Shmoozing With the Word Mavens

Hanukkah Yays and Boos

Hanukkah begins on Tuesday evening, Dec. 16 – and this year, it’s where it should be on the calendar, a whole three weeks after Thanksgiving and a little bit before Christmas. Everyone remembers last year’s Thanksgivukkah debacle.


That got us thinking about what we love and don’t love so much about the holiday season.

Yay: Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are our two favorite holidays, and we like to keep them separate. We won’t have to serve potato latkes with our turkey again for about 80,000 years, according to the number crunchers.

Boo: Last year, this celestial calendar convergence allowed us to celebrate Hanukkah on its actual date. This year our kids might not make it home until the eighth night.


Yay: Target has a big aisle loaded with Hanukkah chazerai – gift wrap, napkins, menorot, and mugs decorated with the all purpose Jewish expression “Oy vey!” Way to represent the Tribe.

Boo: We don’t need another menorah. We have classy ones, artistic ones, and all the ones our kids made through the years, from a block of wood with nine metal bolts to one we made together at a Paint Your Own studio.


Yay: We love buying presents for our kids.

Boo: They’re not satisfied with Fisher Price toys anymore, and we don’t have any grandchildren yet to justify our making a trip to Toys “R” Us .


Yay: Like sneakers and coffee, there used to be only one choice for Hanukkah candles – the blue box in the supermarket with the pale candles in washed out yellow and almost red.


Now there are so many choices – beeswax in vibrant colors, tie-dyed stripey ones, and artistic ones from the candle factory in Safed, Israel.

Boo: How many Hanukkah candles do we really need? Why are we stockpiling six boxes? Because they’re pretty, and it’s handy to have a few in the kitchen drawer to use for birthday candles.


Yay: It’s latke time. We love reading recipes for parsnip carrot zucchini latkes, but we’ll be sticking with original potato ones to please our families.

Boo: Why did we start a diet after Thanksgiving? Get out the oil.


Yay: Our kids are grown. We no longer have to explain why we don’t have a Christmas tree.

Boo: But how do we tell them we weren’t home when they called because we were driving through South Philly looking at the houses with Christmas lights?


Yay: Our husbands don’t have to risk life and limb getting on a ladder to string lights from the gutters.

Boo: Our houses look so bare without twinkly lights.


Yay: No lights for us, but we want to decorate with something. We were happy to find a “tasteful winter-themed” door decoration with ribbons and pinecones.

Boo: It took one minute for one of our husbands to say, “What’s that wreath doing on the front door?


Yay: We were impressed that Kohl’s had a big Hanukkah selection, including blue and white rope cufflinks, a glass dreidel you’d never let the kids spin, a Peace Love Hanukkah throw pillow, and a Star of David bundt cake pan.

Boo: They lose points for offering a “4-piece Hanukkah ornament set.” (See the third to the last item: $71.99…oy) We aren’t hanging a blue glass dreidel on a tree.


Yay: We look forward to family Hanukkah parties, holiday staff dinners, and having time with our kids and our friends who like to get together and celebrate over the holidays.

Boo: Before we know it, the holidays will be done. It’ll be 2015 and we’ll be kvetching about the snow forecast for February and counting the days until Passover.


We wish you a Happy Hanukkah!



We’re Suspicious About Social Media

We’ve been Word Maven-ing for almost 15 years. When our first edition of The Dictionary of Jewish Words was published in 2001, Mark Zuckerberg was in high school and tweeting was for the birds.

We’ve had to learn how to share our thoughts with the world using social media. So we tweet, post, follow and friend as fast as we can. In the beginning we got it wrong sometimes, like when we sent one of our daughters a Facebook post asking if her sloppy roommate was still leaving dishes in the sink. “Mom,” this daughter said, “I need to teach you how to send a private message on Facebook.”

Sometimes we get it right, like when one of our sons complimented us in a direct tweet: “Hi mom. Nice use of the trending hashtag. You might also want to add #Yiddish or #Jewish.”

Thanks, sweetie. Now we know to use hashtags for all our important messages: #Supermoms #IJustPutMoneyInYourAccount #CallGrandmomOnSunday.


On our personal Facebook pages we have a respectable number of friends,  but we know most of them. They are our actual, living friends in real life (or “real time” as they say). But on our Word Mavens page, it’s a “business page” according to Facebook standards, we have followers who claim to “like” us – – even though we don’t actually know most of them.

