A Full-Bodied History
by Hilary Weissman, with additional reporting by Sala Levin
For a quick overview of the complexities of the word zaftig, take a look at the Los Angeles Jewish Home’s video circulating online in which its residents demystify the meaning of the word. Charlotte Seeman says that zaftig means “a little bit on the heavy side,” to which the moderator, Marty Finkelstein, asks, “But in a good way?” “They look a little, if you’ll pardon the expression, appetizing to other people,” adds Yetta Dorfman. Esther Berlin is less effusive. “It’s a shame because they don’t take care of themselves and do something about it,” she says, prompting the chivalrous gentleman of the group, Irving Rubinstein, to defend the zaftig dame’s honor. “It’s kind of a sexy, plump, attractive woman,” he concludes.
That, in a nutshell, is the debate over zaftig. By most contemporary definitions, zaftig means voluptuous or sexily curvaceous à la Marilyn Monroe or the commanding office manager Joan Harris on Mad Men. Unless it is a polite way of saying fat, in an unsexy way. “It holds both [meanings] depending upon who says it,” says Lori Lefkovitz, professor of Jewish studies at Northeastern University.
But in traditional Yiddish, zaftig has nothing to do with women’s bodies. It comes from the German word saftig, meaning “juicy” or “succulent” (saft in German means “juice” or “sap”), and in European Yiddish, in which it is spelled and pronounced zaftik, was used to describe food and taste. But it could also be used for more abstract depictions of ideas, says Eddy Portnoy, who teaches Yiddish language and literature at Rutgers University. “You can have a zaftik story, you can have a zaftik piece of gossip, virtually anything that fits the bill,” he says. “It’s a very commonly used modifier that can refer to anything that is rich or pleasing,” much the same way an American might tell a friend that she heard some juicy news at the water cooler.
So how did zaftig make the transition to women? It is likely another example of the common transition that occurs with the Americanization of Yiddish. “We do that a lot with women’s bodies—we talk about juicy bodies and succulent bodies,” says Lefkovitz. “We describe women as food because they’re edible, they’re delicious.”
Sexual undertones are often implicit in the word’s use. Leo Rosten affectionately exclaimed that the word “describes in one word what takes two hands, outlining an hourglass figure, to do,” in his classic 1968 book The Joys Of Yiddish. Says Yiddish expert Michael Wex, who defined the word in Just Say Nu: Yiddish For Every Occasion (When English Just Won’t Do): “The best equivalent I ever found for zaftig was an old cigarette commercial for Lucky Strike; the Lucky Strike model is ‘so round, so firm, so fully packed.’ That immediately took on a secondary meaning, a sexual connotation. Zaftig might—I can’t say for sure—in that sense have been influenced by that.” Others have been even more explicit in the erotic implications of zaftig; Hanne Blank, editor of the 2001 anthology Zaftig: Well-Rounded Erotica, says that she chose the word for the title in part because “zaftig sounds like something that’s enjoyable, like something you can have a good time with, where plus-size sounds like you lost your way in Kmart and ended up in the plus-size section.”
Our changing perceptions of female beauty have influenced the use of the word. “Once upon a time, plumpness or curviness and all of those luscious sexual descriptors were associated with health and wealth, and as health and wealth got increasingly thin, zaftig became a euphemism for overweight,” says Lefkovitz.
Harvard professor Marjorie Garber touched on the word’s ambiguity in her essay “Moniker,” which was compiled in the 2001 book of essays Our Monica, Ourselves, dissecting what she argues some saw as Monica Lewinsky’s inherently Jewish seductive qualities. To Monica’s critics, “She was ‘pushy’; she was ‘ambitious’; she was ‘zaftig’; she was ‘typical Beverly Hills.’ She was physically mature for her age. She was sexy and seductive…She led a weak Christian man astray.”
What accounts for the word’s seemingly unflagging presence in American English? For one thing, as with so many Yiddish words, there’s no exact equivalent in English. The closest may be “pleasantly plump” or “Rubenesque,” after the women depicted in the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens—but neither has the zing of zaftig. Lefkovitz suggests that another reason is its nostalgic evocation. “It’s a word where we hold both the past and the present, where there was a kind of valorization even for our zaftig grandmothers.”
The word is popular among non-Jews, too. When it came to choosing a name for his brewery, it didn’t matter to Brent Halsey whether his patrons would appreciate the double entendre of Zaftig Brewing Company. “None of us three co-owners are Jewish, but [the word] left a mark on me,” he said, citing as inspiration his high school English teacher’s penchant for quoting The Joys Of Yiddish. For a brewery specializing in full-bodied ales, it seemed the most fitting choice.