Saturday, September 18, 2010


The Yiddish language is a wonderful source of rich expressions, especially terms of endearment (and of course, complaints and insults). This article is a follow up on Ten Yiddish Expressions You Should Know. Jewish scriptwriters introduced many Yiddish words into popular culture, which often changed the original meanings drastically. You might be surprised to learn how much Yiddish you already speak, but also, how many familiar words actually mean something different in real Yiddish.

There is no universally accepted transliteration or spelling; the standard YIVO version is based on the Eastern European Klal Yiddish dialect, while many Yiddish words found in English came from Southern Yiddish dialects. In the 1930s, Yiddish was spoken by more than 10 million people, but by 1945, 75% of them were gone. Today, Yiddish is the language of over 100 newspapers, magazines, radio broadcasts, and websites.

A good homemaker, a woman who’s in charge of her home and will make sure you remember it.
Or bisl – a little bit.
Or bobe. It means Grandmother, and bobeshi is the more affectionate form. Bubele is a similarly affectionate word, though it isn’t in Yiddish dictionaries.
Not a word for polite company. Bubkes or bobkes may be related to the Polish word for “beans”, but it really means “goat droppings” or “horse droppings.” It’s often used by American Jews for “trivial, worthless, useless, a ridiculously small amount” – less than nothing, so to speak. “After all the work I did, I got bupkes!”
Or khutspe. Nerve, extreme arrogance, brazen presumption. In English, chutzpah often connotes courage or confidence, but among Yiddish speakers, it is not a compliment.
An expression of disgust or disapproval, representative of the sound of spitting.
Or glitsh. Literally “slip,” “skate,” or “nosedive,” which was the origin of the common American usage as “a minor problem or error.”
More polite than bupkes, and also implies a strong sense of nothing; used in phrases such as “gornisht helfn” (beyond help).

