Arts & Culture


In the Bible, "shibboleth" was the test password used by the Gileadites to sift out the enemy Ephraimites, who could not pronounce the ‘sh’ sound. The word "shibboleth" in Hebrew originally meant stream or flood, but in English it’s taken … Read More

By / December 24, 2008

In the Bible, "shibboleth" was the test password used by the Gileadites to sift out the enemy Ephraimites, who could not pronounce the ‘sh’ sound. The word "shibboleth" in Hebrew originally meant stream or flood, but in English it’s taken on the meaning of being an empty phrase, or jargon, or a truism that a specific group adheres to. In the internet world, various programs that authenticate identity and provide privacy and security for users contain "shibboleth" as part of their moniker. I love the way the word began as one thing but then, like a stream, it twists and turns, its original meaning disappearing in the tides of history and washing ashore in an artificial, manmade world, the worldwide web. Here on the Upper West Side, there are any number of words whose pronunciations give away my Midwestern origin. I say "insurance," "perfume," and "umbrella" with the emphasis on the first syllable, which induces cringes from my East Coast friends. Every letter in "foliage" is dutifully pronounced – "fol-ee-aj" though that might be more of a personal quirk. The days of the week go like this: Mondee, Tuesdee, Wednesdee, Thursdee and then Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Brilliant minds have attempted to offer an explanation as to why the long weekend gets full value; it remains a linguistic mystery. The ability to sprinkle Yiddishisms into everyday conversation also serves as a Gileadite-like shibboleth, defining one as being from the Tribe born–or perhaps not. (A West coast Jewish friend has argued that using Yiddish is more a shibboleth for being a New Yorker than a Jewish/non-Jewish thing.) Over the years I’ve absorbed Yiddish words that I comfortably and even unconsciously slip into my every day speech. Sometimes, to listen to me you’d think I was a bubbe from Brooklyn. Last week, my friend, Eva, was reading a proposed toast to me over the phone, and I impatiently interrupted, "Eva, nobody has the spilkes for this!" While spilkes means "pins and needles" having "spilkes" is shorthand for how one feels when sitting on pins and needles–lacking patience.

Certain Yiddish words appear fairly regularly in my daily discourse, because they convey untranslateable qualities, (what’s the English equivalent of nudnick?) and also because they slide so easily and satisfyingly off the tongue–shmear and shmate and schmooze and shtick and shlep and schvach (Eva’s estimation of her speech). I’m also quite fond of the "far" words–farklempt (overwrought), farkokht (full of it, or crazy), farbissener (a sourpuss), fartumelt and farmisht (mixed-up)–are some of my favorites. Then, there are other, colorful but less well-known Yiddish words that I am happy to be introduced to. My husband’s cousin Ranaana can employ the perfect Yiddish adjective for just about anyone or any situation. This past summer at a wedding, we whispered to one another throughout the ceremony in that badly mannered way that so many of us have cultivated, (timed to coincide with when the rabbi gets up to speak or when a blessing is being made. No Christian would dream of such impropriety in a sacred space, and thus the behavior itself can serve as yet another shibboleth). Behind her hand, Ranaana mouthed, "He’s so farchlopt!" Explanation: madly in love. Another guest she described as "farblonjet"– hopelessly confused My friend, Judy, will complain that she’s "farjunkt and farbludgeoned" talks about her big "schleperei" to New Jersey, and has nicknamed her messy son "Schmutzer." Leslie will call to ask if I want to go "farfumfing" around, while lunch with her results in her being "farschmeared and farschmutzed." For a while, I thought these were legitimate Yiddish words, but then discovered that they’d made them up, a sign of being truly comfortable and confident in one’s language. Neither Judy nor Leslie has to prove her Gileadite status. There are bigger, longer, more involved shibboleth, and one of the most subtle of them is the joke. Jokes rely on being an insider, on the unspoken being understood. I’d never heard a Jewish joke until I went to Israel at the age of 19, and I didn’t get them or think they were very funny for quite some time. One of the first, most unfunny Jewish jokes I encountered was told by my roommate, Talya. A Frenchman, an Italian and a Jew were taking English classes and they had to write an essay about an elephant. The Frenchman wrote about the elephant and love; the Italian wrote about the elephant and food; and the Jew wrote, ‘The elephant and the Jewish question!’ Talya was laughing so hard when she delivered the punch line that she was almost incomprehensible. Coming from Indiana, most of my jokes included a farmer’s daughter, a Polock (politically incorrect term for Polish person) or a Kentuckian, which were equally unfunny to my Jewish friends. Nonetheless, to this day, there are a few that have me gasping for air, they’re so hysterical. Did you hear about the zoo they’re building in Indiana? They’re putting a fence around Kentucky. The phrases I grew up with in Indiana and those I’ve become accustomed to here in New York City are almost visually different – From your mouth to God’s ears, my Jewish friends will say, and when I hear that phrase, I can practically see their words spewing from their mouths and drifting into the ether to God’s ears. Meanwhile, on a visit to my family in Indiana a while back, my father described the United Nations as being "as useless as tits on a boar hog." This mental image of a boar hog with tits juxtaposed with the sober men and women of the United Nations made me giggle. My children were absolutely perplexed, which required me to offer an anatomical explanation of boars. "Tits on a boar hog" was a shibboleth that gave my children away as Ephraimites. Language connects us to our home, and to the waters of the womb in which we once swam; it marks our personal changes, it offers evidence of whom we’ve been hanging out with and where we’ve travelled; language is a shibboleth in the original sense of the word: a stream that merges a Kentucky zoo with a farklempt wannabe bubbe from Brooklyn.