A Few Yiddish Terms

Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


Some Jewish Traditions, Superstitions & Folk Tales


So many of the words and phrases that we still use today had a great deal of meaning in the long lost culture of our Polish/European Jewish heritage,  a culture that disappeared with the shtetl and  with our loved ones that are no more. Some of the words and phrases we will mention here and will look into the history and possible reasons for these expressions.  The word “dybbuck”, the “ayin horrah” (pronounced ayin horreh by others), the aliyah given in the temple, “Schadchen” and the reason one used this service; “Machscheve” with its connotation; “Schnorrer” and the “Schnorrer” bench and other words with various connotations.

A dybbuck was a malevolent spirit.  The ayin horrah was the evil eye, which should never be visited upon anyone.  Mothers put symbols on their children to prevent the evil eye from hurting them.  One such preventative is the well known mezuzah, hung with a chain around the neck to protect the wearer from the spell of the evil eye.  Machscheve is a witch, an evil woman who with her wicked tongue and more wicked nature spreads hatred and anger.  A mamser comes close to the connotation of machscheve, although the literal meaning of that word is an illegitimate child or person born out of wedlock.  A schadchen is mostly a woman who pairs up young people for marriage.  She is a “maiven” (expert) at finding the suitable partner for a given person  (although this was done in the shtetl in the long ago this is again utilized today through the internet and other pre-arranged situations). A schnorrer (beggar) was generally a person who went from Poland to wealthier European cities and countries (often Germany) to beg for alms for himself and others.  Today the meaning is a bit different.  The common connotation is a person who is cheap and wants everything for nothing. A schnorrer in the synagogue of yesteryear in Europe would sit in the last bench and wait for a member of the schul to take him home for a good meal after Friday eve or Schabbat/ Schabbes services. The famous author Israel Zangwill wrote a fascinating book called The Schnorrer.  It spoke of a young man who took a look at a possible marriage partner, and was wined and dined but did not marry her.  When he left without meeting the expectations the parents cursed him, saying he should only choke to death on the pulkes (drumsticks) he had eaten.

Speaking of the Synagogue: Aliyahs (going up to the pulpit and reciting a broche/blessing) was an honor given mainly to the financially “better off” men in the “Stûbel” or those who were men of some standing.  This custom has lasted to this day in many synagogues, the wealthy and “important” (doctors, scholars, etc.) are called on more frequently than the poorer folk of the congregation.  Added to these traditions in the conservative and reform synagogues are females and not infrequently ordinary people.

When reading Isaac Bashevis Singer’s  book Passions one recalls that he was considered to be otherworldly, a Zadik (a saint), if on Yom Kipur one stood up all day in the synagogue without sitting down throughout all of the prayers.  Also we recall the story of  Reb Zodik, who deprived his body of food in order to concentrate on the mitzvot of life.  He chewed on one fig a day, sucked the juice and spat out the pulp (Whenever a child in my household dieted too strenuously I would re-label her Reb Zodik). The late Mahatma Gandi is a more modern version of the good Reb.

Zedakah (charity) is a throwback to the tithing that was done eons of years ago, longer ago than the story of Ruth and Naomi, when a percentage of the harvest was given to the poor.

Kaiser Franz Joseph, ruler of the Austrio/Hungarian empire, was known for his good relationship with the Jews of that time period.  A humorous story is told about him which I will retell here.  He visited many prisons and spoke with the prisoners.  The inmates in all cells, with one exception, would throw themselves at his feet and beg to be released.  They stated that they were innocent.  When he came to one cell, the prisoner stood with his face against the cold prison wall and did not turn around for the Kaiser.  Franz Joseph spoke to him and the inmate replied in a depressed voice, “I’m guilty.”  Franz Joseph demanded that he vacate the prison: “Leave at once, you are spoiling all the innocent ones,” and thus the Emperor made this inmate a free man.

The word “chutzpah” means “nerve” or audacity.  It is a very special word and cannot be translated properly except for one close descriptive phrase:  Chutzpah is when a boy murders both parents and weeps because he is an orphan.

The Scheitel (wig) was used to cover a married woman’s hair so that other men should not be attracted to her.  It also reinforces one of the the ten commandments: Thou shalt not covet another’s wife.  It is like the Muslims “Hijab” veil (cloth face covering) which hides the features of the female so that she shall be unattractive and unsightly and modest.

Until next time have a peaceful, restful and traditional Schabbat.  


Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the co-author, with Dr. Gerhard Falk, of  Youth Culture and the Generation Gap.

Home ] Up ]