Special Edition | The Making of a Jewish Word

Graphic for Jewish word feature

Edited by Sarah Breger. Thanks to Rachel E. Gross, Anna Isaacs, Josh Tapper and Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil


Glitch — Abracadabra — Tikkun Olam — Jewish Geography — Mensch — Nice Jewish Boy (NJB)


What makes a word Jewish?

For more than 15 years, we have been trying to answer that question in Moment’s Jewish Word feature.

In every issue we shed light on the origins, evolution and meaning of a word or phrase that has made its way into popular culture.

We have examined words you know so well that you use them every day (schmuck, tsuris, l’chaim); words you heard from your parents or grandparents that you always wondered about (bubbemeise, kinehora); words we might not want to use anymore (shiksa, faygele, goy); and words you were sure were English but aren’t (hallelujah, amen, shrek).

Here are a few of our favorite Jewish words.

Technology inexplicably fails us often enough that we need a word for the occasion. We take glitch for granted now, assuming the word has always been around. But it didn’t enter general usage until September 3, 1976, when Viking II successfully alighted on Mars after a communications failure, and Florida’s St. Petersburg Times ran the headline, “Viking II lands with glitch.” The word baffled enough subscribers to prompt the newspaper to publish two columns in explanation. One helpful reader, Rabbi Louis M. Lederman, called in to offer this definition: “The word came from Yiddish, meaning to slip or slide.”

Unlike other Yiddishisms that populate the American lexicon, glitch doesn’t sound like something your bubbe might have said. But Yiddishist Michael Wex says glitshn means to slip on ice or to go skating. “Normally it’s, you know, I went outside in November and I—ikh hob zikh a glitsh geton. I slid on the ice, but managed to keep my balance,” he says. “You slip. You don’t necessarily fall.”

When Lederman called the St. Petersburg Times’ newsroom in 1976, he already had a theory for how glitch had gone galactic. “I suspect that a Jewish engineer in a space laboratory once referred offhand to some problem with a space vehicle as a ‘glitch,’” he said, “and the expression just caught on.” This explanation fit pretty closely with the best available knowledge of glitch’s provenance at the time: a 1972 entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, where the earliest citation of the word dated back to astronaut John Glenn’s 1962 account of Project Mercury. According to Glenn, he and the other astronauts adopted the term to describe a transitory technical issue. “Literally,” he wrote in Into Orbit, “a glitch is a spike or change in voltage in an electrical circuit which takes place when the circuit suddenly has a new load put on it.”

Unlike other Yiddishisms, glitch doesn’t sound like something your bubbe might have said.

Unbeknownst to Glenn, this actually was not the first adaptation of the word in a technical context. That likely occurred in the golden age of radio. In 1980, the late William Safire dove into the word in his “On Language” column in The New York Times, and received a letter in response from the actor Tony Randall, who recalled that he’d heard the word in 1941 when he landed an announcer gig at a radio station in Worcester, Massachusetts. “The older announcers told me the term had been used as long as they could remember,” he wrote, to refer to such errors as putting on the wrong record or reading the wrong commercial. These mistakes were then chronicled on a mimeographed “Glitch Sheet.”

It’s easy to see how a Yiddish word made its way into radio stations. In the early days of radio, the airwaves were filled with Yiddish speakers. Henry Sapoznik, a Yiddish historian and sound archivist, has tallied 186 stations between 1924 and 1955 that carried Yiddish programming. “To get Yiddish radio, all you had to do was to turn the dial a half an inch in one direction or the other,” he says. As a new medium in need of a new vernacular, radio repurposed and reimagined terminology. A Yale law librarian named Fred Shapiro dates the first printed record of glitch’s radio pedigree to a 1940 syndicated newspaper column by novelist Katharine Brush. She wrote: “When the radio talkers make a little mistake in diction, they call it a ‘fluff,’ and when they make a bad one they call it a ‘glitch,’ and I love it.”

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According to linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer, glitch passed through television before taking on cosmic significance. Zimmer found a 1955 Bell Telephone ad in Billboard magazine describing the company argot: “And when he talks of ‘glitch’ with a fellow technician, he means a low frequency interference which appears as a narrow horizontal bar moving vertically through the picture.” A 1959 trade piece about tape splicing explains: “‘Glitch’ is slang for the ‘momentary jiggle’ that occurs at the editing point if the sync pulses don’t match exactly in the splice.”

Zimmer delights in the historical happenstance. “Glitch becomes entrenched among radio technicians, then television technicians, then space technicians, and then computer technicians,” he says. Most of its existence, he adds, has been “under the radar as this technical term.” But now, thanks to the ubiquity of crashing computers and freezing smartphone screens, it belongs to everyone.

