Nobody Knows the Tsuris I’ve Seen…
“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” laments an African-American spiritual. In Yiddish, this feeling is encapsulated by the word tsuris—variously defined as troubles, worries, aggravation, woes, suffering, grief or heartache. In other words, “tsuris is what nudniks have and are only too willing to share with others,” according to the Everyday Yiddish-English Dictionary. The online Urban Dictionary calls it “a Yiddish phrase for worries, stress or hassle,” giving this example: “Oy, Zelda, I don’t want to be a kvetch, but I’ve got tsuris up to here.”
Tsuris is a Yiddish word, but its root is the Hebrew tzarah, meaning trouble; its relative, litzrot, means to become narrow or to be in a tight place, says Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, a longtime student of Yiddish and a former assistant director of the National Yiddish Book Center. Leo Rosten, writing in The Joys of Yiddish, points out that the singular of tsuris is tsorah or tsureh. Adds Kleinbaum: “What is interesting is that tsuris does not really exist in the singular, because Jews don’t do trouble in the singular. It has to be in the plural.”
The word is used liberally in connection with illness, money woes, relationships and especially children. The expression, “Don’t give me any tsuris!” is timeless, as is the story of the proverbial four women sitting on a porch in a Catskill hotel: “Oy,” says the first woman. “Oy vey,” says the second. “Oy vez iz mir,” sighs the third. “I thought we weren’t going to talk about our children today,” snaps the fourth woman. That’s tsuris—a feeling so pervasive it need not be named.
There might not be another word in any language that quite captures the meaning of tsuris. It’s less existential than angst, the Danish word philosopher Søren Kierkegaard used to describe anguish or outright anxiety, which he defined as unfocused fear or terror in the face of limitless freedom. (The shrieking man in Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream is consumed with angst, not tsuris.) But tsuris treads deeper than shpilkes, a Yiddish word that literally translates as needles and describes a feeling of nervous energy. (Shpilkes means “sitting on pins and needles” or having “ants in one’s pants” and is akin to the feeling of butterflies in your stomach before a job interview or an important meeting.) And tsuris definitely isn’t fardeiget, a far less-known Yiddish word that means worried or distressed.
Tsuris pops up frequently, even outside of strictly Jewish circles. When Senator Daniel Inouye died recently, columnist Douglas Bloomfield wrote in an obituary in The Forward that Inouye had told him he had considered converting to Judaism but joked that he didn’t “because being Japanese and having only one arm, he had enough ‘tsuris.’” In a 2011 article on President Barack Obama and Israel called “The Tsuris” in New York Magazine, the author John Heilemann argues that “Obama unleashed a tsunami of tsuris” among the Jewish community because of his Israel policies. The word also made an appearance in the 1997 movie Wag the Dog, where a character complains, “I don’t need this gig. I don’t need the money. I don’t need the tsuris.”
Surprisingly, tsuris hasn’t been absorbed into everyday American English as readily as Yiddish words such as maven, or chutzpah or kvetch. Non-Yiddish-speaking Jews and non-Jews don’t always recognize it immediately. The late conservative columnist and grammarian James J. Kilpatrick, for example, was aggravated when he came across the word in a Newsday article, prompting him to write a 1988 column on “The Writer’s Art:” “Tsuris?” he asked. “What in the devil is tsuris?” He finally found the word in the American Heritage College dictionary and Random House Unabridged, discovering that “spelled tsores, it appears in the 1986 supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary where its first usage is dated from 1901.”
Sometimes tsuris requires an adjective for more oomph: In an article in the National Review in 1987, D. Keith Mann said, “If I were an American mother, I’d worry more about drugs in my children’s schools and drunk driving and AIDS and a million other problems, gehocte tsuris.” Leo Rosten spells this phrase gehokteh tsuris, defining it as “chopped-up,” although he complains, “Why troubles are worsened when chopped up, like chicken liver, I do not know, but the phrase certainly sounds authoritative.”
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz may assign far too much importance to tsuris in his book The Vanishing American Jew. In his “Tsuris Theory of Jewish Survival,” he posits that historically “Jews have retained their Jewish identity, at least in part, because of tsuris.” But as external threats diminish, Dershowitz contends that tsuris can no longer be relied on to maintain Jewish continuity. Who knew a tsuris-free world could be such a problem?