Shmoozing With the Word Mavens

Words Have a Life Too

We’ve been on the Jewish Book Council’s mailing list for years, ever since 2006, when The Word Mavens  were lauded as two of “the hottest new authors to hit the literary scene for Jewish book programs.” That’s because of our Dictionary of Jewish Words. By “hot new authors,” did they mean those authors who get hot flashes or that our book was so exciting it would soon become a movie? Who would be cast as the bagel and the knish?

The Jewish Book Council has announced the five finalists for its 2012 Sami Rhor Prize for Jewish Literature, which will be awarded next month to an emerging writer who seeks to add to the knowledge and understanding of Jewish history and culture.

According to their release, the “$100,000 prize is among the most generous in the literary world.” (You’re telling us. We know writers who kvell over a $35 reprint check. Just saying.) This year, the nominees are for nonfiction and one of the contenders (which is waiting in the piles alongside our night table) is the much-lauded When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry by Gal Beckerman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Beckerman, a reporter for The Jewish Daily Forward, wrote an exhaustive tale of the  “refuseniks,” Russian Jews who were denied permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union. The word was coined in the 1970s – and it’s a combination of the English word “refuse” and the Hebrew diminutive ending “nik” (like kibbutznik), meaning “person.”

For the book, Beckerman plowed through recently released Soviet government documents and conducted numerous interviews with refuseniks in the former Soviet Union, Israel and the United States. He also spoke to members of the Diaspora Jewish communities who organized, fundraised and worked for the refuseniks’ freedom. The result is a compelling, moving and too-often-forgotten story.

For The Word Mavens, refusenik is a good example of how language changes and mutates. And yes, it is in our dictionary. The movement to free Soviet Jewry reached its height in 1988-90; now, years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the word is no longer needed. One of the most famous refuseniks was Anatoly Sharansky, who gained permission to emigrate to Israel after serving nine years in a Siberian prison camp. He changed his name to Natan, lives in Israel and has served in the Knesset for many years.

a rally in support of Soviet Jewry (note the sign mentioning refuseniks)

We’re clearly not the only word nerds. We came across a now-abandoned blog in which a Cleveland writer posted an obsolete word of the day, a dictionary of obsolete English, and an online campaign to adopt an obsolete word from the Oxford English Dictionary.  It must have worked because now his blog is obsolete….

 It’s good news when a word like refusenik has served its purpose and is no longer needed. But we hope that some words, like shmooze and chutzpah and fapitzed will never go out of style. We will make sure of it.

We Babka Chocolate…..
October 29, 2011, 11:15 am
Filed under: jewish food, Yiddish | Tags: , , ,

Just heard from my sweetie in Somerville. Jessie knows that her Mommy is always on the look-out for random misuse of Yiddish, so she snapped this photo for me in her local Panera Bread restaurant:

Oy! Although it’s not as bad as the large display of sparkling apple cider and plastic champagne glasses, arrayed in the supermarket above the sign urging us to “celebrate the Jewish New Year!”  — we’re generally not in favor of people turning nouns into verbs.  As in:  “Don’t disrespect us by lumping our beloved pastry with your bear-claws.”

This technically is Panera’s second offense; my MIL insists on calling the chain cafe, “La Panera” as if to embody it with a bit of Frenchified high-class when we take her there for a salad.

We like our babka chocolate from the deli without the “la.”


St. Anthony and a Sock Pile
July 27, 2011, 2:07 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized, Yiddish | Tags: , , , , ,

The F word is getting a lot of attention these days. It used to get you a ticket to detention. Now it’s a ticket to fame and fortune: Consider the picture book Go the F- to Sleep and Chef Gordon Ramsay’s cooking show, The F Word.

We have our own F word – in fact we have three  – and they don’t rhyme with duck. We’re talking about farchadat, farblondget and farmisht, Yiddish adjectives that describe us these days. We’re confused, distracted, and forgetful. We’re women of a certain age.

Need some examples? Joyce was holding a mug of hot coffee and decided to change the sheets. After the bed was freshly made, she looked around for her coffee. It was nowhere to be found, so she gave up and made a new one. She found the mug two days later in the linen closet.

Ellen got a Phillips screwdriver from the tool shed, went back inside, walked upstairs, checked her e-mail, picked up her son’s sneakers, turned off the bathroom light, and said to herself, “What did I need a screwdriver for?”

Our neighborhood is a minefield of people who think they know us. They greet us by name, ask about our children, and say, “See you at the meeting next week.” Who are these people? How do they know us? What meeting are we missing?

It’s embarrassing to admit that we forgot about meeting you for lunch and can’t find our cell phone to call and let you know.

Clearly, we’re not alone. Holland America Cruise Line had to find a way to deal with thousands of farmisht passengers, so they put “day of the week” mats in each elevator, which they change precisely at midnight.

Here’s how we cope and cover up:

We hope it will eventually turn up: We subscribe to George Carlin’s theory that lost items disappear to a huge pile somewhere – and eventually just come back. Our piles contain at least 79 socks, extra car keys, and teaspoons. “Just hoping it’ll turn up” is how Joyce operates, because she’s not a good looker; she is so unobservant that she once didn’t notice that the saleswoman who had been showing her dresses for 30 minutes had only one arm.

We ask for help: Mostly, our loved ones ignore our cries for assistance. But Joyce’s husband makes it his mission to leave no stone unturned until he finds the missing object. He’s relentless, even if that means he’ll be late for dinner and a movie. He once ran out into the street triumphantly holding up Joyce’s no-longer-missing sneakers – and almost got hit by a car.

We seek spiritual guidance: St. Anthony of Padua is the patron saint of lost things. It’s said that he first showed his unique skill in this area when he successfully prayed for the return of a stolen book of psalms. Since then, his fame has grown and so has his portfolio of found objects.

Italian grandmothers swear by several versions of this short rhyme: “Please, St. Anthony, look around. Something’s lost and can’t be found.” You can also submit an online prayer request via the Franciscan Friars of Cincinnati. We hope St. Anthony checks his e-mail.

Why are Jewish girls talking about St. Anthony? Because there’s no Jewish equivalent. As far as we know, there was no one to help Joseph when he misplaced his coat of many colors somewhere near Egypt.

We give up and buy a new one: That’s why Ellen owns two identical, gray, scoop-neck shirts. The old one reappeared as soon as the new one came out of the Nordstrom bag. She should have been more patient waiting for it to return from George Carlin’s pile.

Forgetting people’s names, losing car keys, and leaving cups of coffee in linen closets are common signs of aging. But we’ve read that if you eventually remember whatever it is you forgot – “The name of the guy in the old movie was Lee Marvin!” – it’s nothing serious. At least that’s what we keep telling ourselves.

We’re considering taking Gingko Biloba, which is purported to cut down on memory loss, but we’d have to remember to take the pill. We’d rather just eat a blueberry muffin; blueberry flavonoids are supposed to activate parts of the human brain that control memory.

Experts also say that word puzzles keep the mind active. That’s why we do the crossword puzzle every day. What’s the answer to 4 across? A 5-letter word for “not misplaced.”

Oh yeah. FOUND.

This article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on July 22.


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