When we clicked on the statistics to see where our fans come from, we were surprised that 179 of them hail from Turkey. Ellen took a family trip to Istanbul last summer but only talked about The Word Mavens to the hotel desk clerks. Even more surprising are our fans in the Middle East – 24 in Saudi Arabia, 20 in Iraq, and 4 in Gaza. (Facebook lists it as Gaza, Palestine). We can’t imagine that those 4 people are interested in our hamantashen recipe. And what about the 2 fans we have in Bosnia & Herzegovina; we had to consult the map to figure out where that even is.


We aren’t surprised to have 7 fans in Israel. We probably know them. On the other hand, only 4 people in Wynnewood like us – guess that’s Ellen’s husband, daughter and two sons. But what about our friend Gary who lives in Wynnewood? We know he likes us!

There’s something fishy about these statistics.

Twitter numbers are equally confounding. Celebrities have millions of followers but they only follow 3 people – their agent, their yoga teacher and the sushi  restaurant that delivers. That’s what makes them famous. If that numerical equation is true, then we’re a little bit famous – because we also have more followers (1,285) than people we are following (454). But who are these 1200-plus people? That kind of puts the pressure on us, when we think that there are more than a thousand people breathlessly awaiting our next words….

When Twitter recently sent us a link to our demographics, we were surprised. According to their stats, the top cities for readers of the Word Mavens are:

Kiev, Ukraine: 53%

Minsk, Belarus: 26%

Philadelphia, U.S.: 4%

New York City, U.S.: 3%

Los Angeles, US: 1%

Who are all these followers from Kiev and Minsk? If it were 100 years ago, they’d include our great grandparents and their whole mishpachah – members of the tribe who are actually interested in knishes and bagels and the holiday doings of the Word Mavens.socialmedia


We cannot explain our current popularity in the Soviet bloc. Perhaps it has something to do with the global conspiracy to hack into American computers. Maybe it’s because we used a credit card to pay for a jar of borscht at Petrovsky Market in Northeast Philadelphia.

When we perused our list of followers, we understood why @EstherK, a writer who describes herself as “pretty darned Jewy”; @HebrewWithNaomi, a Bar Mitzvah tutor in Ontario; and @KosherEye, a guide to all things kosher, would follow us.

Buy why does someone who describes himself as a “fly fishing maniac from Iceland,” or a pizza parlor we’ve never been to, follow us? They must have been farblonget and clicked on the wrong button.

Even if we wouldn’t recognize our fans in the supermarket, we are happy to have them. It’s always gratifying when the “likes” for one of our funny Facebook posts hits triple digits. The statistics tell us that our posts about food are the most popular – musings about the great shnecken vs. rugelach debate, our road trip to Economy Candy  on the Lower East Side, and Giant supermarket’s parve holiday cakes all reached more than 1,000 people.

That’s the advantage of the Internet – connecting to people all over the globe through their computer. We would have to present our Shmoozing with the Word Mavens  program to a lot of sisterhoods and senior groups to get a thousand people reminiscing about chocolate Hanukkah gelt.dreidel

But Twitter is the exact opposite of our book talk, where we speak for 50 minutes about holidays, traditions and Jewish food and audience members share their childhood memories and favorite Yiddish words. We often shmooze and chat with our audiences for over an hour. Imagine limiting that to 140 characters.


Jarred by Jargon: We’ve Done Our Due Diligence
October 30, 2014, 4:18 pm
Filed under: culture, technology | Tags: , , , , ,

Every profession has its own jargon, words that turn the workplace into a super secret society.

Baristas know what  “venti, skinny, half-caf, extra whip” means and then they serve it to you. Doctors say, “Code blue stat” to mean, “Hurry up, someone’s dying,” not “The copy machine is jammed.” But for us writers, most days find us sitting at our desk writing, snug in our own little world.  We write articles and essays with a Jewish accent, so we are guilty of using some Yiddish jargon – – but it’s usually stuff like, “I need another shmeer on my bagel with this cup of coffee” or “Get the shmutz off the desk so we can get to work.”

Apparently, we are also guilty of using “old people jargon.” We discovered this when our kids didn’t know what we meant when we asked them to find us “a little box the size of a cassette tape” and the time we inquired if they had written and mailed a check yet for their rent bill.

When it comes to modern corporate-speak, we are strangers to interfacing, leaning in and reaching out. When we venture out of our home office cocoons into the business world to meet with an agent or do an interview, we are confronted with indecipherable bureaucrat-ease. When the secretary asks if we have our ducks in the row, we turn around to see who’s quacking.


We asked some corporate types we know to send us examples of the jargon they use every day, and before we knew it, our in-box was overflowing.

