Pardon me: Your Yiddish is showing

Singing 'Shake your tuchas!' and celebrating the wonders of Jewish cultural diversity in Israel

Israelis are givers. I was outside watching my kids play when one of my new neighbors came over with a fork and a dream. Her goal was to get me to eat some of the schnitzel she had just made, because, as she put it, “I have stumbled upon the secret of complete schnitzelness, and you can achieve nirvana simply by eating a bite of this!” At least, I think that’s what she was trying to say. My Hebrew is still pretty bad, but I think I caught the hand gesture for “redemptive chicken”.

I’m weird about food. I still get kind of grossed out when foods of a different color or consistency are touching on my plate. I don’t like eating in front of other people unless there are several other people who are also partaking. And I don’t like taking bites of other people’s food. If you want to feed me, you need to have an organized plan, like a party. That’s why I enjoy being a guest for Pesach, since there are clear delineations between each food. Of course, that’s obviously not the only reason… I also happen to like the extra tasty matzot some families reserve for guests.

“Where’d you get this brand? It’s got a hint of cinnamon that goes nicely with the corrugated texture.”

So, when my neighbor ambushed me with the schnitzel equivalent of the Holy Grail (Holy Quail?), I thought fast. “I don’t know if I want to be fleishig,” I said apologetically.

My neighbor gave me a blank stare. Clearly, she had no idea of what I was talking about. My one Anglo neighbor was also out watching her grandson and told me, “Most Israelis around here don’t understand Yiddish.” She explained to the chicken bringer that I didn’t want to be basari, and I was given a nod, a smile, and a pat on the head, after which she wandered off to convert the neighborhood to the ways of seasoned breading.

My Anglo neighbor explained that since our neighborhood was very Sephardi, most of the people hadn’t heard a lot of Yiddish growing up, and that, in addition, since I looked more Ethiopian (no, I don’t look Ethiopian at all, but Israelis have boxes for everything, and if they don’t have an exact box for you, they put you in the nearest box that fits, so American olim of African descent by way of a slave ship 250 years ago are sometimes expected to act more like Ethiopians than is typically the case) than Polish, they weren’t expecting me to break out with words like fleishigs, milchigs, and verklempt.

I thought about this and realized that I hadn’t heard “Gut Shabbos” or “Sie gesund” in a while, which is a big change from my life in America, or even from when I lived in Israel in an area with more English speakers. The community in Detroit where I converted was influenced heavily by Lithuanian Yeshivish minhagim, so I naturally picked up a bissel or two of phrases that now come out automatically. Sometimes, I don’t even know what the word is in English for what I’m trying to say.

However, thanks to this realization, I immediately felt a little better, because now I understood why people were looking at me so strangely when I was singing “Shake your tuchas!” at the top of my lungs while walking home from the train station. And here I was worrying that they thought I was crazy, when they just didn’t understand Yiddish. What a relief!

One of the things I love about living in Israeli is the ability to slip some Yiddish into the conversation I’m having with the Russian speaker running the after school program for the kids who speak half the time in Hebrew and half in Amharic. So, to celebrate the wonders of Jewish cultural diversity, I’m thinking of finding that neighbor and asking her to share her groundbreaking schnitzel recipe with me. But I think I’ll hold off for a few weeks. I mean, now it’s almost time for me to start getting things pesachdik.

About the Author
Malynnda Littky made aliyah to Israel with her family in 2007 from Oak Park, Michigan. Her recent stay in Paris, enjoying both medical tourism and her new status as the trophy wife of a research economist, has renewed her love for Israel, despite arriving just in time to enjoy several weeks of lockdown.