Words You Should Know From

Appendix A of Judaism For Dummies is chock full o' words that you should know, from Shlemiel to Shlemazl, from Tikkun to Yom Tov. Here are a selection of words from that list (sometimes with more detail than we could include in the book) as well as a number of others that we weren't able to shoehorn into our limited pages.

Baal Teshuvah. Literally, Baal Teshuvah means a "master of return" or "master of re-centering." While traditionally all Jews would have strived for this, today it's a term is applied to Jews who have returned to very traditional observance, usually from a place of little or no Jewish observance at all. Baalei Teshuvah (the plural) are often seen as "born-again Jews."

Bagels and lox. Over the past 20 years, ring-shaped, doughy bagels have transformed from a Jewish delicacy into part of mainline American culture. Bagels are traditionally served with a schmere of cream cheese, red onions, and a pile of smoked salmon. By the way, the oily, thinly-sliced smoked salmon that almost everyone calls "lox" is actually called "nova." Regular "lox" is cured in a brine solution but may or may not be smoked; nova is cured and then cold-smoked (so it stays oily and moist); hot-smoked "kippered" salmon has a stronger taste, is flakey and, while excellent, is less standard for bagels.

Many bagel stores also sell something called a bialy (short for Bialystok, a city in Poland). Where bagels are usually boiled and then baked, bialys are just baked and often don't have a hole in the middle. Because the bagel has become so Americanized (with bizarre—though popular—abberations such as blueberry breakfast bagels, sweet dessert bagels, and designer pizza bagels), you can distinguish yourself as a "Real Jew" by kvetching "You just can't get real bagels anymore." Legend has it that bagels were invented in the 17th century by a baker commemorating the defeat of the Turkish army by the King of Poland. The shape? It's the shape of a stirrup on a horse's saddle.

Chabad. Several sects grew out of the original Hasidic movement founded by the Ba'al Shem Tov (see Chapter 26) in the late eighteenth century, but the one you're most likely to run into is the Chabad Lubavitchers. (Some people say "Chabad," others say "Lubavitcher,"and many mush them together.) The word Chabad derives from the initials of Chochmah, Binah, and Da'at — three of the names attached to the Kabbalistic Tree of Life (see Chapter 5) and which relate to a more intellectual approach to the world. Appropriately, the Chabad movement tends to be intellectually focused and has had a major presence on college campuses for many years.

For instance, Lubavitchers often drive around in a "mitzvah mobile," announcing the appropriate times for lighting Shabbat candles through loudspeakers. They'll stop men who look Jewish and ask them, "Are you Jewish?" If they are, they then ask, "Have you put on tefillin today?" If they haven't, they're invited into the van where another Chasid will wrap the tefillin on arm and head and teach the appropriate blessings (see Chapter 4). If you're a woman, they might ask ,"Do you light Shabbat candles?" If you don't, they will often provide a pair of candlesticks. Like many other ultra-orthodox traditions, Chabad adherants dress in black suits (as opposed to the black robes associated with 18th century nobility that many other Chasidic sects wear). Note that many Chabad members are becoming increasingly focused on the imminent coming of the messiah (mashiach), or believe that the late Rebbe Schneersohn was the messiah (see "People You Should Know," later in this chapter).

Entebbe. While Americans remember July 4 as "Independence Day," Jews will remember July 4, 1976 for what happened in Entebbe, Uganda. Several days earlier, German and Arab terrorists had hijacked an Air France flight to Uganda, where they separated Jews from non-Jews and announced that they would kill all the Jews unless Israel and other countries released 53 jailed Palestinian "freedom fighters." Uganda's dictator, Idi Amin, as an open admirer of Adolf Hitler, had no interest in freeing the Jews. Israel, while negotiating with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), developed a plan to free the hostages. The rescue was astonishingly swift and deadly (for the terrorists), and in less than an hour after the arrival of the Israeli army, the Jewish hostages were on a plane out of the country. Unfortunately, three hostages and the leader of the Israeli forces were killed during the operation, including Yoni Netanyahu, brother of the future Prime Minister Benjamin.

Golem. Form some dirt into a human shape, say the right incantations, and you may find yourself with a golem on your hands: a "living" creature with no soul. The idea of a golem was first discussed in the Talmud (which says that Adam was a golem before receiving his soul), but the most famous of these imaginary creatures is the seventeenth-century Golem of Prague, who became the superhuman protector of the Jews, bringing antisemitic criminals to justice.

