A Shmendrik’s Progress

By Gabriel Sanders

Published May 25, 2007, issue of May 25, 2007.
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Two weeks ago, The Shmooze reported on an unexpected occurrence of the word tsoris on HBO’s “The Sopranos.” Even “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams found it odd, saying that, unlike chutzpah, which everybody knows, tsoris belongs in a more rarefied class, alongside words like mishpokhe, shpilkes and keynehoreh.

But if we are to go by a recent article in The New York Times, tsoris may not be all that rare after all. The article, about the headaches that come with owning a second home, quoted one Conn Nugent, proud owner of a western Massachusetts fixer-upper, as saying that the property was a source of nothing but “tsoris.”

While on the subject of Yiddish words in unlikely places, we would be remiss if we did not dwell for a minute on the new Gatorade ad starring Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and actor Harvey Keitel. The scene: a baseball field. The music: atonal suspense-film score. The mood: noir. Reprising a role he has played in any number of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino films, Keitel is standing behind first base dressed in black, devilishly egging Jeter on toward stealing second. He offers Jeter his take on the situation: “That shmendrik [the pitcher] keeps looking over here. And that one [the catcher], he’s got a gun. But you gotta do what you gotta do.”

Shmendrik, a gentle pejorative meaning “fool” or “idiot,” is of relatively recent vintage. It began life as the title of an 1877 Abraham Goldfaden operetta and quickly found its way into general Yiddish and, later, English usage. What’s interesting about Keitel’s use of it in the Gatorade ad is that we hear it coming not so much from a Jew but from an ethnically indeterminate mafioso.

From the Yiddish stage to a television ad in less than 150 years. Keynehoreh.


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