 

Abracadabra, with its tongue-tripping cadence and mysterious connotations, is magic’s most enduring incantation. But what does it have to do with Jews? Well, for at least a century, occultists and magicians, and even the occasional rabbi, have speculated that the word—uttered by magicians before performing a trick—comes from Aramaic, an ancient, nearly extinct Semitic language. The prevailing theory links abracadabra to the Aramaic phrase avra kedavrah, which, some argue, translates as “I create as I speak.” Avra, it is said, can be interpreted as “I create” and davrah, which bears a similarity to the Hebrew davar, means “to speak.”

Lawrence Kushner, a rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, can’t cite abracadabra’s origin or say when it first appeared in magic’s lexicon, but he believes it has Jewish roots. “Unlike in any other religious traditions that I know of, the God of the Jews speaks the world into being,” says Kushner, who wrote about the abracadabra-Aramaic connection in his 1998 book, The Book of Words. Indeed, the word evokes the opening of Genesis 1:3, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” In a magic context, “I create as I speak” is a fitting preamble to an act of conjuring: By chanting abracadabra, the magician evokes the power of God to make something from nothing.

This theory, however, has naysayers—including scholars who doubt that avra kedavrah is a properly constructed Aramaic phrase. “There is no clear etymology for abracadabra,” says Geoffrey Khan, a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at the University of Cambridge. “Some have suggested an Aramaic origin, but this is only because it ends in ‘a,’ which is a common ending of Aramaic nouns.” In a post on the blog The Aramaic New Testament, translator Steve Caruso attempts to debunk the so-called Aramaic “myth.” He concedes that avra could come from barey, the Aramaic verb for “to create,” and be extrapolated to “I will create.” The prefix ki- (or ke-), he writes, could mean “like” or “as” in Aramaic.

But the rest of the sentence, Caruso argues, doesn’t compute: Simply put, the verb “to speak” in Aramaic “is either amar or malel”—not davrah.

The first known use of abracadabra is in a third-century Latin medical text written by Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, a pagan Roman physician who was searching for a remedy for fever and other diseases. He instructed his patients to cut a piece of papyrus into an inverted pyramid and scrawl the letters A B R A C A D A B R A across the top. A B R A C A D A B R would follow on the next line, with the word shrinking letter by letter until a lone “A” sat at the vertex. This amulet was to be worn around the neck, and, mirroring the pattern of diminishing letters, the illness was supposed to fade over time—like magic. Why Sammonicus chose those letters, however, is unclear. The amulet’s symmetry “sort of indicates that this was a grouping of letters that was picked almost for their visual quality,” and not because they had meaning, says Michael Bailey, a historian of magic at Iowa State University. Sammonicus’s abracadabra amulet persisted as a charm to ward off disease well into the early modern period. It entered popular literature by the 1600s. In the 17th century, English folklorist John Aubrey penned the lines: “Abracadabra, strange mysterious word, / In order writ, can wond’rous cures afford. / This be the rule:-a strip of parchment take, / Cut like a pyramid revers’d in make.” And Daniel Defoe, in his 1772 novel Journal of the Plague Year, wrote that Londoners used the amulet to protect themselves from the plague that swept their city in 1665.

Scholars generally agree that the term entered the vocabulary of magic in the Middle Ages. There is no mention of abracadabra, or a Semitic iteration, in magical texts from the classical period, says Gideon Bohak, a professor of ancient Jewish culture at Tel Aviv University and author of the 2011 book Ancient Jewish Magic: A History. He adds: “I think abracadabra has nothing to do with Jews.” In a 2004 interview, fantasy writer J.K. Rowling further muddied the waters by explaining that the “Killing Curse” she created for her Harry Potter books, “avada kedavra,” was based on abracadabra, “an ancient spell in Aramaic…which means ‘let the thing be destroyed.’” Most likely she was conflating the Aramaic theory with the amulet of Sammonicus, where the thing being destroyed was the illness, not a person.

Certainly abracadabra’s murky linguistic history leaves open the possibility of a Jewish connection. One tempting origin story, proposed in a 1986 article in The Linking Ring, the monthly magazine of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, holds that the “A’s” in abracadabra represent aleph, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet and the first letter in Elohim, a Hebrew word for God. But the theory is not substantiated, so, for now, the etymology of abracadabra remains a magician’s secret.