By the 19th century, the golem was a favorite character in Eastern European literature (not to mention the parental adage, "Do what I say or the golem will get you"), and may have inspired Mary Shelly to write Frankenstein. More recently, the word golem is simply used to describe someone who is clumsy, robotic, or slow-moving.

Havurah. There's nothing wrong with big Jewish congregations, and sometimes it's fun to be immersed in such a large group of Jews; however, if you like the idea of participating in a smaller group, you might look into joining a havurah (sometimes spelled Chavurah) in your town. Started by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism), the idea of a havurah is to encourage experimentation and a greater sense of community within a smaller group, as opposed to a synagogue. The concept really took off in the 1960s and 1970s, and now there are both "stand-alone" neighborhood havurot and havurot within some synagogues (often with a special-interest slant, such as a gay and lesbian havurah, or a secular havurah), allowing people to have a more intimate setting while at the same time enjoying the benefits of a larger community.

Niggun. A niggun (pronounced "nih-GOON") is a melody without words. Or perhaps more accurately, a melody sung using "yai-dai-dai," "bim-bom," or some other equally universal sounds, rather than words. Used particularly in more mystically inclined Hasidic traditions for prayer, celebration, or sometimes even just a warm-up to other songs, the niggun was traditionally seen as a melody on which the soul could be lifted to higher dimensions of spiritual experience. The niggun was popularized in American culture during the 1960s and 1970s by roving troubadors like Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and later by his student Rabbi David Zeller.

Peyos. One of the most common questions about Judaism is "What are those long locks of hair dangling from the sides of a Hasid's head?" These are peyos (or the Sephardic pronunciation, peyot). Leviticus 19:27 says "You shall not round the corners of your heads, nor shall you mar the corners of your beard." Some traditional Jews (typically the Ultra-Orthodox) interpret this to mean that men shouldn't be clean-shaven or cut off the hair around the temples.

Shabbaton. A program of education (and usually celebration, too) that is held on a Shabbat (usually during the day on Saturday).

S'michah. Literally a "laying on of hands," s'michah is a way of conferring the authority of leadership from one person to another. First seen in Moses' transferring leadership of the Hebrews to Joshua just prior to entering the Holy Land, s'micha now refers to ordaining rabbis (where the laying on of hands is still performed).

Shtetl. The small towns of Eastern Europe where most Jews lived were called shtetls. (the plural of shtetl is actually shteltlakh, but few English-speakers use that anymore), similar to the shtetl made famous in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Life in the shtetl was hard — citizens were typically poor, and the towns were targeted for pogroms —but in those often tight-knit communities, the Jews generally helped each other throughout their difficulties.

Shylock. It's difficult for some Jews to deal with the fact that the most famous writer in the English language — William Shakespeare — would write a play in which a Jewish man is depicted as a greedy loan shark. The sixteenth-century play is The Merchant of Venice, and the title character is Shylock, who is villified and condemned by nobility and commoner alike. Scholars have debated for years on whether this play is anti-Semitic or actually shows up the hypocrisy of anti-Semites. The answer may well be "both." However, Shylock's most famous speech makes it clear that Shakespeare meant to show the humanity of the Jewish people in England at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant:

"If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"

Ultimately, the way the play is interpreted depends greatly on the production you see. David saw a particularly disturbing production of Merchant performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in England in which many of the actors actually spit on the man playing Shylock throughout the play as they yelled "Jew."

Tzaddik. Growing up, David thought a tzaddik was a step up from a rabbi, like a bishop is to a priest. It's not surprising, we suppose; while tzaddik literally means a "righteous person," it tends to be applied to people who are like saints or gurus. The Chasidim have long used the term to mean a sect's chief rabbi and leader, one who not only is wise and learned, but is seen as holier or more God-aware than his fellows.

Yiddish, Yinglish, Oy!

For those of us who grew up in an English-speaking country, it may be hard to understand that many (perhaps most) people in the world naturally learn more than one language. For most of the past five hundred years, it would not have been uncommon for the Jews in Eastern Europe to be able to read and speak Hebrew during religious teaching or practice; speak Polish, German, or Russian to their non-Jewish neighbors; and to speak Yiddish to each other. Yiddish was the language of the street, of business, and in the home.

