Family & Education

Diary of a semi-shiksa: The chutzpah of the faux Yiddish

Zelda Leon's quest to join the tribe


We are off to a barmitzvah on the frummy side of The Husband’s family, so I don a posh hat and a smart frock. I prefer the jocular “frummy” to “frum”, which always sounds a bit sniffy as if to imply not just “observant” but “more observant than really necessary”.

“You look very balabatishe,” Ben pronounces.

I’m about to swipe him with a handy tea-towel when he explains that this is a good thing: it means I look respectable, traditional, well-mannered. So at last I can pass for a proper Jewish woman! This is wonderful progress. The next thing you know, I will be having regular manicures, straightening my hair, and cooking for 18 people every Friday night without breaking a sweat.

It sets me thinking about Jewish/Yiddish words — ones like bagel that have so passed into the mainstream that they are used by non-Jews without affectation, and others like balabatishe that haven’t. Recently, The Husband went to an evening work do and reported that the speaker (a well-known non-Jewish TV presenter) used the word chutzpah four times in his speech — and pronounced it four different ways: chuts-par, choots-par, chuts-pah, choots-pah — never once managing the correct, throaty “kh” sound that is so characteristic.

Standing in the queue at the bakery on a Friday, I’m fascinated by the variety of pronunciations just of the word that I call chollah, some going for the Hebrew khall-ah, some khull-ah, some chollah, with the “ch” as in church, and many avoiding it altogether by simply asking for “two medium” or “one large”.

I am buttering a nice, thick slice of the very same when my old friend Thalia rings me up to ask a vital question: “Do you say bagel or beigel (bay-gel or buy-gel)?”

“Bay-gel, of course.”

To me, beigel sounds quite East End, but what do I know? I confer with The Husband, who knoweth all things, at least when it comes to nosherei.

“Litvaks say bagel, Polacks say beigel,” he pronounces (his ancestry is half-Lithuanian, half-Polish, so by me he is an expert). “But the other night I dreamed I was in the bakery asking for an onion boy-gel.”

Do non-Jews dream about food so much, I wonder?

“Then this morning I googled it and — guess what? It used to be boy-gel! In Poland, people called them boy-gels.”

We are incredibly competitive about almost everything so I have to look it up in my personal bible, The New Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten. It explains that the word bagel comes from the German Beugel (which would be pronounced boy-gel — I’m no linguist but I’m not going to starve when I travel). So, German, not Polish. I win. Even though I hadn’t actually said that, but at least he isn’t right, which is all that matters. When we watch University Challenge, we actually keep a written tally of how many answers we each get correct.

A friend whose kids are at a Jewish school, says the non-Jewish Head sprinkles his speeches with Yiddish words. I am intrigued: Is he doing it to put the pupils at their ease? To show that he feels part of the community? Or is he trying too hard — like when I use some word I think is young and hip only to earn a look of utter derision from my son because it’s now defunct? I think the Head must be rather brave.

I cringe when I hear some very WASP person use a Yiddish word, such as schlep. At a recent dinner, the rather posh, non-Jewish wife of a Jewish friend said, with a braying laugh, “Then this awful old alter kaker came in…..”. It annoyed me, not just because of the tautology of old followed by alter, which had me holding my fork like a dart ready to aim and fire if she said it again, but I also felt outraged that she was trying to purloin Yiddish words when she wasn’t entitled. The chutzpah of it!

I’ve barely expanded my own Yiddish/Jewish vocabulary since I was about 10; I’m still restricting myself to the same handful of words my dad favoured: chutzpah, schlep, shul, chollah, nebbish, schmuck, tsimmes (in its figurative sense), tchotchkes (my personal favourite), fress, plus his favourite, meshuggeh. I love it, too; it has so many more facets to it than just plain “crazy”, a suggestion that there is something to relish in the bonkersness of others that is quite missing from the English equivalent.

I know many more words than this but am wary of using them. And I suddenly click that it’s because I fear proper Jews will judge me just as I’m judging the posh English woman. They’ll think I’m trying to be more Jewish than I have a right to be. So much for my imagined progress.

The doorbell rings and it’s my brother-in-law, come to pick us up to go to the frummy barmitzvah.

“Ooh!” he says, “Don’t you look balabatishe!”

Perhaps there’s hope for me after all…


Zelda Leon is half-Jewish by birth then did half a conversion course as an adult (half-measures in all things….) to affirm her Jewish status before a Rabbinical Board. She is a member of a Reform synagogue.

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