Arts & Culture

Ich Bin Ein Bestseller

What a difference a half-century makes. Fifty years ago, Germans were pulling out my relatives’ gold fillings with a vise grip; today, they are sending me and every other Jewish writer they can find large certified checks for the right … Read More

By / March 25, 2007

What a difference a half-century makes. Fifty years ago, Germans were pulling out my relatives’ gold fillings with a vise grip; today, they are sending me and every other Jewish writer they can find large certified checks for the right to publish us in Germany. (I'd ironically ask for my payment in gold, but the gold market is hot right now, and I'm afraid they'd non-ironically "Jew" me down to bronze.)

Man plans, goes the expression, and God laughs.

Novels, short stories, plays, poetry collectionsin Germany, Jewish is the new black. Guilt? Morbid fascination? A quest for understanding and healing? Who knows? If Ahmadinejad drops a nuke on Tel Aviv, will Iran be a hot market for Jewish writers in fifty years? Ja, it vill. This is our threat, this is our Jewish finger in the chest of the world: Kill us now, assholes, but you'll be reading us tomorrow. Ovens in 1942, bestseller lists in 2007.

And so, a few months ago, as my own book Beware of God was being translated for the German market, my editor asked if I would agree to compose a small glossary, special for the German edition, to define some of the less-common Jewish words.

I resisted. I'm all for a mea culpa stage, but Germans are getting perilously close to masochism at this point. And from what the internet has taught me, I worry that this might be getting them hotno judgments, of course, but I'm as disinterested in being the pooper as I am in being the poopee. So I planned on humoring my editor, hoping that after seeing my glossary, his better judgment would prevail. When he sent me a list of words he thought should be included, I sent back a list of definitions I thought he would never use.

I was wrong.

Man plans, and God laughs.

"I have to give you Germans credit," I said.

"I'm Swiss," he replied.

More laughter.

Here is the glossary as it appears in the German edition of Beware of God.


Bar Mitzvah: The ceremony marking a Jewish male’s 13th birthday, literally “one to whom the commandments apply.” Less literally, “a lavish, catered party, utterly bereft of spirituality, designed to impress friends and neighbors.” You get good gifts, though.

Bat Mitzvah: Same as above, with twelve-year old girls and crappy gifts.

Goy: Non-Jewish male.

Shiksa: Non-Jewish female. Also, “hot.”

Torah: The first Five Books of Moses. Rated M for Mature.

Daven: Yiddish, to pray.

Kosher: 1) Meat, elaborately slaughtered and exorbitantly overpriced. 2) adj, overpriced, with sweaty waiters and a poor wine list.

Treyf: 1) Non-kosher, as in “That food was treyf.” 2) Libertine, immoral, as in “Las Vegas is a treyf city.” 3) Oral sex with a non-Jew, as in “Don’t tell anyone, but I heard Chana Leah’s eating treyf these days.” (Note: That last one isn’t real, but it should be. Start using it.)

Shejgez: A ruffian goy. A hooligan non-Jew. Tommy Lee.

Kugel: A sweet noodle pie.

Kabbalah: The ancient Jewish study of mysticism, a poetic and lyrical celebration of myth and mystery whose true meaning and insight is unknowable except by a few advanced scholars of the ancient textsscholars who seek to understand nothing less than the question of our existence, the meaning of our lives, the nature of that light within us we call “soul.” Oh, and Madonna.

Yom Kippur: A chance for my mother to weep in public; also, the “Day of Atonement,” the holiest of Jewish holidays.

Feygele: Derived from the Yiddish for “little bird,” a disparaging appellation for a male homosexual, considered an abomination in the eyes of the Lord. There is no disparaging appellation for a lesbian, since they are really hot. In the eyes of the Lord, I mean.

Shul: Yiddish, synagogue.

Gehenna: Hell. See, Shul.

Nunchakus: An ancient Okinawan weapon popularized by Bruce Lee which my editor in Germany, reading this manuscript by the light of a lampshade made from the skin of my grandfather, has mistaken for another “funny Jiddish word” and asked me to include in the glossary. Work will set me free, my ass.

Sh’ma: One of the centerpieces of Jewish prayer, it is the repetition, every morning and evening, of Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear O Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is One,” a Biblically-ordained, twice daily “You da man!” to a God that clearly has more than a few self-esteem issues.

Mitzvah: A positive commandment.

Talmud: The basis for the Jewish Oral Law, a compilation of legal opinions and debates. A: Why did he use the word “Compilation?” Couldn’t he have just said, “The basis for the Oral Law made up of legal opinions and debates?” Why did he use the word “Compile?” B: To tell us that you should compile. A: Should we compile every day, or only on Saturday, as it is written, “Something, something, Saturday?” B: We should compile every day, as it is written, “Day.” C: We should never compile; compiling is forbidden.

Aveira: A sin.

Yeshiva: A Jewish madrasa, only with better hats, older books and less ammo.

Siddur: 1) The Jewish prayer book, circa France, 11th century; 2) Kindling material, circa Germany, 1938.

Shabbos, Shabbat: Saturday, the holy day of rest.

Kiddush: The traditional blessing of the wine before a Sabbath or holiday meal.

Cholent: A type of heavy, starchy stew that has simmered over a very low flame for many hours before being served on Sabbath, when it is believed something called the “extra soul” manifests itself in an increased capacity for Jews to consume more food. Doctors who perform something called “quadruple bypasses,” however, strongly disagree.

Parasha: "Portion" in Hebrew; the weekly Torah reading text selection.

Kippah, Yarmulke: A thin, slightly rounded skullcap worn by observant Jewish men. More commonly known among non-Jews as “the target.”

Tallith: A prayer shawl "cloak" that is worn during the morning Jewish services.

Tzitzit: "Fringes" or "tassels" worn by observant Jewish males as part of practicing Judaism. The fringe on each corner is made of four strands, each of which is made of eight fine threads. The four strands are put through the hole in the corner of the garment, thus making two sets of four threads (one set on each side of the hole). The two sets of stands are knotted together twice, and then the longest strand is wound around the remaining seven strands a number of times. The two sets are then knotted again twice. This procedure is repeated three times, such that there are a total of five knots, the four intervening spaces being taken up by windings numbering 7-8-11-13, respectively. The total number of winds comes to 39, which is the numerical equivalent of the words: "The Lord is One" (Deuteronomy 6:4). See also “Hocus Pocus.”

Rugelach: A Jewish pastry, therefore filled with self-loathing and guilt. Just kiddingit’s filled with raisins and chocolate.

Mishna: Hebrew,"repetition.” A major source of Judaism's religious texts.

Pesach: Passover, a Jewish holiday that commemorates the escape of the Jews from the slavery of Egypt into the bucolic, peaceful land of Israel. Nicely done, Moses. Schmuck.

Schmuck: Yiddish, idiot.

Seder: A special Jewish ritual meal which takes place on the first and second evenings of Passover. At the end of the Seder (Hebrew for “order”), we open the front door and welcome the Prophet Elijah into our homes, whereupon we pray aloud that he slaughter our enemies. Still waiting on that, then.

Hashem: God. Hebrew, “the name.” The giver of life, the belief in whom has led to countless deaths; the source of all truth, though that’s probably a lie; the All-Merciful who slaughters, the All-Forgiving who takes vengeance, the All-Knowing who needs constant praise. He Who Begat Us, and over whom We, enraptured and bleeding, Shall End Us. Halle-fucking-lujah.

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