Donate

Why There Are More Yiddish Idioms in Israeli Hebrew than in American English

By the time Yiddish-speakers arrived in America and pre-state Palestine, English already had a rich vernacular, while Hebrew had none at all.

A Jewish printer in a small shop on Broome Street on New York’s Lower East Side in 1942. Marjory Collins, Library of Congress.

A Jewish printer in a small shop on Broome Street on New York’s Lower East Side in 1942. Marjory Collins, Library of Congress.

Observation
Feb. 10 2016
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.


Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at philologos@mosaicmagazine.com.

Mosaic reader Aaron M. Lampert writes:

There is an Israeli expression zeh lo holekh b’regel, “it doesn’t go on foot,” that is used to describe a significant achievement. I’ve been told that it originates in the Yiddish idiom s’geyt nisht tsu fus, which means the same thing, but where does that come from?

Zeh lo holekh b’regel is indeed a literal translation of ‘sgeyt (or es geyt) nisht tsu fus, though Mr. Lampert’s definition of it needs to be broadened. The expression can certainly refer to a significant achievement, as in a statement like, “She won a full-tuition scholarship; that doesn’t go on foot.” But it can also apply to an unusual bargain in a store or a $100 bill found in the street, and it has the more general sense of “That’s not easily come by.” The dinner party was a bore but you were served a rare vintage burgundy? Zeh lo holekh b’regel, you don’t get to drink such a wine every day.

Where does Yiddish es geyt nisht tsu fus come from? Although its words all belong to Yiddish’s Germanic component, gehen zu fuss in German simply means “to walk” and is not used as it is in the Yiddish idiom. My guess is that the expression owes its origins to a rural society in which local public transportation was not available and people walked from place to place even when distances were relatively great. Poorer Jews (and in Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe, most Jews were poor) would routinely walk five or ten miles to get from one town to the next. If you were not a farmer or a drayman who owned his own horse and wagon, let alone the well-off possessor of a carriage, you went on foot unless you were lucky enough to be given a ride. Not to go on foot was exceptional; hence, es geyt nisht tsu fus.

Israeli Hebrew has a large number of such calque Yiddish expressions, to use the linguistic term for an entire idiom translated literally from one language to another. Many of these are everyday ones that are used all the time. Some typical examples (all adjustable for tense, gender, mood, etc.) are mah bo’er?, “what’s burning?,” from Yiddish vos brent?—that is, “what’s the rush?”; hu nafal al ha-rosh, “he’s fallen on his head,” from Yiddish er iz gefaln af dem kop, i.e., “he did something stupid” or “he’s got a screw loose”; halakh lah klaf, “a card went her way,” from Yiddish a kort iz ir gegangen, “she had a stroke of luck”; shelo neyda mi-tsarot, “may we know no troubles,” from Yiddish mir zoln nisht visn fun tsores, meaning either “things could be worse” (if referring to oneself) or “do they have problems!” (if referring to others); and she-tihyeh li bari, “you should be healthy for me,” from Yiddish zayt mir gezunt, a phrase that also has two possible nuances, one being an affectionate “take care of yourself,” the other a dismissive “have it your way” in or at the end of an argument.

American Jewish English, of course, also has a large number of Yiddish-derived words, many of which have entered general American speech, but apart from the ultra-Orthodox sector, it has almost no Yiddish-derived calque phrases. The reason is obvious. Yiddish-speaking Jews immigrating to America came to a country with a language, English, having a rich vernacular with a vast stock of idiomatic expressions for every occasion; once they learned it, there was no need for imported Yiddish idioms in their speech.

By contrast, Yiddish-speaking Jews who settled in Palestine in the same period encountered a Hebrew that was being revived as a spoken tongue after nearly two millennia of being only a written one, and that had no living vernacular at all. When they wanted an expressive, non-literary way of saying “what’s the rush?” or “that’s not easily come by,” their sole recourse was to translate from Yiddish.

 

Yiddish was by no means the only language to affect modern spoken Hebrew in this way. Every group of Jewish immigrants to Palestine resorted, in speaking Hebrew, to calque expressions translated from its native tongue, some of which became common property, so that Israeli Hebrew also has numerous idioms borrowed from Russian, Ladino, German, Arabic, and above all, English, whose influence in recent decades has been enormous. (This has been exerted not so much through the agency of English-speaking immigrants as through English’s use as a global language and the widespread exposure to it of Israelis in all walks of life.) Except for English, however, none of these languages has had Yiddish’s impact, Yiddish speakers having been preponderant among Jews settling in Palestine in the first half of the 20th century.

Indeed, Yiddish is probably the only one of these languages to have affected, not just Hebrew’s repertoire of idioms, but its grammatical structure. A good example is the use of the dative pronoun to indicate possession. In vernacular Israeli Hebrew, a statement like “he took my fork” is not, as it would be in “correct” Hebrew, hu lakaḥ et ha-mazleg sheli, a sentence in which mazleg, “fork,” is followed by the possessive pronoun sheli, “my.” Rather, Israelis tend to say hu lakaḥ li et ha-mazleg, literally, “he took me the fork,” the dative pronoun li, “to me” or “for me,” conveying that the fork taken is mine. This is a calque translation of the Yiddish er hot mir tsugenumen dem gopl, in which the Yiddish dative pronoun mir does the work of the possessive pronoun mayn.

Can one say of such a usage zeh holekh b’regel, “it goes on foot,” in the sense of “it’s common”? Alas, no. The expression, in Hebrew as in Yiddish, is used only in the negative. And indeed, now that most Israelis spend much of their time in traffic jams, whether in buses, trains, taxis, or their own cars, what’s common about going on foot?

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at philologos@mosaicmagazine.com.

More about: Hebrew, History & Ideas, Yiddish