It’s hard to escape the ubiquity of the term tikkun olam in contemporary American Judaism. Translated as “repairing the world,” it has the power to galvanize people of all ages into action on issues as diverse as gay rights and climate change. Nearly every synagogue has a committee or teen group dedicated to the practice of tikkun olam, and the term, now practically synonymous with “social action” or “social justice,” has crept into politics and pop culture. In fact, it’s so omnipresent that it would be logical to assume it’s a deeply rooted tenet of the Jewish faith. Yet until the 20th century, its place in Jewish discourse was minimal: Tikkun olam is neither a Torah commandment nor a dictum of the Prophets.

The term makes its first significant appearance in the Mishnah, the work of oral traditions and laws compiled by rabbis in 200 CE. Here it comes up 15 times, mostly in regard to the tricky issues of divorce and slavery. In one example, a man sends his wife a writ of divorce and then changes his mind. If he gets to his wife before the writ and declares the divorce is canceled, then it is; if he doesn’t make it in time, the divorce stands. This rule—a change from the previous tradition in which a man could declare his change of heart anytime, even without his wife’s knowledge—was put in place by Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder “for the sake of tikkun olam.” Tikkun olam is used here as a call for public policy to guard social order, not for social justice. Rabbi Gamaliel wanted a society where it was clear who was divorced and who wasn’t.

Tikkun olam also pops up in the ancient Aleinu prayer that is still recited daily. The line le-taken olam be-malkhut Shaddai [to fix the world under the Kingdom of the Almighty] is surrounded by verses describing a time when idolatry will be abolished and all will call out God’s name. In this case, the demand for tikkun olam is a messianic cry in which God is the one doing the perfecting, not humans.

The derivation of today’s meaning of tikkun olam largely comes from the ideas of famed 16th-century Tsfat mystic and kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria. In Luria’s telling of Creation, God contracts Himself to make room for the world, pouring part of Himself into vessels of divine light. The vessels shatter and their fragments—holy sparks—scatter, leaving the Jews with the task of collecting them, and, in doing so, repairing the world. For Luria, the way to repair the world was through prayer, Torah study and the performance of mitzvot, or commandments—which did not necessarily mean social action.

The Lurianic view marked a change in Jewish theology: whereas before, God was doing the repairing, Jews are now God’s partners. “In a sense, tikkun olam expands God’s original covenant with the Jews at Sinai by adding a metaphysical and spiritual dimension to our ethical and moral obligations,” says Howard Schwartz, a scholar of Jewish folklore and mythology and professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

However, “After the 16th century, the term tikkun olam disappears from popular usage,” says Rabbi Matthew Durbin of Temple Beit HaYam in Stuart, Florida, who has written extensively on the development of the term. It reemerges in the second half of the 20th century with its social justice connotation, influenced by then-popular Jewish philosophers such as the German-Jewish Hermann Cohen. Cohen’s argument that Judaism’s universal ethics could better the entire world made it possible for Jews, religious and not, to find a place in mainstream American society, says Durbin. That American Protestantism had begun to stress moral and ethical action also helped lay the groundwork for tikkun olam’s evolution to a pillar of contemporary Judaism.

It wasn’t long before tikkun olam became as integral to Jewish-American identity as Israel and the Holocaust. By 1970, the Conservative movement had named its youth social action program “Tikkun Olam,” and in 1988 it included the doctrine of tikkun olam in its statement of principles.

Tikkun olam took off as a concept because “it is so aligned with the cultural values of American Jews,” says Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, author of Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World. At the same time, it also took on political connotations. In 1986, when Michael Lerner founded the Jewish magazine Tikkun, tikkun olam took a step toward becoming a universal rallying cry for change that transcends Judaism and encompasses all of humanity.

Predictably, its use as a metonym for social action irritates those who view it as a case of liberals co-opting Judaism for their own purposes. “Health care, labor unions, public-school education, feminism, abortion rights, gay marriage, globalization, U.S. foreign policy…on everything Judaism has a position—and, wondrously, this position just happens to coincide with that of the American liberal Left,” writer Hillel Halkin complained in a 2008 Commentary article. Even among liberals there is concern that overuse has stripped the term of meaning. The late Chicago rabbi and activist Arnold J. Wolf criticized those who use the term as a catchall. “This strange and half-understood notion becomes a huge umbrella under which our petty moral concerns and political panaceas can come in out of the rain,” he wrote in 2001. Writer Cynthia Ozick once remarked that universalism is the parochialism of the Jews. Nevertheless, despite its detractors, few other phrases today inspire or rally so many—Jewish or not.

It’s always a variation of the same story: Two Jews meet and run through a list of questions to find out where each was raised—which synagogues, youth groups and summer camps they attended and so
forth—and from there, discover mutual acquaintances. The questions may differ by generation, class and region, but the intent is the same: a search for connections that leads them to marvel at the amazing smallness of the Jewish world.

