Shmoozing With the Word Mavens

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.

Everyone’s A Maven

maven: Yiddish noun. An expert or connoisseur, a specialist. A person who considers him or herself to be an expert in a particular area.

When we say “maven,” we conjure up the image of a Jewish expert, like an accountant who’s really good with numbers or a shopper who’s memorized the dates of Nordstrom’s annual sale. Or, we picture someone who is knowledgeable about a Jewish subject or something tangentially Jewish.

When we were looking for a title to go under our joint byline, we dubbed ourselves The Word Mavens. We fit our definition: We’re Jewish and we wrote a Jewish dictionary.

We are not the only word mavens. William Safire was called a “word maven” in his obituary; he wrote a New York Times column called “On Language.” Random House offers The Mavens’ Word of the Day on its website (though its maven is anonymous). We’ll concede that these two are legit, but we get annoyed when the term is thrown around heedlessly and thoughtlessly. These days, it seems like everyone’s a maven. Excuse us while we kvetch about it.

The following confirms our suspicions:

Martha Hall Foose, a Mississippi cookbook author known for her Southern recipes for deviled eggs and skilled fried corn, was lauded as a “cookbook maven.” We think that if you’re going to be a cookbook maven, you there should be recipes for knishes and rugelach somewhere in the equation.

A New England mom of three calls herself and her website “the maven of savin’.” She posts deals, sales and upcoming shopping bargains. Last December she featured Kohl’s holiday kitchen towels with gingerbread, snowmen and Christmas trees. Not a dreidel dishcloth to be found from the “maven of savin’.”

There’s no denying that June Ambrose is a beautiful African-American fashion stylist. She works with celebs like Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey and Missy Elliott. The website called her a “black fashion maven.” We hope she knows what it means when Mariah demands, “No more shmattas. I want to be all fapitzed for the Grammys.”

In the headline of her obituary, Hawaiian orchid grower May Arstad Neal Moir was called a “gardening maven.” She was famous for introducing tropical plants to the Nu’uanu Valley and for breeding dozens of new orchid varieties. People may have called this Hawaiian native a ke aloha kumu (beloved teacher), but we doubt anyone ever called her a maven.


Martha Stewart seems to be the quintessential maven. She’s been called a “media maven,” “homemaking maven,” “food maven,” and “entertaining maven.” We think she could also be called the “penultimate makeover maven” for the way she reinvented her life and reenergized her empire upon her release from prison.


We concede that there are a lot of mavens out there running around being experts about all kinds of things. We can’t hold on to the exclusive use of the word. When they are calling football stars “mavens of the gridiron,” we realize that ship has sailed. We’ve got to learn to share.

Sounds Like…..

Joyce’s husband was surprised when a non-Jewish patient told him she would need to “finagle time from work” to have surgery.

“How did she know that Yiddish word?” he asked. Turns out, even though it rhymes with bagel, finagle isn’t Yiddish.

Finagle and some others words sure sound Yiddish – they’ve got the “chuuch” or the “fah…” and the insulting adjective quality. Like the whole list of Yiddish words for no-goodnik people, such as shlemiel, shlimazel, shlump and shnook. But don’t be confused: that schnauzer is not a Yiddish dog.

Finagle has been traced to the old English dialect word “fainaigue,” meaning “to cheat or renege.” Today it means something more along the lines of finding a way to get what you want – we’re talking clever, not dishonest.

Evan Morris, the Word Detective, explains finagle this way: “The usual use of the word carries the implication of bending, perhaps twisting, but not breaking the rules. Your average finagler is just looking for an angle, an insider’s discount on storm windows or use of the company truck after work.”

All those kids who get the wrong answer on their algebra homework should know about Finagle’s Constant, a mathematical device that’s inserted into a formula to make the answer come out right. Why didn’t we use it when balancing our checkbooks?

Cockamamie, an adjective meaning absurd, ridiculous or foolish, is mistaken for a Yiddish word so often that we had to put it in our Dictionary to explain that it isn’t.

Cockamamie is an alteration of the French word decalcomanie, combining the French words for “tracing” and “mania.” Decalcomania – transferring designs to pottery or artwork, was popular in the mid-1800s. When the transfers were marketed to children as temporary tattoos in the 1940s and ‘50s, the name was intentionally changed to cockamamies, because it was easier for kids to pronounce.