A non-Jew, a Gentile. As in Hebrew, one Gentile is a goy, many Gentiles are goyim, the non-Jewish world in general is “the goyim.” Goyish is the adjective form. Putting mayonnaise on a pastrami sandwich is goyish. Putting mayonnaise on a pastrami sandwich on white bread is even more goyish.
In Yiddish, it’s spelled kibets, and it’s related to the Hebrew “kibbutz” or “collective.” But it can also mean verbal joking, which after all is a collective activity. It didn’t originally mean giving unwanted advice about someone else’s game – that’s an American innovation.
Or better yet, klots. Literally means “a block of wood,” so it’s often used for a dense, clumsy or awkward person. See schlemiel.
Something that’s acceptable to Orthodox Jews, especially food. Other Jews may also “eat kosher” on some level but are not required to. Food that Orthodox Jews don’t eat – pork, shellfish, etc. – is called traif. An observant Jew might add, “Both pork and shellfish are doubtlessly very tasty. I simply am restricted from eating it.” In English, when you hear something that seems suspicious or shady, you might say, “That doesn’t sound kosher.”
In popular English, kvetch means “complain, whine or fret,” but in Yiddish, kvetsh literally means “to press or squeeze,” like a wrong-sized shoe. Reminds you of certain chronic complainers, doesn’t it? But it’s also used on Yiddish web pages for “click” (Click Here).
Pronounced meyven. An expert, often used sarcastically.
15.Mazel Tov
Or mazltof. Literally “good luck,” (well, literally, “good constellation”) but it’s a congratulation for what just happened, not a hopeful wish for what might happen in the future. When someone gets married or has a child or graduates from college, this is what you say to them. It can also be used sarcastically to mean “it’s about time,” as in “It’s about time you finished school and stopped sponging off your parents.”
An honorable, decent person, an authentic person, a person who helps you when you need help. Can be a man, woman or child.
Insanity or craziness. A meshugener is a crazy man. If you want to insult someone, you can ask them, ”Does it hurt to be crazy?”
Or mishpokhe or mishpucha. It means “family,” as in “Relax, you’re mishpocheh. I’ll sell it to you at wholesale.”
Or nash. To nibble; a light snack, but you won’t be light if you don’t stop noshing. Can also describe plagarism, though not always in a bad sense; you know, picking up little pieces for yourself.
A general word that calls for a reply. It can mean, “So?” “Huh?” “Well?” “What’s up?” or “Hello?”
21.oy vey
Exclamation of dismay, grief, or exasperation. The phrase “oy vey iz mir” means “Oh, woe is me.” “Oy gevalt!” is like oy vey, but expresses fear, shock or amazement. When you realize you’re about to be hit by a car, this expression would be appropriate.
Or plats. Literally, to explode, as in aggravation. “Well, don’t plotz!” is similar to “Don’t have a stroke!” or “Don’t have a cow!” Also used in expressions such as, “Oy, am I tired; I just ran the four-minute mile. I could just plotz.” That is, collapse.
It means “deep peace,” and isn’t that a more meaningful greeting than “Hi, how are ya?”
To drag, traditionally something you don’t really need; to carry unwillingly. When people “shlep around,” they are dragging themselves, perhaps slouchingly. On vacation, when I’m the one who ends up carrying the heavy suitcase I begged my wife to leave at home, I shlep it.
A clumsy, inept person, similar to a klutz (also a Yiddish word). The kind of person who always spills his soup.
Cheap, shoddy, or inferior, as in, “I don’t know why I bought this schlocky souvenir.”
Someone with constant bad luck. When the shlemiel spills his soup, he probably spills it on the shlimazel. Fans of the TV sitcom “Laverne and Shirley” remember these two words from the Yiddish-American hopscotch chant that opened each show.
A jerk, a stupid person, popularized in The Last Unicorn and Welcome Back Kotter.
Excessively sentimental, gushing, flattering, over-the-top, corny. This word describes some of Hollywood’s most famous films. From shmaltz, which means chicken fat or grease.
Chat, make small talk, converse about nothing in particular. But at Hollywood parties, guests often schmooze with people they want to impress.
Often used as an insulting word for a self-made fool, but you shouldn’t use it in polite company at all, since it refers to male anatomy.
A long, involved sales pitch, as in, “I had to listen to his whole spiel before I found out what he really wanted.” From the German word for play.
A non-Jewish woman, all too often used derogatorily. It has the connotation of “young and beautiful,” so referring to a man’s Gentile wife or girlfriend as a shiksa implies that his primary attraction was her good looks. She is possibly blonde. A shagetz or sheygets means a non-Jewish boy, and has the connotation of a someone who is unruly, even violent.
Or shmuts. Dirt – a little dirt, not serious grime. If a little boy has shmutz on his face, and he likely will, his mother will quickly wipe it off. It can also mean dirty language. It’s not nice to talk shmutz about shmutz. A current derivation, “schmitzig,” means a “thigamabob” or a “doodad,” but has nothing to do with filth.
Something you’re known for doing, an entertainer’s routine, an actor’s bit, stage business; a gimmick often done to draw attention to yourself.
Or tshatshke. Knick-knack, little toy, collectible or giftware. It also appears in sentences such as, “My brother divorced his wife for some little tchatchke.” You can figure that one out.
Or tsores. Serious troubles, not minor annoyances. Plagues of lice, gnats, flies, locusts, hail, death… now, those were tsuris.
Rear end, bottom, backside, buttocks. In proper Yiddish, it’s spelled tuchis or tuches or tokhis, and was the origin of the American slang word tush.
Female busybody or gossip. At one time, high-class parents gave this name to their girls (after all, it has the same root as “gentle”), but it gained the Yiddish meaning of “she-devil”. The matchmaker in “Fiddler on the Roof” was named Yente (and she certainly was a yente though maybe not very high-class), so many people mistakenly think that yente means matchmaker.
40.yiddisher kop
Smart person. Literally means “Jewish head.” I don’t want to know what goyisher kop means.
As in Hebrew, the ch or kh in Yiddish is a “voiceless fricative,” with a pronunciation between h and k. If you don’t know how to make that sound, pronounce it like an h. Pronouncing it like a k is goyish.

Getting Back to the Phantom Skill


Line by Line is about rediscovering the lost skill and singular pleasure of drawing.

Drawing, for many people, is that phantom skill they remember having in elementary school, when they drew with great relish and abandon. Crayon and colored pencil drawings of fancy princesses poured out onto the sketchbooks of the girls, while planes and ships, usually aflame, battled it out in the boys’ drawings. Occasionally boys drew princesses and girls drew gunboats, but whatever the subject matter, this robust period of drawing tended to wither in most students’ lives and, by high school, drawing became the specialized province of those one or two art geeks who provided the cartoons for the yearbook and made the posters for the prom.

