Martial Arts in Yiddish

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published July 28, 2006, issue of July 28, 2006.
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Sherry Leffert from Cambridge, Mass., writes:

“I have been a Tai Chi student, and my husband and I were wondering how the martial arts terms would be translated into Yiddish. We thought of ‘zetz,’ ‘frosk,’ ‘patsh’ ‘klop,’ ‘shtrokh,’ ‘shlug,’ and ‘hock.’ Can you think of any others? Are there distinctions between these terms? Please enlighten us.”

The Yiddish words listed by Ms. Leffert all denote blows of one kind or another. Although I once studied aikido in an earlier incarnation, it’s not a martial art with much zetz-ing or frosk-ing in it and, in any case, we didn’t practice it in Yiddish. Therefore, I turned to my friend David Roskies, professor of Yiddish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and he referred me to a doctoral student of his, Edward Portnoy, who may be greatest living expert on Jewish wrestlers in pre-World War II Eastern Europe. Wrestling isn’t kung fu, but it’s about as close as Yiddish gets to it. And as Mr. Portnoy points out in an article written by him on the subject, pre-World-War-II Yiddish lacked many wrestling terms. He quotes from a 1925 dispatch from the Warsaw newspaper Haynt, in which, describing a victory won by renowned Jewish wrestler Leon Pinyetski, with the help of the hold known as a full nelson ( in which both arms go through the opponent’s armpits and lock hands behind his neck), the reporter wrote:

Di sugye fun topltn nelson iz zeyer a shvere un kedy dos toyfes tsu zayn darf men zayn a shtarker mushlem in diney valkes.” (“The subject of a full-nelson is a very difficult one, and in order to grasp it one must be a paragon of erudition in the laws of wrestling.”)

This was written, needless to say, tongue-in-cheek. Note the ironic use of rabbinic language: sugye (“subject”), which often refers to a thorny passage in the Talmud; a mushlem (“paragon of erudition”), a term from the world of Jewish religious scholarship; diney valkes (“the laws of wrestling”), on the model of diney memoynes (rabbinic laws having to do with financial transactions) or diney nefoshes (criminal laws). It is as if the writer were saying, “Look what we Jews have come to, following wrestling with the same enthusiasm with which we once would have discussed a Talmudic text!”

As for the terms suggested by Ms. Leffert, Mr. Portnoy writes:

“A zets is a strong punch. A patsh is a common slap, whereas a frask is a sharp, stinging one, given with a vengeance. Shlugn is to punch, but also to beat up. A klop is a blow and a shtrokh is a swipe. A hock is a chop. Some of these meanings depend on their usage, but all can be made stronger or weaker according to heir modifiers. A shverer klop, for example, is a wallop; a flamike patsh is a resounding smack.”

Mr. Portnoy also lists many more terms one could use, such as a knak (a crack, a blow with the knuckles); a knal (a lash like that of a whip); a trask (a good box); a khmalye (a thrashing); a bentsh in kop (literally, a “blessing on the head”), that is, a smash on the head with a piece of wood, and so on. “Some of these terms,” he adds, “are certainly applicable to the martial arts.” I’m not sure which would go well with Tai Chi, but “push hands,” which is the slow-motion Tai Chi exercise with a partner whose movements, when speeded up, become those of real combat, might be called in Yiddish, patshn mit di hent.

* * *

One Yiddish word that is not on Ms. Leffert’s list is a zbeng, which Mr. Portnoy defines as “a hard smack with a fist or an object.” This is a word that has been heard in Israel with great frequency in recent days, in the Hebrew expression zbeng ve-gamarnu (literally, “One zbeng and we’re finished”).

“This isn’t going to be zbeng ve-gamarnu,” Israel’s chief of staff, Dan Halutz, said at the beginning of the Israeli assault on Hezbollah earlier this month. “Don’t expect zbeng ve-gamarnu,” ex-Southern Corps commander Tsvika Fogel said on Israeli television the same week. Ex-Northern Corps commander Yosi Peled agreed, on another television program, “It doesn’t look like zbeng ve-gamarnu.” Perhaps when it’s time to give this war a name, it will be known as The War of Not-Zbeng-Ve-Gamarnu.

Zbeng ve-gamarnu is an expression that has been around in Israel for quite some time, and it means “settling things with a single blow.” Originally it was used in a positive sense, which is how it is defined by Dan Ben-Amotz and Netiva Ben-Yehuda’s 1982 Hebrew slang dictionary; that is, one said zbeng ve-gamarnu when one really thought that one act or decision was enough to take care of things. (As in, “What’s taking you so long? Zbeng ve-gamarnu!”) Today, though, the expression is almost always used negatively to denote what cannot be dealt with quickly or simply. And used without the negative qualifier, it tends to be ironic or sarcastic. (“To listen to him talk, there’s nothing he can’t solve. Zbeng ve-gamarnu!”) Perhaps this is a sign that Israel has grown up: Life no longer seems to have simple solutions.

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






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