Drinking and Writing

By Philologos

Published April 27, 2007, issue of April 27, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In a column two weeks ago titled “Dispatches From the Great Vodka War,” veteran New York Times journalist Serge Schmemann, a fancier of the drink, had a paragraph discussing some words for it. “Vodka,” he wrote there, “is a Russian word, a diminutive of ‘water’… The Poles may put ‘vodka’ on their bottles, but among themselves they call it ‘gorzalka’ (it’s ‘horilka’ in Ukrainian), from the root ‘to burn,’ which tells you something about their stuff.”

Schmemann may be a maven in vodka (although not if you ask an insulted Polish-born friend of mine), but he isn’t much of one in Polish. In the first place, the Poles regularly call vodka wódka, as do the Russians. And secondly, while deriving from the verb gorzeł, to burn, gorzałka, which can refer to any hard liquor or brandy and not just to vodka, is called that not because it burns but because it is “burned.” (Ditto horilka.) It is the Polish equivalent of — and, in all likelihood, originated in — German Branntwein, “burned wine” or brandy, which in turn comes from Dutch brandewijn. From the latter also descends English “brandy,” which was shortened from “brandywine” in the 17th century.

Brandy is “burned wine,” because it is distilled from wine that is heated in a still or pot — once upon a time, this was done over an open fire — until some of its liquid, including all its alcohol (whose boiling point is lower than water’s), evaporates. The vapors then pass through a tube into a second, cooler pot in which they condense, their alcohol content now much higher than the original wine’s, and the distillation is generally repeated a second time. The same process, brought to bear on fermented fruit juice, or fermented grain or potato mash, yields other such spirits as applejack, kirschwasser, vodka, scotch, rye, bourbon, aquavit, gin and so on.

It’s from German Branntwein that we get our Yiddish bronfn — which, like Polish gorzałka and German “schnapps,” does not necessarily mean brandy (a word referring specifically to distilled wine) and can denote any hard liquor. Indeed, among Yiddish speakers in such countries as Russia and Poland, where this sort of liquor was almost always vodka, bronfn almost always meant vodka. (Schmemann’s incorrect remark about Polish could actually apply to Yiddish, whose speakers rarely used the Polish and Russian words wódka or vodka.) It makes me smile when, reading in English translation some Yiddish story or novel set in an Eastern European shtetl, I come across a sentence such as “Lomir trinken a bisl bronfn,” rendered as “Let’s have a bit of brandy.” As if the average Jew in such places had ever seen a bottle of brandy — a very expensive drink — in his life!

Yiddish has two other words for distilled spirits besides bronfn. The more common of the two is mashke, from Hebrew mashkeh, which in Hebrew simply means “beverage” and has to be qualified by the adjective h.arif, “strong,” to become liquor. The other word is yash, an acronym of Hebrew yeyn saraf or yayin saruf — that is, “burned wine.” Like bronfn and mashke, yash can refer to any hard liquor: vodka in Russia, it could mean grappa in Italy, slivovitz in Yugoslavia and calvados in Normandy. The closest English equivalent to all three might perhaps be “booze,” which has, however, a somewhat pejorative connotation that the Yiddish words do not.

Yash goes back to the rabbinic literature of the Middle Ages and is one of those lovely old Hebrew words that have vanished from modern Israeli Hebrew, in which liquor in general, as I have said, is mashkeh h.arif, and brandy is konyak. This has not yet, to the best of my knowledge, caused a suit to be filed by the cognac makers of France, who several years ago took successful legal action to have “cognac” removed from the label of any brandy not produced from white wine made out of grapes grown in the vicinity of Cognac, a city in southwest France. Israelis are not easily intimidated — and besides, while there may be class actions in which 5 million people sue a city, how can a city sue 5 million people?

A number of you, including Vincent Daly, David Levine, Stephen Menn and Sheldon Stolowich, have written to point out that I incorrectly stated in my column of April 6 that William Liebknecht, editor of the German socialist newspaper Vorwärts, was executed, along with Rosa Luxemburg, for playing a part in the 1919 Spartacus uprising in Germany. It was in fact Liebknecht’s son, Karl Liebknecht, who was the Spartacist. William, who was born in 1826, died in 1900, and would in any case have been a bit too old in 1919 to have been manning the barricades with Luxemburg.

Also, from Arieh Lebowitz comes the information that in 1896, a year before the Yiddish Forward’s founding, a Greek socialist-anarchist newspaper named Epi ta Proso, meaning “Forward,” began to appear in the Greek city of Patras in the Peloponnese. Since the editors of Epi ta Proso were soon after arrested by the Greek authorities for their alleged involvement in the headline-making anarchist assassination of a wealthy Patras banker, it’s not impossible that Abraham Cahan and the founders of the Forward had heard of the publication.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.