While it seems like a modern phenomenon, it’s not. Jews have been keeping track of relationships for millennia—from the complex family trees in the Five Books of Moses to genealogical lists in the Books of Chronicles. It is true, however, that in recent decades the social ritual has taken on new life, and a new name: Jewish geography.

Jewish geography is a “manifestation of a sense of Jewish peoplehood,” says Sylvia Barack Fishman, professor of Judaic studies at Brandeis University, who writes about American Jewish sociology. “When people play Jewish geography, they’re showing their assumption that all Jews are connected in some way to each other.” It’s probably a result of the fact that Jews were forced to uproot themselves again and again due to persecution, she continues. “It was important to establish connections when they moved, so Jews created this sociability.” The ability to forge an almost immediate intimacy with other Jews made it easier for immigrants to make friends in new places and also served to keep them up to date on those they had left behind. It is a way, Fishman says, for Jews to feel part of an extended family, despite different customs, foods and languages.

Jewish geography expresses a solidarity and a ravenous curiosity about where people are from.

But where does the term “Jewish geography” come from? No one knows, says Sarah Benor, a linguist and professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College. Scholars first began to look into theories of connections in the mid-20th century. “Sometimes that kind of thing is really impossible to find,” Benor says. The earliest media reference to it, according to a Nexis search, is in a 1989 article in The Jerusalem Post in which Rabbi Moshe Waldoks describes the game on an El Al flight to Israel. “In five minutes everybody’s playing Jewish geography,” he said in an interview at the time. “There was a guy in 4-J who discovered that somebody from his hometown was in 36-B. But he couldn’t get over to him because this huge minyan was blocking the aisle.” Waldoks, author of The Big Book of Jewish Humor, says the term was circulating long before he used it. “It’s been around since the 1970s, perhaps.”

Jewish geography allows Jews to construct a sense of rooted identity, writes Jonathan Boyarin, professor of modern Jewish studies at Cornell University, in his essay “Jewish Geography Goes On-Line,” which describes the ritual’s exponential growth in the internet age. It’s “person-centered” and also what he calls chronotopic. That means “it rests on time—memory, history, genealogy—as much as on place markers.” That’s because like Jews themselves, Jewish geography transcends national borders.

According to Waldoks, it is a sign of a healthy community, and shows that the human need for connection, especially in small groups, is as strong as ever. Jewish geography “expresses a certain solidarity—and exhibits a ravenous curiosity about where people are from,” he says. “It’s a fascinating phenomenon that shows the community feels very close.”

Mensch (which can also be spelled mentsh—the more correct romanization of the Yiddish) comes straight from German, where it means person or human being. As the Yiddish saying goes, “a mentsh tracht und Gott lacht” [Man plans and God laughs]. A second meaning, which has disappeared, is as a synonym for servant. To be somebody’s mensch was once used as a slur by Yiddish writers such as Sholem Aleichem and David Pinski. The third and best-known meaning is a person of good character and moral rectitude.

The beauty of mensch is that there is no translation.

Some attribute this last meaning to secular Yiddishists in 19th-century Eastern Europe who wanted to veer away from religious observance and tradition while maintaining Judaism’s moral teachings. Others, like Michael Wex, the author of How to be a Mentsh (& Not a Schmuck), believe mensch became imbued with notions of good behavior and decency in Eastern European cheders [schools]. There, the concept of mensch, he says, was influenced by the translation of the Hebrew word ish [man]. In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), for example, the Sages instruct readers “be’makom she-ein anashim hishtadel liheyot ish”—“In a place where there are no men try to be a man,” implying that being a man involves more than just testosterone.

Much later, Jewish comedians such as Milton Berle took the word along as they made the move from the Borscht Belt to Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s, and the word seeped into the American mainstream. The first known use of “mensch” in English literature, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, came in Saul Bellow’s 1953 novel The Adventures of Augie March.

Once used by comedians and writers, the word took off, propelled by the fact that there is no word quite like mensch in English. (There’s also no word like mensch in Hebrew, where benadam (literally son of Adam) has a similar connotation but without the heft or gravitas.) “The beauty of mensch is that there is no translation. You would have to say several words to get the one meaning,” says Bruna Martinuzzi, author of The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow. Martinuzzi, who is not Jewish, first learned the word as a child in the 1950s in Cairo, Egypt, from her Jewish next-door neighbor.

Today, mensch is an equal opportunity, multigender noun.

