Every culture has its irreplaceable slang, and Yiddish-speaking Jews are no exception. Yiddish, the primary language spoken by Jews in central and eastern Europe before World War II, is an old German dialect with an incorporated smattering of Hebrew, Turkish, Russian, Polish, and more. Only particular Chassidic groups still speak it as their mama loshon, or mother tongue, but Yiddish phrases continue to pepper the everyday language of many Jewish communities with European heritage (Ashkenazi).
Today, we can wish ourselves a hearty mazel tov on words like oy and shlep making their way into the great melting pot of the American lexicon. But growing up around Yiddish-English (or Yinglish), there are so many other Yiddish words without perfect English translations that I just couldn’t live without.
Nachas is the joy you feel over the achievements of someone close to you, because you’re so connected with that person, that it’s as if the accomplishment is yours. It’s often translated as pride, but it’s much more personal – an individual pleasure derived from someone else’s success. You’ll most often hear it in the Yinglish phrase shepping nachas, which literally means “scooping up” nachas.
To kvell is essentially the same phrase, in handy verb form. It means to actively express nachas.
Example: When my friend got her PhD, I was hardcore kvelling. Her parents must be shepping nachas.
Yiddish is full of juicy descriptive adjectives, and geshmak is a perfect example. Urban Dictionary translates geshmak as Yiddish for “the bomb.”
It literally means “tasty” or “yummy.” But, in biblical Hebrew, the word for “taste” is actually the same as the word for “meaning.” So, while geshmak can refer to food, it more often refers to something that struck you as so meaningful that you just ate it up: a song, a poem, etc. Orthodox Jews, for example, will describe a particularly inspiring commentary on Torah as geshmak.
Example: I heard the most geshmak spoken word piece at the poetry reading last night.
Heymish is another fun Yiddish adjective, meaning homey and cozy or rustic and unpretentious. If something feels simple and familiar and gives you all the warm-fuzzy feels, it’s heymish.
Example: Little family-owned coffee shops can feel more heymish than Starbucks.
Davka means “only” or “specifically.” It can be literal, but it also usually come with an undertone of exasperation or sarcasm. To “davka do…” fill-in-the-blank can mean 1) to be over-specific or choosy about something or 2) to do some kind of needling behavior, intentionally or unintentionally, at the most inconvenient time possible. The word davka often comes with a slight eye roll.
Examples: My friend asked me to set her up on a blind date, but she davka refuses to date anyone who isn’t 5’10 and a half inches tall from Reykjavik, Iceland with a goatee.
I davka talk about the New York Yankees’ past wins when my friend, a Boston Red Sox fan, is around.
A mensch is an all-around decent, stand-up human being. It describes a person of integrity, someone simply known for being nice.
Example: A stranger stopped to help me change my tire. What a mensch.
Mamish is the cornerstone of Yiddish hyperbole, that catch-all word people use just for emphasis. The best English equivalent might be “very,” “actually,” or “for real.” You can use it anywhere in a sentence – or as an emphatic exclamation at the end of a sentence – just to add a little extra oomph to whatever you’re saying. Mamish is to Yiddish speakers what “totally” is to Elle Woods in Legally Blonde.
Example: I was mamish confused by that math problem, but my classmate is mamish a mensch and explained it to me.
Shtick is a gimmick or comedic routine. But the term also broadly refers to anything a person is known for: a habit, an idiosyncrasy, an area of interest, a talent, or a hobby. Even if a person’s shtick refers to something negative, it’s a light-hearted term – a verbal good-natured shrug that says, “This is a part of who this person is. You’ve just gotta deal.”
Example: She insists black cats are bad luck and avoids them at all costs. Whatever, that’s her shtick.
Bubkes literally means “beans” or, more colorfully, “goat droppings.” But it’s really a synonym for “nothing” or a disappointing amount of something.
Example: Interns often work for bubkes to gain professional experience.
9. Gay ga zinta hate
Gay ga zinta hate is a phrase meaning “Go in good health.” While it can be said in lieu of goodbye, it’s more often used ironically to mean something along the lines of “go for it,” “you do you,” or “knock yourself out.”
Example: If you want to become an astronaut, gay ga zinta hate. What’s stopping you?
While actually a purely Hebrew word, hashkafa has thankfully made its way into Yinglish slang. A term commonly used by Orthodox Jews, hashkafa refers to an individual’s specific worldview or outlook. It’s the philosophy by which a person chooses to live, the perspective or framework that guides daily decisions.
Example: The Tempest has a diverse team that shares a progressive, feminist hashkafa.