Jewish Word | Verklempt: The Yiddish Word that Wasn’t

By | Jul 04, 2024
Mike Myers as Linda Richman on Saturday Night Live, where "verklempt" was born.

Beastie Boy Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz seemed to be getting it. On September 9, 2023, when a street corner on the Lower East Side of Manhattan was renamed Beastie Boys Square in honor of the famous rap trio, The New York Jewish Week described Horovitz as appearing “to get a little bit verklempt” as he addressed a throng of adoring fans packed into the intersection of Rivington and Ludlow streets, where the sign was unveiled.

Earlier that week, in the pages of the Suncoast Post, entertainer and photojournalist Sheri Nadelman recounted the “fabulous flamingo encounter” she’d had in the Florida Keys on Labor Day. “The sight of these majestic, art deco-looking creatures almost took my breath away and in true Streisand fashion, I felt myself getting verklempt.”

Of course, anyone who regularly watched Saturday Night Live in the 1990s knows “verklempt” isn’t Barbra Streisand’s linguistic baby but rather that of a woman named Linda Richman, who is quite possibly Babs’s number one fan and who regularly gets verklempt—i.e., emotionally choked up—when talking about the singer. And even that isn’t quite right. Because the Linda Richman we’ve seen get verklempt is a character Mike Myers played on SNL’s “Coffee Talk,” the recurring sketch in which he impersonated his then-mother-in-law Linda Richman in a heavy New York accent peppered with Yiddish words, some real, some not.

“My friend, the regular host Paul Baldwin, asked me to fill in this week,” Myers’ Richman announced in her first “Coffee Talk” hosting gig, which aired on October 12, 1991. In subsequent shows she would explain that Baldwin had “developed shpilkis in his genechtagazoink,” and assure viewers that he was “in Boca Raton, recovering nicely, thank you very much.” Here you have a real Yiddish word, shpilkis, which literally means “needles” and conveys agitation, and a made-up Yiddish word, genechtagazoink (pronounced “ga-neck-ta-ga-zoink”), suggesting a private body part no one’s ever heard of. But the most popular word of the sketch was “verklempt.” (Spoiler alert: It isn’t technically Yiddish, even though Myers did get the Yiddish meaning right—sometimes.)

At least once or twice on every episode of “Coffee Talk” (“Where we talk about coffee, New York, dogs, daughters—ya know, no big whoop”), something would move or grieve host Linda Richman, and she would announce that she was feeling verklempt. “Talk amongst yourselves,” she’d instruct her audience, at which point Myers, in a dark and copious bouffant wig that he repeatedly primped, a purple bedazzled sweater, chunky gold jewelry, black leather pants and eye makeup behind large tinted glasses, would bring long, fake red nails to his chest, pucker his mouth and close his eyes tightly in a pained expression. His Linda would often provide a topic to occupy viewers while the wave of emotion passed: “Palmolive—it’s neither palm nor olive. Discuss.” And a beat later she’d declare, “There. I feel better,” (pronounced “beddah”) and continue with the show.

Verklempt is related to the Yiddish infinitive verb farklemn, says writer and popular Yiddishist Michael Wex. “That would mean to press or hold something, like you’re squeezing it in a vise grip.” And so farklemt means to be clamped. “If you’re between a rock and a hard place, you can also be sort of farklemt,” says Wex, whose first language was Yiddish. And although he doesn’t recall hearing farklemt used in an emotional sense growing up, if he heard it at all, he says the Yiddish word can mean that something is a little upsetting and weighs on your heart.

“But on SNL Mike Myers seemed to use it for anything emotionally moving, positive or negative,” notes Wex, clarifying that in regular Yiddish, it would usually only be used for the latter. “If Barbra Streisand turns up out of the blue, there are other ways of describing how you feel; farklemt would not be one of them.” (What Yiddish word would you use? I ask Wex. “I don’t know. I don’t know if anybody’s ever really that happy in Yiddish,” he deadpans.)

And so “verklempt,” spelled the way Myers (or the SNL cue-card writer) heard it and used in a positive emotional sense, isn’t Yiddish. It’s a loanword—defined simply as a word borrowed from one language and used in another. “Verklempt is a Yiddish loanword just like ‘ballet’ is a French loanword, and ‘burrito’ is a Spanish loanword,” says Sarah Bunin Benor, professor of contemporary Jewish studies and director of the Jewish Language Project at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “And they’re all also English words.”