The first few columns of this series on drawing that I’m initiating this week will offer a primer on the basic elements of line-making, perspective, structure and proportion, which I hope will begin to rekindle the love of drawing for those readers who left it behind in the 4th grade. Achieving some confidence in drawing objects will get you started in the pleasure of this activity, and give you the basis for moving on to drawing figures.

I also hope, in later installments, to provide insight into the vitality and sensuousness of great drawing so that your next visit to the museum will be both more gratifying and a chance to amaze your companions with your new-found aestheticism.

My method for helping you to draw focuses primarily on two aspects of the skill: first, showing you how to see the structural logic of the object or figure you are drawing, and second, through focused practice, strengthening the link between your eyes and hand so that you are better able to make the drawing marks you intend.

For readers who are familiar with other kinds of drawing instruction that emphasize experimenting with materials, making images with different kinds of pencils, pens and paints, my approach may seem, at first, somewhat stripped down. However, if you try the exercises I describe, I think you will find that they give you the basic thinking and hand skills you need to move on to whatever experimenting with mediums you like.

James McMullan
In the historical and contemporary art I use as examples here, I hope there will be many drawing styles and different drawing and painting materials to inspire you. But, for the exercises in the early columns, I suggest you stick to using a 2B or 4B pencil so that the goal of clarifying your thinking and strengthening your hand-eye coordination doesn’t get confused by the difficulties of manipulating pen and ink or any other more complicated drawing tool.

In advising you to begin with these simple materials, pencil and a drawing pad, I am not denying the sensuousness of charcoal or pen-and-ink or paint or any of the myriad implements and colorful fluids with which, like happy children in a mud puddle, we can make images. I’m simply hoping to provide you with a period at the start of your endeavor in which you can focus on learning to see and getting in touch with your drawing hand without the distraction of style or materials.

In every column I will use examples from the history of art to show how certain functions of drawing and approaches to subject matter play out successfully in the work of specific artists. De Chirico’s surreal cityscapes will help to dramatize perspective. Edward Hopper’s paintings will illuminate how light brings out the solidity of objects and people. Picasso shows us how modeling can emphasize the substance of faces and bodies, while Matisse will be exhibit A in how artists move from realism to stylization in considering the human figure.

James McMullan
My overall goal, apart from helping with specific information, is to communicate the enthusiasm I feel for the immediacy of drawing. It is the activity that most engages an artist’s sense of exploration, both visually, as the artist feels out the image, new born, on the drawing surface, and intellectually, as the drawing becomes the bridge between observation or an idea and a graphic fact. In looking at Michelangelo’s studies for the Sistine Chapel, for instance, so searching and in-the-moment is the artist’s attention to his subject that I often feel the years fall away and there I am, looking over his shoulder as he draws.

I confess that much contemporary drawing disappoints me for its lack of risk and immediacy. It often seems like the product of a too premeditated and too lengthy process of refinement. Part of this may be the influence of the computer and the surface perfection that it achieves so easily; geometrically pure shapes, even textures, clear colors.

Another source of this arid quality may be attributable to the use of photography as a drawing shortcut. Photography as a source for subject matter has opened many amazing possibilities in 20th and 21st century art, but when it is used as a tracing or projecting tool in order to circumvent the difficulties of achieving correct proportion, the resulting art is often static and lifeless.

Drawing is a process of engagement for the artist, a period of both time and struggle that pulls the artist deeply and intensely into his subject and his ideas. Projecting a photograph in order to give you a perfect drawing of your subject has robbed you of all the imperfect yet more interesting drawings you might have made. The recent exhibit of the art of William Kentridge at The Museum of Modern Art in New York was the most powerful expression of the vital possibility in drawing that I have seen for some time, and it made so much other contemporary drawing seem dry and intellectualized.

Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art. © 2010 William Kentridge. William Kentridge’s drawing from Stereoscope 1998–99
During the 12-week period of this column, I will be working on posters for Lincoln Center Theater as well as on a children’s book, and I will share with you sketches from those processes if they seem to illuminate an aspect of drawing being discussed. I hope that readers will respond to this column and help to shape and expand its content. I will be only too happy to move into the more arcane aspects of art and drawing if comments indicate interest.

Next week: “The Frisbee of Art.”