger. There was just one cup on the table for Elijah. You bought the big bottle of Manischewitz Concord Grape and didn’t worry if it paired well with roasted chicken or was perfect with salty fish appetizers.

Miriam's Cup; a not-so-new addition

Miriam’s Cup; a not-so-new addition

Don’t get us wrong. We appreciate having lots of choices, but we do get tired of making them. And we know we’re not the only ones stressed out by the abundance of options. Maybe that’s why a number of manufacturers are reintroducing “classic” and “original” versions of their products.

This Passover, we’ll make it easy for ourselves, and we’ll pass over the “new and improved” super-tasty matzah, the “bigger and better” Pesachdik granola bars, and the “self-cooking” chicken. We’ll stick with tradition.


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