“If Streisand turns up out of the blue, there are other ways of describing how you feel; farklemt would not be one of them.”

It’s not uncommon, Benor notes, for the sound, spelling or meaning of a loanword to change when it becomes part of another language. On “Coffee Talk,” Richman certainly got grievously verklempt when discussing some slight leveled at Streisand (like when she didn’t get nominated for Best Director for The Prince of Tides.) And Richman also got verklempt thinking about how amazing her idol was. So, was she farklemt in the first case and verklempt in the second?

No, says Wex, her usage is all about the loanword.

And yet, it’s still not clear how farklemt came to be borrowed. Benor checked two definitive sources, Sol Steinmetz’s Yiddish and English and Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, and neither had an entry for farklemt (let alone verklempt). However, those reference books predate the SNL sketch. Two later sources, The JPS Dictionary of Jewish Words, by Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic (2001) and another by Sol Steinmetz, Dictionary of Jewish Usage (2005), do contain an entry for farklemt. If Yiddishists give Myers and Richman credit for making verklempt a thing, were they also responsible for those dictionary updates?

Learning about the real Linda Richman’s life, detailed in a book she wrote in 2001 titled I’d Rather Laugh: How to Be Happy Even When Life Has Other Plans for You, one can imagine Richman was often sadly verklempt. Her father was fatally hit by a truck when she was eight, but her mother simply said he’d gone away and she didn’t learn the truth until she was in high school. She married young, to a lawyer with a bad gambling problem, and suffered from agoraphobia starting when her kids were very young, not leaving her apartment for 11 years. In 1990 her son was killed in a car accident. Richman did garner a measure of fame via SNL (she got to meet Streisand) and today is a certified grief counselor and public speaker.

She also helped give the world a great word. Today, people often use verklempt in the sense of being awestruck or positively moved and feeling the need to share—in the “you’re-gonna-make-me-cry-and-I-love-you-for-it” kind of way. But not always, exactly.

Last fall, after the Hamas attack on Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza, a woman in Rome texted her fellow Jewish friends (American, French, Italian, Israeli) living nearby. “I have been so comforted to know that I am not alone in my grief and angst and political confusion,” she wrote, suggesting they come together “to drink, laugh and support each other.” Their moniker, which appears in the private group text below a photo of “Coffee Talk” Linda Richman in all her overcome glory? Donne Verklempte.

Meanwhile, in March of 2023, the New York City Jewish arts collective Havurah launched a quarterly print-only magazine called Verklempt!, dedicated to showcasing Jewish art and literature. They’ve published two editions so far, along with a special poetry pamphlet on the Jewish experience since October 7.

“People I know from Brooklyn who grew up speaking Yiddish were surprised that I named it Verklempt! because to them it meant sad,” says Editor-in-Chief Yoni Gutenmacher. “My grandma, who knows some Yiddish, just scratched her head.” However, he saw it as an opportunity to follow the Ezra Pound imperative to “make it new.”

Noting that he was “aware of the whole Barbra Streisand thing,” Gutenmacher also felt like verklempt was often used performatively, “like you’re signaling that you are Jewish or like talking about Jewishness in some way.” He says he didn’t necessarily want to change the meaning of the word but viewed it as an interesting canvas and even finds emotional resonance in it as a sound.

“Verklempt evokes a silly/serious mood, like somehow it’s both. And that’s what our magazine is—serious, reflective and contemplative and also joyful and comedic.”

So, whether you’re getting verklempt or not, it’s fair to say the word—borrowed from Yiddish and launched into the cultural stratosphere by a Canadian comedian and his Jewish mother-in-law—keeps evolving. What else is there to say, except: That’s all the time we have for “Jewish Word,” where we talk about words, culture, etymologies and emotions. No big whoop.

Opening picture: Mike Myers as Linda Richman on Saturday Night Live’s “Coffee Talk” in 1993. 

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One thought on “Jewish Word | Verklempt: The Yiddish Word that Wasn’t

  1. Barbara Berman says:

    Loved everything Mike Myers did. His Linda Richman took me back to Brooklyn in the 50’s. I knew many Linda Richmans. I miss the old SNL.

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