Today the word refers to more than tattoos. It’s anything that’s a crazy idea or an implausible proposition, as in “My kid says he wants to go to Times Square on New Year’s Eve. What a cockamamie idea!”

Clint Eastwood isn’t Jewish and doesn’t speak Yiddish, but in the movie In The Line Of Fire, he is a veteran Secret Service agent who tries to convince his frightened younger partner to stay on the job. He says that quitting is a “cockamamie” idea and then tells the younger man he should use the word every once in a while to keep it alive.

Oprah Winfrey, the maven of popular culture, made up her own Yiddish word. She combined shlump (a dull colorless person) with her diminutive suffix dinka. She uses the word to describe shlumpy housewives who don’t care how they look. Wearing baggy sweatpants or bad mom jeans, no makeup, and hair gathered in a ponytail, a shlumpadinka is in need of a makeover. In fact, Oprah devoted more than one show to getting women out of their shlumpadinka rut. We were just happy to see that Oprah spells Yiddish words like we do – with “sh” and not “sch.”

So nu? We’re done our spiel for now. We have to go get all ongepotchket. We’re going to meet friends for a nosh at the deli. (All real Yiddish words!)

21st Century Yiddish
June 2, 2011, 7:52 pm
Filed under: jewish food, Yiddish | Tags: , , , , , , ,

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…




There’s No Fool Like an Old Fool
March 29, 2011, 11:29 am
Filed under: calendar, holidays, Yiddish | Tags: , , , ,

Uh oh. Today’s Joyce’s birthday and she might now to be in the “old fool” category so we’re changing the title to You Can’t Fool Us!

The next holiday coming up is . . . not Passover. It’s April Fools’ Day. And it’s not one of our favorites. Sure, we thought it was funny/cute when our kids were little and we would wake up to rubber snakes in our beds or sit down on whoopee cushions placed on kitchen chairs.

It’s been years since we “celebrated” the holiday, but judging from the 2,980 results on Google, it has a lot of admirers who enjoy pranks and practical jokes. In this time of anti-bullying efforts, many of the tricks strike us a mean-spirited and stupid.’s list of the top 10 workplace pranks in 2010 included “hilarious” things like: Sending a fake love note to a co-worker from another co-worker, filling the vending soda machine with cans of beer, and putting a “house for sale” ad in the newspaper regarding your boss’s home. They didn’t list the name of the lawyer you’ll need when your co-worker sues you for sexual harassment or your boss takes out a restraining order.

This is one more reason we both like being self-employed. Ellen doesn’t have to glue a pencil to Joyce’s desk just because it’s April 1st.

But we do get a kick out of clever hoaxes that don’t hurt anyone, like the time in 1985 when writer George Plimpton wrote a story for Sports Illustrated about a fabulous new rookie pitcher for the Mets.

The ranked the “top 100 April Fools’ Day Hoaxes of All Time as judged by notoriety, creativity, and number of people duped.” Plimpton’s is No. 2. The best hoax was the BBC’s announcement that Swiss farmers were enjoying a bumper crop of spaghetti. The network even showed footage of people pulling strands of spaghetti down from trees.

At The Onion, every day is April Fools’. The newspaper and website feature satirical articles that poke fun at everyone from politicians to entertainers – and it’s very entertaining! Last week they reported that the “Postal Service Celebrates Another Awesome Day Of Delivering Mail.”

In the shtetls of Eastern Europe, among Yiddish speaking Jews, it seemed that every day was April Fools’ Day, or at least every day was a day you could meet a fool – or a shmendrick, shmeggegge, shlemiel or shlimazel. Just like the Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, Yiddish has dozens of words to describe a fool. Some of them are to be pitied; others are just unlucky. Leo Rosten, author of The Joys of Yiddish, is best at distinguishing one from another. He writes, “A shlemiel can be physically impressive, but not a shmendrick. A shmendrick is short, small, weak and thin, a young nebbish, maybe an apprentice shlemiel. A shmeggegge is a cross between a shlimazel and a shlemiel.”

So where did this crazy holiday idea come from? Legend is that in 1582, when Pope Gregory changed the calendar to the Gregorian calendar named for him, New Year’s Day moved from the end of March to January 1. Not everybody got the memo. Others stubbornly stuck with the old calendar and continued to celebrate on April 1. Pranksters would sneak up behind them and stick a paper fish to their backs. The victims of this prank were called Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish. We think it’s a pretty lame prank compared to replacing the tube of toothpaste with hemorrhoid cream.