You might also hear Yiddish called "Jewish" (meaning the "Jewish language"). Don't be fooled: this is akin to saying Moslems speak "Moslem" or Baptists speak "Baptist." The misunderstanding is not surprising, however, as Yiddish literally means "Jewish," and a yid in Yiddish is a Jew. (However, in Yiddish, it's often pronounced "yeed," not "yid," the term that anti-semites have long used.)

In 1904, when the first Sephardic Jews arrived in Seattle (where we live), few people in the Ashkenazi community believed that they were Jewish. Jews that didn't speak Yiddish? It seemed outrageous! What Jews (and non-Jews) didn't understand (and sometimes still don't) is that Yiddish developed in Eastern Europe, so even in the heyday of the language, millions of Sephardic Jews had no connection to Yiddish at all.

Today, very few Jews can read, understand, or speak Yiddish anymore. It's sad because Yiddish is an extraordinary language which contains words and ideas that are difficult to express in English or any other language.

Yiddish, the language which will ever bear witness to the violence and murder inflicted on us, bears the marks of our expulsions from land to land, the language which absorbed the wails of the fathers, the laments of the generations, the poison and bitterness of history, the language whose precious jewels are undried, uncongealed Jewish tears.

—I. L. Peretz

Goy. If a non-Jew is a goy, then something not Jewish is goyish. However, goyish doesn't necessarily have anything to do with religion. Lenny Bruce, a well-known Jewish comedian from the 1960s, tried to explain in this way:

If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn't matter even if you're Catholic; if you live in New York, you're Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you're going to be goyish even if you're Jewish.

Kool-Aid is goyish. Evaporated milk is goyish even if the Jews invented it. Chocolate is Jewish and fudge is goyish. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish.

All Drake's Cakes are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish and, as you know, white bread is very goyish. Instant potatoes, goyish. Black cherry soda's very Jewish, macaroons are very Jewish.

Ladino: Talkin' Sephardic

Where the Ashkenazim of Eastern Europe mixed and matched languages (Hebrew, German, Slavic, and so on) to form Yiddish, the Sephardim of Spain and the Mediterranean countries built a completely different language called Ladino (also called Judezmo, Dzhudezmo, or Spaniolit). Ladino was originally a mixture of just Spanish and Hebrew, but after the explulsion from Spain in 1492 (see Chapter 8: From Exile to Enlightenment), the language evolved and expanded to include words from Turkish, Greek, French, Italian, and Portuguese.

For the Jews of Spain, Portugal, and the Ottoman Empire, Ladino was the language of business and home life for over 400 years. Usually written in Rashi script (a stylized Hebrew typeface, also known as Rabbinical Hebrew, with which almost all rabbinic texts have traditionally been printed), Ladino mirrored the same sensibilities and feelings as Yiddish, but with a decidedly Latin flair. Here are a few Ladino phrases you can use to impress people:

  • Dos Judiyos, tres kehilot. ("Two Jews, three opinions.") Here, the first three words are Spanish, and the last is Hebrew, literally "communities."
  • Bien darsha el senior chacham como ay ken ke lo sienta. ("The rabbi preaches well as if anyone were listening.") Here, chacham means "rabbi" or "wise person," and the verb darshar is from the Hebrew drash for "sermon."
  • Buen moed. ("Good holiday"). Where Yiddish merges the Hebrew phrase yom tov ("good day") to create yontif, Ladino mixes the Spanish buen ("good") with the Hebrew moed, which literally means "meeting," for the same greeting.
  • De bene amenu es? ("Is he one of us?" meaning, "is he Jewish?") Take two words from Spanish (de and es) and two words from Hebrew (bene and amenu) and you have a perfect Ladino phrase.

Unfortunately, Ladino is hardly spoken by anyone anymore (probably fewer than 100,000 people worldwide) and scholars have classified it as a dying language. We're lucky to live in Seattle, one of the few places outside of Israel to have a Ladino-speaking community. However, remember that even though Ladino is a Sephardic language, many Sephardim don't understand it. This is especially true for Sephardim from North Africa and the Middle East, many of whom grew up speaking a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic (sometimes called Haketia).