Howard Schranz wants to know the origin and exact meaning of the Yiddish word nebekh. “When I was 11,” he writes, “after my father, a”h, died, I heard a lot of nebekh thrown my way. I know it meant something like, ‘It’s pitiful,’ and I quickly tired of being called that. Show some sympathy if you like, but please don’t tell me that I’m pitiful or even inordinately unfortunate! And am I right that nebekh and ‘nebbish’ are related?”
I’ll get to nebekh in a moment. First, though, permit me to comment on what some readers must have found puzzling in Mr. Schranz’s letter — namely, the line, “When I was 11, after my father, a”h, died.” What, they are asking, does ‘a”h’ mean?
Others of you know or can guess that it’s an abbreviation of the Hebrew words alav ha-shalom (Yiddish olov hasholem), “peace be upon him,” traditionally said after the mention of a beloved or admired person who is no longer alive. (If the deceased is a woman, one says aleha ha-shalom.) In speaking Hebrew, Yiddish or any other Jewish language, these words are uttered in full. In writing they are represented by the Hebrew letters ayin-heh, ה”ע, with a Hebrew sign that resembles a quotation mark between them. This sign, known as a gershayim, goes before the last letter of any abbreviation to indicate that this is what it is.
I don’t know whether or not Mr. Schrantz is an observant Jew, but chances are he is, because the replication of such Hebrew or Aramaic abbreviations in English has become increasingly common in America’s Orthodox, English-speaking community. Rather than translate the phrase in question into English and then abbreviate it, in which case one would get “pboh” for “peace be on him” (a usage commonly adopted by English-speaking Muslims when mentioning the Prophet Muhammad), the practice is to abbreviate it untranslated in Latin characters, sometimes using capital letters and sometimes not.
So, for example, the lead sentence of a March, 17, 2010, story from the Yeshiva World News was, “A Jewish woman was R”L killed [yesterday] after she was pinned under a bus in the East Tremont section of the Bronx.” ‘R”L’ is short for rachmana litslan, Aramaic for “May the compassionate one [that is, God] save us,” a phrase often used after mentioning misfortune in order to express the wish that nothing of the sort happen to the speaker or his listeners. (This is similar to the Yiddish nisht far unz gedakht, discussed by me several weeks ago.) And here is a sentence from an Orthodox blog, written by a young woman who is tired of being an object of sympathy because of her unmarried state: “At the L’Chaim [the celebration of a cousin’s engagement], I kept politely accepting ‘IY”H by yous’ and thanking everyone and smiling.”