According to literary scholars, the April Fools’ tradition is even older. They cite the first reference to the holiday in 1392, when in “The Nun’s Priest Tale,” one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the proud rooster Chauntecleer is fooled by a fox.

April 1 is coming up, and we’ll be ready and watching you. So don’t hack our Facebook page and change our status to single. Don’t order 10 pizzas and have them delivered to our address. But if you do want to put a rubber spider on the dinner plate for old times’ sake, we’ll be okay with that.

The Word Mavens Dish About Soup

It’s freezing cold and we’ve had a lot of snow. Lucky for us, January is National Soup Month.

It only took a few clicks to learn that the word soup comes from the word sop, which referred to the piece of bread or toast that was soaked in broth and then eaten. You know, as in “sop up the broth.” Soup was one of the first fast foods. As early as 600 BCE, the Greeks sold soup on the street — with peas, beans and lentils as main ingredients.

Soup was revolutionized right in our own backyard when Dr. John Dorrance, a chemist, figured out how to reduce the water in soup. It was his idea to sell a small can of condensed soup for a dime. His invention made his family millionaires and changed the fortunes of the Campbell’s Soup company, too.

Every culture has its favorite soup. This past weekend, Joyce cooked up a batch of split pea soup with ham, her husband’s favorite. Ellen made ribollita, the Tuscan bean soup her husband fell in love with on a trip to Italy. Ribollita means “reboiled,” because this is a soup that improves with age. The more times you reheat it, the more the flavors meld and intensify. Classic ribollita uses white beans and is vegetarian, but Italian grandmothers have many variations; some include pancetta or ham, others add Swiss chard or Tuscan kale.

If you have a Jewish grandmother, chances are you have some chicken soup memories. Joyce is happy to have her grandmother’s vintage aluminum stockpot, which is so tall it doesn’t fit in a kitchen cabinet. But even using a vintage pot, it’s hard to reproduce the soup of memories. Our friend, Stephanie believes the deep, rich yellow color of the chicken soup she loved came from the chicken feet that were crucial to her family’s recipe. Although she loved that soup, Stephanie has yet to ask for chicken feet at the local Acme.

While some bubbies never wrote down their recipes, Joyce’s Aunt Ruth did. Her cooking skills live on, thanks to a website she created to preserve her family recipes for her grandchildren. In between recipes for mandelbrot and macaroons, you can find her chicken soup recipe. Here’s the link:

As a child, Jill went to her grandparents’ house every weekend. (Jill and Joyce have been sisters since they were about 8, when Joyce’s dad married Jill’s mom). “I lived for my Nan’s chicken soup. It was so good, but how do you describe wonderful soup?” Jill remembers that it was a clear broth – no carrots or celery afloat – and she was thrilled that she got to pick whether fine or wide noodles, rice, bowties or alphabet noodles (her favorite) went into the soup. “I can still picture my grandmother in her kitchen stirring her big pot of soup,” Jill remembers.

Others reminisce about chicken soup with kreplach (Jewish wontons) or matzah balls. The Yiddish word for matzah ball dumplings is knaidlach, as in “Don’t be stingy, give the boy more knaidlach.” Just the mention of matzah balls can start a heated discussion of whether your grandmother’s or mother’s were “sinkers” (heavy and compact) or “floaters” (lighter and more fluffy). Everyone has a preference and a favorite way to make them. Do you add seltzer to the egg mix to make them lighter? Do you boil the matzah balls in plain water first, or does that rob them of any flavor? Do you cover the stockpot tightly and resist the urge to peek, thus ensuring fluffy, thoroughly cooked orbs?

In some Jewish families, dinner isn’t dinner without chicken soup. Even on an American holiday like Thanksgiving, before the turkey and sweet potatoes, the senior Scolnics have been known to ask, “Do you want one matzah ball or two in your soup?”

When you’ve got a cold or flu, there’s nothing like a bowl of chicken soup. We’ve all heard the expression that chicken soup is Jewish penicillin. Bubbies for generations have been telling us that drinking the hot soup and breathing in the steam will give us nourishment and make us feel better. Their theories were proven true by doctors who published a study in the medical journal Chest, concluding that “chicken soup will stimulate nasal clearing and may improve the upper respiratory tract symptoms.”

So get cooking. There are two more months left of winter. And please share your soup memories with us by posting a comment.


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