We love sprinkling our conversations with Yiddish words. After all, we are The Word Mavens. There’s nothing wrong with calling it shmutz when you’re sweeping up crushed Cheerios from the kitchen floor. But when we thought about it, we realized that our definition of shmutz is far removed from what our ancestors were describing in the shtetl when they used the word.
Mechayeh literally means “resurrection” – a feeling of pleasure, delight or relief. The word comes from the Hebrew root chai (life) – a mechayeh brings you back to life. “It’s uttered with a smile, a grin, or a pleased cluck,” writes Leo Rosten, author of the definitive book, The Joys of Yiddish. We imagine that back in the shtetl, it was a mechayeh when the Russian soldiers rode by and didn’t stop to break down your door.
Decades later, our definitive definition of mechayeh comes from Mitzi, Joyce’s mother-in-law, who described it as the feeling she had at the end of the day when she wiggled out of her tight girdle. Today, we say it’s a mechayeh when we’ve been running errands all day long in the heat and our last stop is a store that’s air-conditioned, when we slip off our high heels under the table at a wedding reception or we take that first sip of fresh coffee in the morning.
Shnorrer comes from the Yiddish “to beg.” A shnorrer is a freeloader, a moocher, or someone who borrows with no intention of repaying. Leo Rosten describes him as “no fool, not a simpleton… he comes from a long tradition of begging and mooching.”
Rosten tells this story:
A shnorrer knocked on the door of a rich man’s house at 6:30 in the morning.
The rich man cried, “How dare you wake me up so early?”
“Listen,” said the shnorrer, “I don’t tell you how to run your business, so don’t tell me how to run mine.”
These days shnorrers don’t beg; they just take more than their fair share. They love buffets. You can find them by the free sample table at Costco and Trader Joe’s.
Joyce always accepts the free sample slice of bread at Metropolitan Bakery, but never buys a loaf. Does that make her a shnorrer? We think not, because she felt guilty at the Italian deli accepting the toothpick sample bite of $100 a pound Spanish ham without making a purchase. It didn’t seem to bother the man next to her; he ate five samples.
Which leads us to wonder: Are you a shnorrer if you. . .
- routinely toss the tiny hotel shampoo and conditioner bottles into your suitcase,
- are one of the legion of grandmothers who steal Sweet & Low from coffee bars,
- say to your family, “Come on, that’s us,” when the maitre d’ calls out something unintelligible while you are waiting for a table
- still accept dinner invitations from the family that has had you over three times when you’ve never had them back?
There’s no question that the grandmother Joyce once saw tilt an entire plate of brisket into her plastic bag-lined pocketbook was a shnorrer.
Nosh comes from the German “to nachen,” which means to eat on the sly. A nosh is a snack, a tidbit, something in between meals. Our pal Leo Rosten says that “Jews loved to nosh, long before they went to a cocktail party.”
In the old days, they’d nosh on gribenes (fatty chicken skin fried with onions and goose fat) or a kichel (a plain egg cookie). Our grandparents’ idea of a good nosh was with chicken fat, chopped liver or herring shmeered on pumpernickel.
Today in our houses, a pre-dinner nosh might be baby carrots dipped into hummus, a sushi roll, or the chicken Caesar wrap left over from yesterday’s lunch.
Jewish delis have a proud heritage of giving out noshes. As customers stood in line, deli guys would pass out samples of pastrami or put a plate on the deli case so customers could help themselves. After a few bites of free pickle, a slice of salami and a nibble of cheese –who needs lunch? It’s a shnorrer’s dream…