When we “crunched the numbers,” we realized that a bunch of terms fell into the category of sports metaphors, like “Tee it up,” “We need a big win on this one,” “We need to be defensive on this,” and “We have to punt this one.” We know that you punt in football when it’s fourth down and your team is doing stinky, but these terms all come from a man’s world – the world of sports.  In fact, we know a female executive who hears these terms at meetings and can’t relate. She thinks they are exclusionary, so we thought up an option for her: Next time an employee says that he is having trouble choosing the best supplier, she can tell him to “Pick a color” already.



We soon realized that some of these business expressions have nothing to do what you think they mean:

Run it up the flagpole. In business this means, “Let’s test this idea and see what everyone thinks.” To us it means, “It’s time to take in the American flag. Labor Day was two months ago.”

No white smoke yet. Around the conference table, this means that the deal isn’t finalized yet. In real life, it means that the Cardinals are still shmoozing about who they want to be the next Pope.

 I’m going off the grid. At the office this is shorthand for, “I’m going on vacation. I won’t be reachable by cell phone or computer.” When we go off the grid, we don’t know where we left our cell phone, and when we walk around the house calling our own number we don’t hear the theme song from Broadway’s Rent.

Can you hook me up? At work this means, “Can you include me in that meeting?” In our world, if we asked friends to hook us up, they’d be surprised to say the least. They know our husbands, and didn’t we all have dinner together last week?

Let’s not get into the weeds. In a corporate setting, it means, “Let’s not discuss the details yet.” From Food TV, we learned that in a restaurant being “in the weeds” means that you are behind on filling the orders. In Colorado it means, “Let’s wait until later to smoke.”

I’ve been putting out fires all day. At the office, this explains that you didn’t get back to someone because you had to deal with so many emergencies. At home, maybe it can mean the same. We’re going to use this last one to justify why we haven’t posted a blog in a whole month. We’ve been going on high-priority trips to see our kids, working on other projects to bring home the bacon, and taste-testing all the mini-sized candy bars before Halloween. We’ve been putting out fires all month.


But now we’re back on the grid. We’re teeing it up, and we have our ducks all in a row.

Happy Halloween.


jack olan


Schnecken or Rugelach? It’s a Yummy Nosh by Any Name

When we declare that we are going on a diet, all we can think about is pizza and ice cream. So you shouldn’t be surprised that when we contemplate fasting on Yom Kippur, we imagine diving into a fish tray – and finishing up with something sweet. This year, we have rugelach and schnecken on our minds.

We joke that when we were writing our Dictionary of Jewish Words, we came up with the definition of Torah in 10 minutes, but we pondered the difference between rugelach and schnecken for hours. We did enough research to write the definitions. We declared that these two pastries are similar – but not exactly the same. Cousins, you might say.

They call it rugelach at Lipkin's Bakery in Northeast Philadelphia.

They call it rugelach at Lipkin’s Bakery in Northeast Philadelphia.

Since then, we’ve been in delis where they label any bite-sized cinnamon sugar pastry a   rugelach and in others that call them schnecken. When we do our book talk and ask our  audiences – filled with bubbies that love to bake and everyone else who loves to nosh – to tell us the difference between the two pastries, they are stymied. They happily share bits of information like,“You should taste my sister’s cinnamon rugelach” or “My husband hates it when I put nuts in the schnecken,” but no one can tell us exactly what makes the two noshes different.

A few weeks ago, we decided to revisit the debate. (After all, someone had to take on this delicious investigation.) We did our due diligence by closely examining (and tasting) as many rugelach and schnecken as humanly possible.

It must have been bashert that we came upon a car decorated with photographs of schnecken. We knew it was schnecken, not rugelach, because the words “The Schnecken Lady” were printed beneath the photos. The Word Mavens decided to give The Schnecken Lady a call, hoping she could referee the controversy.

Myrna Freedman lives in Northeast Philadelphia and provides her home-baked schnecken to stores all over the region. She told us that she’s been baking schnecken since 1977; she uses her Aunt Minnie Eisman’s traditional recipe, which has cinnamon sugar, walnuts, raisin and orange marmalade (this makes the pastries sticky). She also makes novel versions, including Nutella, lemon curd, and chocolate raspberry.

Myrna declined to take sides. “Call it what you want to. The ingredients are basically the same. It depends on where you live, what your family calls it – some people say kigel and others say kugel – and how you cut it. In New York, everything’s a rugelach.”

