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Express Yourself in Yiddish

The other day I met with a man who was telling me about his mother who had just died a short time before. I could sense the love and appreciation he had for her, not only by what he said, but also by the unmistakable warmth in his voice that is saved for occasions when love mixes with grief. But there was another remarkable thing in this conversation: The son used long sentences with affectionate adjectives to faithfully describe his mother, but sensed that he fell short. In his mind, he was not able to describe her true character and virtues. It all changed when he used some Yiddish words. 

The first word he mentioned was a Gutte Neshuma. I grew up with this phrase but haven’t heard it in years. Literarily, it means “a good soul”, but of course it goes much deeper than that. We meet many good people in our lifetime, but a Gutte Neshuma is a class of its own. These rare people spread around sparkles of inner beauty and pure goodness that makes you feel as if you are in the presence of angels. 

Then he used the more familiar word, Mensch. He first asked me (as many have done before him) if it is appropriate to use it for a woman. The answer is “yes”. Mensch in German (from which Yiddish is derived) means “a person”, and therefore, is gender neutral. It is usually translated as “a good person” but doing so is like describing Michael Jordan as “a good athlete”. This beautiful word, if not a concept, refers to a person who can be relied upon to act with honor and integrity. Someone who is kind, considerate, and possesses “responsibility fused with compassion, a sense that one’s own personal needs and desires are limited by the needs and desires of other people. A mensch acts with self-restraint and humility, always sensitive to the feelings and thoughts of others”. 

Kvel was the next word my new friend used. He used it to describe the strong bond between his mother and his son (her grandson). The word is used when we feel proud and delighted to the point of tears. It goes together with Nachas, the joy you feel over the achievements of someone close to us, because we are so connected with that person, that it’s as if the accomplishment is ours. 

While the words I mentioned above all have positive connotations, we must remember that the lives of our ancestors in Eastern Europe, who used Yiddish as their main language, were not so wonderful. As a result, we have a plethora of words, like tzuris (troubles), krechtzen (to moan and groan), kvetch (to complain), and my favorite, schlep. As an adjective, schlep often refers to a stupid or clumsy person; as a noun, it describes an annoyingly long journey; and as a verb, it has two main meanings: 1. to travel from one place to another when you really would prefer not to, as in “I schlepped all the way to China for this?!?” 2. to drag or lug (oneself or an object) with difficulty or reluctance, as in “Why would you want me to schlep all of that stuff?”

We are approaching the most popular season for personal resolutions. Having more Yiddishkeit (Jewishness) in your life may not be a bad one. A fun and meaningful way to do it is to learn and use some new words of the most remarkable language—Yiddish. 

Have a wonderful 2020!


The Retold Story of Hanukkah

A few years ago, I dedicated my article in the December Scribe to the telling of the historicity of Hanukkah, which is quite different from the popular version. In this issue, I would like to show how the story has been retold and interpreted in different parts of the Jewish community. 

The first example would be that of the early Zionists, who were mostly secular Jews working to revive Israel as the Jewish state, in their attempt to motivate people to take their future in their own hands and not passively wait for a Devine intervention. If for two millennia the holiday of national liberation was Passover, with its emphasis on God’s supernatural redemption, now it became Hanukkah and its theme of “If I do not do for myself, who will do for me?” In this venue, Yitzhak Ben Zvi, the second president of the State of Israel, wrote, “The glory and the educational value of the Hasmoneans is that their example revived the nation to be its own redeemer and the determiner of its own future…”

The Israeli popular Hanukkah song below shows how God’s role in the victory was replaced by the courage and strength of the heroic Israeli soldiers:

“We are carrying torches. In the dark night the paths shine beneath our feet, and whoever has a heart that thirsts for light--let him lift his eyes and his heart to us and come along. No miracle happened for us. No cruise of oil did we find. We walked through the valley, ascended the mountain. We discovered wellsprings of hidden light. We quarried in the stone until we bled: ‘Let there be light’!”

On the other end of the Jewish spectrum, we find the opposite tendency to de-emphasis the military/secular aspect of Hanukkah and to highlight instead its spiritual/religious aspect, as illustrated by the Lubavitch’s children’s story:

“When little Yisrael returned from Heder (Hebrew school) on Hanukkah evening, the whole family were already ready to light the candles…How much I desire to be one of the Hasmoneans, to join Judah the Maccabee in fighting the evil Greek Empire that tried to separate Israel from its Holy Torah,” thought Yisrael. An inner desire to be one with the Hasmoneans took control of the young mind… His sparkling eyes fastened on the candle that began to flicker and almost go out. The flame rose and then fell again and again as if the candle were saying, “I want to live, to light up the world…” Yisrael’s blue eyes closed for a moment and it seemed as if the candle was speaking to him before it departed and went out: 

“My dear son! I understand your desire to be a heroic Hasmonean, willing to sacrifice their lives for the Holy Torah… therefore I have come to assure you that you have the inner strength to be a Hasmonean. What the Maccabees did “in those days”, you can do “in these days.” How? Let me tell you: Not far from your house are hundreds and thousands of Jews. Though inside them they have a holy Jewish soul like yours, it is hidden. They have no idea what a great and holy day Hanukkah is and what the candles symbolize – all those miracles. They know nothing. Listen, my dear son! You have a wonderful opportunity to be a Maccabee, to fight the Greek spirit that distances them from the Hasmonean spirit. Go and talk to them. Tell them all the wonderous stories you have heard. Perhaps you can influence them so that they too will go with you to Heder (Hebrew school). Before I leave you, (said the candle), I promise that if you really want it, you can be a Maccabee just like Judah the Maccabee…”

As you get together with your family and friends to light the candles, you have a large array of themes to choose from. I encourage you to re-learn the story of Hanukkah, interpret it’s meaning, and find your own connection to it.

Happy Hanukkah and Happy 2020 to all of you

Fri, December 4 2020 18 Kislev 5781