A Bisl Yiddish and the Years Disappear

Which Word Brings You Back?

Memories: For many Jews, the sound or sight of a Yiddish word transports them back to their childhoods.
Shulie Seidler-feller
Memories: For many Jews, the sound or sight of a Yiddish word transports them back to their childhoods.

By Lenore Skenazy

Published October 20, 2010, issue of October 29, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It’s a little like pennies from heaven, or, really, Hanukkah gelt tumbling out of the sky. You’re having a normal, adult day — work, worries, whatever — when suddenly you hear a Yiddish word. Sometimes it’s schmear or schlump. But once in a while it’s shlof (sleep) or shayne (pretty), and suddenly the timeline of life ties itself up like a kikhel (bowtie cookie) and you are back in your mother’s kitchen or the living room.

Lenore Skenazy
Lenore Skenazy

Gey shlofn! — Go to sleep!” is the expression that whooshes back Gail Horowitz. The workaday world is replaced by “a room filled with a bunch of Jewish relatives — aunts and uncles sitting around the dining room, smoking cigarettes and cigars and drinking seltzer out of blue bottles,” the New York publicist recalled. “And when they wanted the little ones to disappear and go to bed, they would say that.” And if Horowitz begged for some seltzer first? “I could have a ‘bisl,’” she said, “a little bit.”

A bisl of Yiddish is all it takes for the memories to kick in and, for many of my middle-aged friends, that’s also all we have left. The words we remember couldn’t make a whole conversation. Some of them sneaked in with “Seinfeld” and “Coffee Talk. Some we don’t even quite know what they mean, and that was actually the plan.

“My parents spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want us to understand,” is a common complaint. As a result, the expressions that resonate are the few our elders directed at us, the kids. This explains why so many people remember “hakn a tshaynek” — literally, banging like (or on) a tea kettle — usually prefaced by, “quit,” as in: “Quit hakn a tshaynek! Quit talking so much!”

We got the idea: Shush! (Which also sounds Yiddish.)

Another instant memory unlocker: shayne punim. When not being told to be quiet or go to bed, we were generally being told we had a shayne punim — a beautiful face. This was not an expression anyone would ever associate with supermodels or Lancôme ads. It was usually said by a bubbe or zayde (yes, other key Yiddish words) about the face of a beloved child. Sometimes even a child with a beautiful face, but I’m not sure that was absolutely necessary.

“For me,” said Beth Surdut, a tallit maker in New Mexico, “the word that takes me back is ‘shmatte.’ The other day, my boyfriend’s sister was visiting, and she said she had a little shmatte for me.” What the woman meant was that she had a little T-shirt for Beth, nothing fancy. But “shmatte” shot Beth straight back to her high school hippie days, filled with Indian dresses and her mother asking, “You’re not going out in that shmatte, are you?”

She was. But look, Ma! Now she makes Jewish ceremonial garments and lokshn kugel — noodle pudding — the other term that sets her reeling.

“Say that word, and I see Bubbe Mollie in a light blue-and-white-striped house dress, stockings rolled just above her knees,” Surdut said. “My grandmother made the best kugel I’ve ever eaten. She gave me the recipe — sort of, after years of noodging [another great Yiddish word!] — which, I am told by people who don’t have to be nice, is the best they’ve ever tasted. One woman was carrying the Torah around the temple, and when she got to me, she leaned over and said: ‘Good Shabbos. I want your kugel recipe.’”

And speaking of recipes, patshki is the word Eileen Kleiman, a Manhattan mom of two, remembers best. “Like, ‘That recipe requires too much patshki-ing,’” Kleiman said (that is, too much elaborate effort).

And yet, it is just that elaborate effort that some of us now put into ensuring that at least one more generation of Jewish children will hear a bisl Yiddish while growing up.

“I have very little religion in my life, so for me, [being Jewish] is totally cultural,” said Jaxi Israel, a mom of two in Lewisburg, Pa. Her town does not boast a very big Jewish population, but her young sons know that dirt is shmuts and sweating is shvitsing and all their little doodads are tchotchkes. “I have a feeling I’m using these words more frequently than I would if I were raising kids on [Manhattan’s] Upper West Side,” Israel said. It’s her way of bringing them into the fold. “I realize I sound like a 90-year-old grandmother in Boca Raton,” but that’s precisely the point: She wants to sound like a bubbe — hers — so that her kids get the same warm experience.

“It makes me feel tender and small to hear these words again,” said Beth Harpaz, the Brooklyn-based author of “13 Is the New 18,” (Crown, 2009). Shlof and shayne are the words her dad whispered as she went to sleep.

The Yiddish we hold on to did not grow up; we did. Hearing these words from our youth aloud again is a gift from heaven — sometimes literally, as that is where so much of it has gone.

Lenore Skenazy is the founder of www.freerangekids.com and the author of “Free-Range Kids: How To Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry)” (Jossey-Bass, 2009).


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!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?








You may also be interested in our English-language newsletters:













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

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.