Thanks, Myrna, but you’ve clearly taken a side – schnecken is emblazoned on your van, business card, website and bakery boxes.

Clearly, we needed to do more research. We’re old school, so we turned to our cookbook collection for clarity, hoping to find out whether it’s the dough, the shape or the fillings that distinguish these two sweets.

THE DOUGH: Schnecken dough is usually composed of butter, flour, egg yolks and yeast. We learned that kuchen (German for cake) is a precursor to schnecken; the yeast-containing dough can be used for cinnamon buns and coffee cakes. This might give us a clue as to why schnecken is sometimes gooey – like a cinnamon bun.

Back in the day in Europe, schnecken dough and rugelach dough were similar. When these pastries both came to America, someone had the bright idea to add cream cheese to rugelach. In fact, venerable cookbook author Joan Nathan calls rugelach “cream cheese cookies.”

At Lipkin’s, a kosher bakery in Northeast Philadelphia that been in business for four-generations, the bakery lady behind the counter told us, “Of course, Mitch [Lipkin] puts cream cheese in the dough.” At Lipkin’s – which sells chocolate, raspberry and cinnamon sugar varieties – they call them rugelach. “I’ve never heard the word schnecken,” the clerk told us.

THE SHAPE: New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton is the author of From My Mother’s Kitchen and a member of the tribe. She calls schnecken “cinnamon nut snails.” That’s a good choice because the word schnecken comes from the Yiddish word for snail. To get that snail shape, you roll out the dough into a rectangle, spread the filling on top, roll it up jellyroll style, cut it into small slices, and bake.

028448003001What’s the shape of rugelach? In an essay in TabletJoan Nathan wrote, “Rug means spiral or crescent-shaped in Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish; a miniature spiral-shaped dough was, therefore, a rugelach.

To get the crescent shape, you roll out the dough into a circle, cut it into pie-shaped wedges, spread the filling on each wedge and, beginning at the wide edge, roll it up to the point, like a crescent roll.

We checked out Green’s Rugelach Chocolate Original from the supermarket. It comes in a plastic bag and has enough preservatives to last a month on the counter. We were pleased to see, however, that Green’s got the shape right. Their rugelach are parve so they left out the cream cheese.

THE FILLINGS: The basic filling for either is a combination of sugar, cinnamon and nuts. Raisins are the next most popular add-in. Then there’s chocolate and apricot jam. After that, the sky’s the limit, like the Schnecken Lady’s Nutella or Abe Fisher’s newfangled savory version filled chicken and schmaltz or salmon, boursin and kimmel seeds.

photoAbe isn’t our uncle; it’s a new Philadelphia restaurant featuring “food of the Jewish diaspora.” The Israel-born manager brought these savory pastries to our table in place of bread. “Have some rugelach,” he announced. We asked him why they weren’t called schnecken; he told us he had never heard that word. They were delicious.

So it seems that what you call this nosh depends on where your ancestors came from. Since schnecken is a German word, unless you are a direct descendant of German Jews you probably didn’t grow up with schnecken. The vast majority of American Jews are children of immigrants from Poland, Russia and the Ukraine, where rugelach ruled.

For a final opinion, we turn one last time to Joan Nathan to weigh in on the great schnecken/rugelach debate. She talked about cream cheese vs. yeast, spirals vs. snails and how the best schnecken are sticky like a cinnamon bun. Her conclusion: “Sometimes the pastries seem to only be different in name. If nothing else, the different names offer the perfect excuse to start the day with a schnecken and end it with a rugelach—what could be better than that?”

That’s good advice, Joan. So when we place the order for our break-fast fish trays, we’ll order a pound of each. Assorted, but throw a few more chocolate ones in the box.

10 Reasons Why Celebrating Both Jewish and Secular New Years is a Win-Win

This article first appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward on Sept. 22.  Illustrations by Dani E. Go. 


How is the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, different from that other New Year? Let us count down the ways.

10. Resolutions

On secular New Year’s Eve we make resolutions with the best of intentions. We promise to walk on the treadmill for 30 minutes a day, to stop wasting at least $4 on a latte at Starbucks and to give up all refined sugar. At Rosh Hashanah services, we say prayers to begin the ten days of repentance because we’ve forgotten those resolutions. This repentance comes in handy at the Kiddush when we see that there is rugelach.

rosh_-9_web9. Get-togethers

Rosh Hashanah is a family holiday; New Year’s Eve is not. On Rosh Hashanah our brisket and kugel entice the kids to come home; these kids are even tolerant of Cousin Ronnie’s embarrassing questions, like, “Do you have a boyfriend yet?” On New Year’s Eve, it’s embarrassing to admit you have nowhere to go except to Ronnie’s party for the cousins.

