In our last edition, I listed as many Yiddish insults as I could, to illustrate the amazing precision with which Yiddish is able to find fault. To balance that, this time we will look at the many ways Yiddish has to say something nice about someone…
Aishet Chayil: Today, the term “woman of valor” is reserved for women who are activists, philanthropists, and community leaders… even if the text of the 33rd chapter of Proverbs praises a homemaker extraordinaire, a Martha Stewart type, as exemplary.
Badchan: This the high-spirited, genial, clever emcee of a Jewish wedding reception, who moves the guests from one aspect of the event to the next, calls up those who are to speak, and generally keeps the party rolling. Can be generalized to a skilled host of, say, the Oscars.
Balebus: From the Hebrew “ba’al habayit,” or “master of the house,” and pronounced “Bahl-a-BUS.” This is a gracious, welcoming, and considerate host.
Ba’alabusteh: The female equivalent, a hostess. But this term is usually reserved as extremely high praise, for “the hostess with the mostest.”
Berye: A virtuoso, an absolute master of one’s art or craft.
Boychik: An Americanism, meaning a cute little boy.
B’shert: One’s predestined, fated soulmate.
Bubbeleh: One of the most endearing terms of endearment ever, it literally means “little doll.”
Chavruta: One’s Talmud study-buddy, who often becomes one’s BFF.
Chochom: From the Hebrew word for “wisdom,” a sage.
Gaon: A title of high respect reserved for the great Talmud scholars and yeshiva heads of the age.
Gadol Hador: Literally meaning “great of the generation,” one whose scholarship is combined with a moral rectitude that causes this person to be considered a true leader, a shining light.
Kemfer: Literally, a fighter… but one who fights for a cause; an activist.
Lamed Vovnik: “One of the 36.” Jewish tradition has it that the world is allowed to exist due to the merits of 36 living individuals. No one knows who they are, so it is incumbent upon us to treat everyone— no matter how insignificant they may seem to us— as one of these 36. One is called a “Lamed Vovnik” if their actions are so pious as to make it obvious that they must be one of the 36.
Landsman: Someone from the same part of the Old Country as you are. But one is called that as a compliment if he or she helps you on that merit alone, and is otherwise a stranger.
Macher: It means “maker,” but an English equivalent might be “a mover and a shaker.” One, often pillar of the community, who can “make a few calls” and make major things happen.
Mayven: An expert, a “go-to” person on a particular subject. Often used as an insult for a know-it-all who supposes himself an expert on every subject.
Mechayeh: Only sometimes used for a person, it means “that which gives life” (the root word is “chai”). A cold glass of lemonade on a muggy August day, or someone who has that effect.
Mensch: One of the highest words of praise in all of Yiddish, it literally just means “man.” To Yiddish speakers, it means one who represents the highest, best qualities of humanity— not just a human, but a humanitarian. One need not be learned to be a mensch, but considerate in the extreme.
Mishpacha: While the word means “family,” it can be used to encompass those friends who feel like family: “Of course your friend can join us! She’s mishpacha already.”
Oytser: Yiddish for “treasure.” A sweetheart, the love of one’s life. (NOTE: Make sure not to confuse this word with “oyster.”)
Pits’l: “A little piece,” used to mean a small, adorable child, as in the English “little bit.”
Posek: A rabbi whose decisions are so sought-after and highly regarded that they have the force of precedent. More generally, someone whose opinion— be it legal, medical, technological, etc.— you trust implicitly.
Pupik: Bully button. Yet another word for a cute kid.
Rav, Rebbe: Terms of endearment for one’s rabbi.
Schtarker: Related to the word “stark,” this is a strong, even muscle-bound, person. Someone you’d want to help you move to your new place.
Shayna Maidel: A “maidel” is a “maiden,” but a “shayna maidel” is a pretty one. Most often used by bubbies for their own granddaughters.
Talmid chochom: Not just a “chochom” (see above), but an especially impressive one, who combines both native intelligence and deep study to possess true wisdom.
Tumler: Literally, a “tumbler,” and so an “acrobat.” But it has been generalized to include all manner of jesters, jokesters, and physical comedians (think Chris Farley, not Chris Rock).
Tzadik: Take a “tamid chochom” (see above) and who is also a “mensch” (see above) and you have a “tzadik.” It is someone who possesses both scholarship and compassion in excess.
Tzutzik: An ambitious person, one who is admired for industriousness. A hustler, in the positive sense.
Yingel: A “young-ling.” Also a cute kid— but not a baby, more a toddler.
Zeiskeit: Literally, “sweetness.” Someone so sweet, they are the very definition of the word. Again, usually used for children.
The list of Yiddish compliments makes clear what the values of Judaism are— while having a big brain is highly regarded, the highest of praises are reserved for those with big hearts. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel observed: “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”
NEXT UP… Yiddish complaints. More negativity— but aimed at things and situations.