By JUDD MATSUNAGA, Esq.
I’m not that old, yet I’m starting to notice problems with my short-term memory. For example, when I started golfing and bowling again earlier this year, I’d forget the name of a teammate I had just a year before. Occasionally, I’ll find myself searching for the right word, or forgetting where I put my sunglasses.
There’s an irrational part of my brain that says, “Oh no!!! It’s a warning sign of early onset dementia. Could be early Alzheimer’s.” However, there’s a rational part of my brain that says, “No worries, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, it’s just a typical age-related change.” Whatever it is, I know I want to do whatever I can to keep my mind as sharp as I can for as long as I can.
So, after doing some research on brain health, I try to exercise regularly to help grow, repair, and maintain brain cells. Earlier this year, I bought a 3-D giant screen TV to help keep brain neurons firing. In this article, I want to discuss another way the experts are saying will strengthen your brain – learning a new language.
No, I’m not suggesting you learn Spanish, Latin, French, or Italian (because I wouldn’t do it either). I’m also not suggesting you re-learn the Japanese that you have already forgotten because I don’t know if that counts. In this article, I’m going to introduce you to Yiddish. Why Yiddish? Because you probably already know a few Yiddish words from your Jewish friends and/or from the movies.
Most of what’s following comes from the book “How to Talk Jewish” by comedian Jackie Mason, who recently passed away this summer. Let’s start with a Yiddish word you’ve already heard – mazel tov, pronounced, MAH-zel toff. According to Mason, “Whenever somebody accomplishes something that calls for celebration, you shout ‘mazel tov!’” It’s good luck, congratulations, that’s terrific, what a fabulous thing!
In “Fiddler on the Roof,” one of the main characters was Yenta the matchmaker (i.e., a name). However, in Yiddish, Yenta is not a name; it’s a term for a meddling busybody, normally referring to a woman. A yenta is a woman who is always talking about someone else’s business. With a yenta nothing is ever right. She’ll always tell you why everybody is wrong and what’s wrong with them.
If you’re familiar with the golden age of Hollywood, you’ve probably heard the word shtick, rhymes with “stick.” Shtick has become a popular term in show business. Any comedy material is always called a shtick. When Danny Kaye talked in that fast singsong nonsense, that was his shtick. When Jack Benny stood there and just looked and didn’t say a word, that was his shtick.
Oy vey! rhymes with “boy day,” is the ultimate Jewish expression. It encompasses every negative feeling that any Jew ever had. It means, “my God.” It also means “I can’t believe it!” “I don’t know how I can live through this.” “I don’t know how I can live through this.” Whether it’s a small misery, big misery, or the worst misery, the first reaction is “oy vey.”
Feh, pronounced, fehh!, is the shortest, most efficient way in the Yiddish language to say “something stinks.” Feh is the most undiplomatic way and the clearest and fastest way to say, “Boy, does that smell.” It’s something you’d never say to a guy’s face but is the ultimate word whenever you’re talking about somebody who just turned the other way.
You’ve probably heard this Yiddish word since it made it into the English dictionary – klutz, pronounced to rhyme with “butts.” A klutz is so clumsy, so awkward, such a bungler that he can do nothing right. When he tries to wind his watch, he breaks it. If he visits friends in the backyard, he’ll fall into their pool. You can’t take a klutz anywhere.
Another Yiddish word you’ve probably heard is meshuggener, pronounced, meh-SHOOG-en-er. This term covers anybody you consider nuts. When you call someone a meshuggener, you’re saying he’s (or she’s) beyond stupid, but in a playful and colloquial way. If, for example, a man wants to have sex with his wife, “Are you a meshuggener?” she says, “We had sex a month ago.”
If you ever watched the 1970s TV show “Laverne & Shirley,” you’re familiar with the term schlemiel and schlemazel (pronouced shleh-MEEL and shleh-MAH-zel) from the theme song. A schlemiel and a shlemazel are the same person. Usually they go out together, they hang around together. Each term is another way of saying someone’s a professional loser. He’s never in touch with reality. His feet are on the ground, but his head is in the clouds.
You’ve heard of young Jewish boys celebrating their bar mitzvah at 13 years of age. Well, the mitzvah, pronounced MITS-veh, is a Hebrew word for good deed. Every time you do a good deed it’s called a mitzvah. If you help a person for whatever reason, it’s a mitzvah. It’s the hallmark of every orthodox Jew that he should do as many mitzvahs as possible.
A mensh, rhymes with “clench,” literally means “a person.” But the broader meaning is a human being with class, with feelings, with a sense of humanity. In other words, a mensh is a gentleman. Any time someone wants to give the ultimate compliment to a person, he’ll say, “Oh, this is a mensh. He should live a long life.”
A schlock, rhymes with “flock,” is the cheapest, the lowest of anything. Any time you see anything you consider cheap, you say, “Ech, schlock.” It’s low class. A certain kind of person has a schlock mentality, e.g., a guy who never buys anything of value and rationalizes that he doesn’t have any use for it, and there’s no place in the house to keep it. Basically, he’s a cheap bastard.
A chozzer, pronouced KHA-zer, literally means “a pig,” and is used to describe a piggish person. It’s a guy who wants everything whether it belongs to him or not and wants one hundred times more than he has a right to expect. He stinks from the bottom up, and he always will.
A draykop, pronounced, DRAY-kop, or DRAY-kawp, is someone who talks about nothing and gives you a headache. It’s a scatterbrain, but more than that, it’s a chatterer. Someone whose conversation is pointless and hopeless and endless. Draykops are people with the least to say and take the longest to say it.
Another put-down word is schmuck, rhymes with “cluck.” Like the word “bastard” in English, schmuck is used as the equivalent of a jerk. When you call a schmuck, you’re saying the man’s an idiot, he’s a jerk, he’s a goof, he’s a lowlife, he’s a real good-for-nothing schmuck.
Still another put-down word is zhlub, rhymes with “tub.” A zhlub is a guy who could make a new suit look like a shmatte (a “rag”). No matter what he wears or how successful he becomes, he still looks like a failure. He’s a coarse guy, without any grace in his speech or his movements. A zhlub is not nuts, but he’s not normal, either.
A shmatte, pronounced, SHMOT-ta, is a “rag.” If a woman is talking about what another woman is wearing, it’s a shmatte. When a woman wants her husband to buy her some new clothes, everything she owns suddenly becomes a shmatte. A shmatte to a wife is also everything her husband is wearing.
A trombenik, pronouced TROM-beh-nick, is an irresponsible guy who’s not working and is a swinger or a playboy. He has no visible source of income. He’s a bum, he’s no good, and usually he’s having a much better time than anybody else.
Billik, pronounced BILL-ick, means “cheap” or “inexpensive.” It’s used in the saying, “Billik vi birsht!,” which means “cheap as beet soup.” The greatest fear a Jew has is that he should pay a regular price for anything. Jewish wives are always saving their husbands millions of dollars thinking, it’s not how much you spend, it’s how much you saved.
These are just a few Yiddish words that I picked out since you can probably find a yenta (busybody), or a mensh (a real gentleman), or even a schmuck (jerk) in any senior center or retirement community in town. So, if you’re so inclined, I encourage you to keep building your Yiddish vocabulary. There are some 500 Yiddish and Hebrew words in the English dictionary. You’ll be sharpening your mind. Shalom (goodbye) for now.
Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.