8. Same Old, Same Old Tunes

The melody to “Avinu Malkeinu” hasn’t changed in a million years. Compared with this, “Auld Lang Syne” is a recent hit; it has been on the charts for only 226 years. With both songs, the crowd starts off strong. Everyone knows “Should old acquaintance be forgot… ” and “Avinu Malkeinu sh’ma kolenu…,” but many trail off after the first line or two and mumble the rest.

7. Cantor vs. DJ

While the cantor is a professional who reads Hebrew and has a beautiful singing voice, the New Year’s Eve party disc jockey might be the host’s nephew who hooked up his iPhone to a set of speakers. If the DJ doesn’t mix it up, he won’t get the gig next year. But if the cantor does a Rosh Hashanah remix, the congregation shouts “Dayenu.” No one expects new tunes on Rosh Hashanah; it’s surprising enough when the cantor comes down off the bimah to sing the prayer Hineni from the back of the synagogue.

rosh_-3_web6. Musical Instruments

The shofar, made from a ram’s horn, has a proud tradition: It was sounded on Mount Sinai when the Jewish people received the Ten Commandments. The glitter paper party horn, made in China, comes in an eight-pack for $1.99. When the cantor calls out the notes for the shofar, we happily anticipate the familiar blasts, but when Ryan Seacrest counts down the minutes to midnight, we dread hearing drunk party guests blast their horns.

5. Compulsory Attendance

An old hit song asked “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” That is a fair question, because staying home alone is not an acceptable answer. Those who don’t have plans search for a date and for a party invitation.

Even though we’re married and have a date, staying home can still make us feel like social outcasts. That’s why we’ll cajole our partners to get dressed and go to the neighbor’s party. How would it look if our January 1 Facebook post divulged that we sat on our sofa, ate takeout sushi and watched “Sleepless in Seattle” for the eighth time?

No composer ever wrote “What Are You Doing Rosh Hashanah?” because everyone knows the answer is, “going to synagogue.” Even those people whose synagogue attendance is sparse throughout the year put in an appearance on the High Holidays. That’s why we have to park in the overflow lot at the church next door and say “Excuse me” over and over to a full row of people when we sneak out to the bathroom.

rosh_-4_web4. Staying Awake

The kids make fun of the man who dozes off in synagogue: His eyelids droop, his breathing gets louder and he doesn’t stand up when the ark is opened. We hope the woman sitting next to him gives him the elbow before he starts to snore.

We think it’s worse to fall asleep in synagogue than to doze off before the clock strikes midnight. When our children were little, we would promise to wake them up for the midnight countdown, but we never did. We know the rule: Don’t wake a sleeping child. Now, if our partners start to snore before the ball drops, we just let them be. Why wake a sleeping husband (or wife)?

3. Getting All Fapitzed

On Rosh Hashanah, we know we have to look presentable. When we were teenage girls, we were eager to break out our new school clothes for synagogue. Now we’re happy to wear that old summer skirt and top one more time.

In synagogue, a quick scan of the pews can tell us who bought the latest fall fashions: They are the ones shvitsing in their new tweed suits and knee-high leather boots. We also aren’t enthusiastic about wearing a wool suit when the temperature is still in the 80s. Then and now, we refuse to wear pantyhose. We’re still tan from the summer.

On New Year’s Eve we’ll dig into the closet and pull out the sequined tank top and black crepe pants that we save for fancy occasions. Then we go out into the freezing cold and wish we had worn our tweed skirt and knee-high leather boots.

rosh_-2_web2. The Whole Kissing Thing

Any teen can tell you that kissing at midnight on New Year’s Eve is a big deal. Teenagers jockey for position so that they are not next to the nerd from science class when the announcer calls out “10…9…8….”

At Rosh Hashanah services there is no countdown to a big kiss. When the rabbi says, “Let’s all turn to page 153,” you’re not expected to kiss the person sitting next to you.

1. Greetings

The standard “Happy New Year” doesn’t differentiate between those who are ringing in the Jewish or secular new year. Those in the know greet a fellow MOT in the supermarket or the carpool line with an enthusiastic “L’shanah tovah.” Using the correct Hebrew phrase is shorthand for, “I know you are cooking a brisket, and I’ll see you in synagogue on Thursday.”

So raise your champagne glass and put on your party hat. We’re gonna party like it’s 5775.

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.


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