In 1710, Queen Anne told Sir Christopher Wren— one of the greatest architects in history— that his renovation of St. Paul’s Cathedral was “awful, artificial and amusing.” He was thrilled with the compliment; today, she would have said his work was “awesome, artistic, and amazing.”
The meanings of words change. And the definitions we give to Jewish terms need to change, too. It seems that every book with a glossary of Jewish terms at the end, even ones published just a year ago, simply recycled it from one written in the 1940s in England. This is true for novels, memoirs, histories, textbooks, even cookbooks.
The message these hoary, cobweb-covered definitions sends to someone learning about Judaism is that our religion is outdated and foreign. That it is unrelatable and irrelevant. Exactly the opposite of the truth, and exactly the opposite of what these books are trying to do, which is speak to today’s readers in today’s terms. To encourage participation in today’s Jewish life by today’s Jews.
Calling Rosh Hashannah “The Jewish New Year,” or Yom Kippur “The Day of Atonement,” is fine, as is calling Chanukah “The Festival of Lights.” All are accurate in both their denotations and connotations. (But we could do without this “Feast of…” business. As if people didn’t already think of Jews as overly food-focused.)
Succot is usually translated as “Tabernacles.” First of all, no one knows what that word means. Why would we explain an unknown word with another unknown word? If someone doesn’t know what an “elephant” is, do we say “a pachyderm”? Second of all, it sounds like a joint disease: “Yup, storm’s a-brewin’… mah tabernacles‘re actin’ up.” The word is Latin for “tents.” But we don’t speak Latin and we don’t build tents on Succot, not in the current sense of a camping tent. In fact, that waterproof kind of tent would be an invalid succah.
Aside from Tabernacles, the holiday is called “The Festival of Booths.” That’s still not good enough. What’s a “booth”? There are no telephone booths in the day of the Blackberry, so we use that word to mean the seating in restaurants comprised of benches instead of chairs. Or a “booth” is a stand at a tradeshow.
The word we want is “hut.” A “hut” is a basic, fragile, unassuming dwelling made of materials at hand, often with a thatched roof. Which is what a succah is. Does the word “hut” sound primitive? Good, it should. It’s supposed to evoke life in the wilderness and fields, where the original succot were built. Why not— “Succot: The Festival of Huts.”
Shavuot is “The Festival of Weeks.” While this is an accurate translation of its name— it comes seven weeks after Passover— it sort of buries the lead. Which is that this is the holiday celebrating the Revelation of God at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the “Ten Commandments” (see below). Now, these are things most people have heard of, and have even seen the movie. If so, why have so few heard of the relevant holiday? It could have something to do with its wishy-washy name. Why not call Shavuot “The Festival of The Revelation,” since that is the headline of the story.
Calling Purim “The Festival of Lots” only prompts the obvious query: “Lots of what?” Well, no… Haman “cast lots” to determine the day on which to commit genocide on the Jews. But that’s such a minor point in the story— why even bother to update that translation to “Festival of Lotteries”? Why not call it “The Festival of Esther,” since she is the focus? Wouldn’t it be cool to be the religion with the party holiday that honors a heroic woman?
And Pesach, of course is “Passover.” Again, a minor plot element in the story becomes the name of the holiday. But in this case, “Passover” has so much name recognition it gets... well, a pass.
But why must we call “matzah” the “unleavened” bread? No one knows what that word means. No one ever uses that word in any other context. Even a kosher-for-Passover cake isn’t called an “unleavened cake.” What about calling matzah “yeast-less bread” or “yeast-free bread,” since that is the point.
On the subject of food, why must “kasha” be “buckwheat groats”? Why make people look up “kasha,” only to have to then look up “groats”? Why not “buckwheat grains,” or simply “buckwheat”? Kashe varnishkes: buckwheat and pasta. Done.
One Jewish food with a confusing definition is “kugel.” Almost unanimously, glossary-makers define this Britishly, as “pudding.” And, equally unanimously, Americans equate the word “pudding” with a custard-like dessert that mostly comes in ice cream-like flavors. I don’t want a Snak-Pak of potato pudding, do you? Or a Jell-O noodle pudding pop? So why do we call a potato kugel a “potato pudding?” A more contemporary definition of “kugel” would be “casserole.” It comes in a 13x9 Pyrex, just like tuna or green bean casserole. And if it must be “pudding,” then we should expand, helpfully: “pudding, as in bread or rice pudding.” Oh, that kind of pudding.
The most off-putting old definition of a Jewish food is that for kishka (a.k.a. kishke). This was—generations ago, oceans away— made by using a cow’s small intestine as a casing. Not for sausage, but for a seasoned, bready stuffing. Today, in this country, we use plastic or paper casings. In any case, the casing is never eaten anyway. Yet, kishka is always called “stuffed derma,” or “stuffed intestines,” which makes it sound like the Jewish equivalent of haggis. In fact, it is merely— and more accurately— “maztah-meal stuffing.” And if it’s not exactly healthy, it is quite tasty.
Meanwhile, what is “chopped liver,” chopped liver? Yeah, well… why can’t it be the much more sophisticated “paté”?
But perhaps the Jewish word with the most useless traditional definition is “tefillin” (teh-FILL-in). These are small leather boxes worn during morning prayers, held in place with leather straps. The source for this practice is the Torah itself, a passage that is part of the Shema prayer (Deuteronomy 6:8): “And you shall bind [these words] on your hands, and they shall be amulets between your eyes” (my translation).
Anyway, these things are almost always defined in glossaries as “phylacteries,” a word which nobody even knows how to pronounce, let alone comprehend. Why not save everyone the trouble and define “tefillin” as “leather, parchment-filled boxes worn by Jews during morning prayers.” Yes, that’s a mouthful, but at least that’s what they are, presented in words everyone can comprehend.
Some other ones:
—The word “mitzvah” may mean “good deed” in slang, but literally means “commandment.”
—So yes, “Aseret HaDibrot,” is more accurately rendered not “The Ten Commandments” but “The Ten Declarations.” For those of you who have long held that the first of the Ten is more of a “statement” than a “commandment,” well, sure… Hebrew speakers never called them all “commandments” in the first place!
— Instead of saying that we “chant” the Torah or prayers, can we please say that we “recite” them? “Chanting” sounds savage, witchy, and thudding. But we “recite” poems, and play piano at “recitals,” so that word is much more enlightened and melodic. The prayers are largely Psalms, written by King David and other poets, to be sung by the Levites in the Holy Temple. They are not “chants” grunted by a men’s encounter group in the woods or shouted by angry protesters.
We Jews are a minority, and our ways are esoteric and ancient enough; these archaic definitions create another barrier to those exploring our already-challenging world. Our clinging to outdated definitions is additionally off-putting— intellectually and emotionally— to those who want to know more about Judaism. But with new definitions, we Jews can stop seeming “awful, artificial, and amusing”.... and start coming across as we are— awesome, artistic, and amazing.
The Glossary of Jewish Terms I wrote for JUF’s website, www.juf.org, is here. Last I checked, it was being used by the Federations for 40 US cities, states, and regions, as well as sites based in Canada and the UK. In compiling the Glossary, I strived to make the definitions relevant to today’s speakers and readers. Feel free to let me know how I did.