My Favorite Yiddish Phrases

By The Spiritual Explorer

yiddish-phrases-300x277-8255897Sometimes Yiddish phrases seem to take on the quality of mantras, being said so frequently and with much passion. I also think of Deva Premal who sings a whole album entitled Mantras for Precarious Times and wonder if Yiddish phrases, while not traditionally mantras, similarly take on the power of mantras.

Recited repeatedly, they can bring about what some would call “weltanschauung,” or worldview. Many are rooted in and arise from the many traumas and tragedies Jewish people have undergone and overcome proudly. Some say these Yiddish phrases have a flavor of wry and humorous pessimism with the fullness of a whole heritage.

It is noteworthy how much humor spawns from tragedy in the Jewish tradition. When I examine some of these phrases closely, I  understand how they might offer a strange detachment for the person expressing them. Perhaps Ativan and Xanax not being available during heinous times, it becomes an effort to get some distance from a horrific event.

Yiddish phrases conveying feelings

Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, a Yiddish phrase can convey a feeling or sentiment, even if no one understands Yiddish. Try saying oy vay at any time, preferably not in a crowded movie theater, and I think it is easily understood. This is true especially if accompanied by a woeful look as well as depressed shoulders.

The last election cycle has made me very conscious of my minority status as a Jew. When I surround myself with a large number of people with whom I am not acquainted, I am more than conscious of attempting to not resort to my favorite Yiddish phrases.  Perhaps it is an atavistic feeling of attempting to feel safe because of my history.

However, I have also noticed that I seem also to have this worrisome attitude of “who cares,” which is probably due to my advancing age. Or it could be that under emotional duress, I resort to those familiar phrases that are reminiscent of a nostalgic childhood.

Using Yiddish phrases in uncomfortable situations

I also find myself using these Yiddish phrases more often than is perhaps acceptable when in a formal situation. I think that instead of saying oy vay when a waiter inadvertently drops a drink on my outfit, it might be more appropriate to say,”Oh, dear.” Unfortunately, under stress, my lineage takes precedence and I resort to these Yiddish phrases more frequently than I would like. One of my friends with whom I share a spiritual life asked me where my Om Namah Shivaya (a blessing bestowed in appropriate circumstances) has gone and why I have allowed an expression of despair to replace it. I have to be careful of that.

Many Yiddish phrases come into popular usage because nothing in English compares with them in terms of expressing a feeling. They have certainly filled a language hole. There is nothing like a Yiddish phrase to give some comfort and solace, and even mirth, to trying circumstances.

Warning about Yiddish phrases

Yiddish phrases must not be used by anyone who, while attempting to mimic them, also manages to mangle pronunciation. These people, primarily non-Jewish, attracted to the words, unfortunately add an extra syllable to these words. For example, the word schlep is sometimes distorted by the offender pronouncing the word as “schalep.” (Two syllables). I don’t know if Jews particularly have a genetic predisposition to being able to correctly pronounce these Yiddish phrases.

During these precarious election times, here are some of my favorites that have brought me solace and comfort.

My favorite Yiddish phrases

  1. Oy vay and oy gevult
    While oy vay can be an expression of dismay, grief or exasperation, oy gevult expresses fear, shock and amazement. When  hit by a car, try saying oy gevult. Or when you feel overwhelm at who becomes the the presidential candidate,you might also say oy gevult. This means you fear for the world.
  2. Schlimazel, schmendrick and schlemiel. These are three of my favorite phrases, which are quite useful.
    • Schlimazel is rather like somebody who is lacking in common worldly sense, yet feels he is equal to the job.
    • Schmendrick is just some kind of stupid, jerky person. It is a consummate dismissive word. You can use it when everybody is on board as to how they feel about the qualifications of a candidate.
    • Schlemiel is just somebody who is almost not worthy of notice whom you’d like to awaken from their stupidity.
  3. Spiel
    This is a long, involved speech, often given as a sales pitch. We have had to endure quite a bit of those. You can combine it with the word schlock because the spiel is often the vehicle accompanying shoddy and inferior shlock.
  4. Mischegaus
    This is “craziness.” Sometimes the craziness at first feels like it is very unique and out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, mischegaus has seemed to evolve into the ordinary and commonplace during these times. We unfortunately have become enured to much mischegaus. This word is spoken sometimes with hands thrown up in the air as in, “What mischeguas!”
  5. Mensch
    This is truly my favorite word because if you can meet a mensch in your life, you are truly lucky. This person, is somebody truly trustworthy, upon whom you can count to assist you in terrible circumstances. They are also so honorable they will be sure and return the nickel they owe you. When you can convey the word mensch upon somebody, it is deeply satisfying and rewarding.
  6. Chutzpah
    This word has become so familiar that most people use it with a lot of familiarity. You can always tell the person who has chutzpah. They are willing to sound foolish when expressing their honest views. They are brave enough to push forward in a cause that might seem unpopular. They are someone who also shows up for you if you need someone to flout authority.

Feel free to take any of these to help you during these times. Like mantras that huge numbers of people recite, these Yiddish phrases likewise have the power to convey formidable emotion. You don’t have to be Jewish to love Yiddish phrases!

Zei gazunt! (Be well)

If you have a question about “yiddish phrases,” or anything else, you can write me at Ask The Spiritual Explorer.

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