Today, mensch is an equal opportunity, multigender noun. While the word used to be applied mostly to men, it now refers to women as well. In fact, today, anyone of any faith or background can be a mensch or exhibit menschlichkeit—the properties that make one a mensch. “Maybe the supreme gift of Yiddish to the English language is the word ‘mensch,’” syndicated columnist Richard Cohen wrote during the 1986 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a Lutheran. “The question before the U.S. Senate can best be stated in Yiddish: Is William Rehnquist a ‘mensch?’”

Today, mensch is high praise. “It’s the Nobel Prize of words,” says Neil Karlan, author of The Story of Yiddish: How a Mish-Mosh of Languages Saved the Jews. “It’s a title bestowed upon you and one you can’t bestow on yourself.”

 

The expression “nice Jewish boy (NJB)” is lodged deeply—and ambivalently—in the Jewish-American psyche.

The story behind the expression begins in Genesis, where the “best” men are portrayed as more brain than brawn, like the bookish Jacob, who outsmarts his burly brother, Esau. In another section of the Bible, Proverbs, a man is instructed to treat his wife with respect: “Have joy with your wife…Be always occupied in your love towards her.” But it wasn’t until the era of the Babylonian Talmud that Jews came up with a clear blueprint for the ideal man, says Daniel Boyarin, historian of religion at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Unheroic Conduct. Gentle, pious and scholarly, this new masculine model was the original yeshiva bocher—a stark contrast to the fierce Roman warrior of the time.

By the 16th century, this Jewish archetype had a name in Europe—and it wasn’t NJB. The Yiddish word is edelkayt—which derives from edel, or noble—referred to “a quality of gentleness, almost softness,” says Boyarin. Yet this “ideal Jewish male femme” was also viewed as the pinnacle of manliness, a sexual force to be reckoned with. Outsiders, however, twisted edelkayt into something negative, tapping into the medieval antisemitic myth that Jewish men menstruated as a result of womanly excesses or dealings with the devil. In the 1890s, Austrian-Jewish psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud only made things worse by labeling homosexuality a mental illness. At the time, homosexuals were identified by their feminine traits—and who better fit that description than the Jewish man? “The most manly Jew is more feminine than the least manly Aryan,” wrote the Austrian philosopher Otto Weininger. This view became the basis for considering Jews degenerate, says Boyarin. “What was taken as a very positive way of being in the world gets transmuted into a nebbishy, ineffective—particularly sexually ineffective character.”

When Zionism gained momentum in the early 20th century, its founders sought to distance the new Jewish man from this stereotype. “Our starting point is to take the typical Yid of today and to imagine his diametrical opposite,” wrote Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky. “Because the Yid is ugly, sickly, and lacks decorum, we shall endow the ideal image of the Hebrew with masculine beauty. The Yid has accepted submission and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to learn how to command… the Hebrew should look the world straight in the eye and declare: ‘I am a Hebrew!’”

This prescription didn’t apply in America, where Jewish-American immigrants faced a different problem: assimilation. For parents, it became imperative to find their children partners who would a) produce more Jews, and b) afford them a “pleasant, secure, respectable, class-appropriate domesticity,” says Daniel Boyarin’s brother Jonathan, a professor of modern Jewish culture at Cornell University. “To me this phrase’s natural home is in a parent’s mouth, saying to a daughter, ‘Why don’t you find a nice Jewish boy?’”

Many Jewish American men embraced the NJB role, while others rebelled, viewing it yet another stereotype to overcome on the path to becoming truly American. “Philip Roth was one of the most important authors to blow this out of the water: that this was a debilitating thing to the Jewish male, rather than a wonderful thing,” says Neil Davison, associate professor of modern Jewish culture at Oregon State University. In Roth’s 1969 Portnoy’s Complaint, Alexander Portnoy rails against his overbearing Jewish mother by becoming a deviant obsessed with shiksas and sex.

“Enough being a nice Jewish boy, publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putz!” he cries. “Enough!”

While there are plenty of less-than-nice Jewish men out there, NJBs remain numerous—and a surplus of Jewish and gentile women (and men!) still yearn for one to call their own. “For whatever reason, Jewish men tend to value warmth, humor, good food, and great libidos—all prime qualities for what most women consider boyfriend material,” says Kristina Grish, author of Boy Vey! The Shiksa’s Guide to Dating Jewish Men. Some men even embrace the expression. One is Adam Cohen, who created the Nice Jewish Guys calendar in 2009, which was graced not with buff athletes but with sweet, mama-loving boys like himself. “I wanted to carry the torch for all nice Jewish guys,” says Cohen, who adds that for him the NJB means something beyond being bookish, nebbishy or even Jewish. “At the core of it, you just have to be respectful,” he says.

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