Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union Glossary

Well, well, well! So you, too, have been brought to this while struggling through 'The Yiddish Policemen's Union' by Michael Chabon.

The struggle was for the meaning of the many Yiddish words that peppered this off-beat novel. Like pepper which adds a touch of flavour when used judiciously in a dish, too much Yiddish, like too much pepper simply gets up one's nose, shofar-like or not.

Sometimes while reading a novel I might add a few words to my index book of an ever expanding vocabulary, on occasion there may be ten or so. But while reading this amusing detective story I amassed over 80 words that I either had never seen before in my life, or wanted clarification on.

For example. While I know what a cow is, and know a heifer is also a hoofed cow-ish animal, I really had to know what the difference is. You're right- I never got within a bull's roar of a farm as a kid.

Nit-picking, I know, but after a while it was driving me crazy. Even when the context more or less defined the word, I had to go back through the novel and make sure I had it right.

The yiddish dictionary was no match for this challenge and browsing on the internet was not quite up to the task either. As you can see from the list, there are still a few that have slipped through the net (ahem!) and if anyone out there can fill in the gaps or correct my definitions, then by all means have your two sheckels worth.

From alcohol dehydrogenated

Alefbeys Alphabet

Apocrypha Those having been hidden away

Apostasy The formal renunciation or abandonment of one’s religion

Autonomic Part of the peripheral nervous system that acts as a control, maintaining homoeostatis

Aurochs Type of cattle

Bessarabian fish eye ? Anyone else able to enlighten us here?

Biks Bull

Boundary maven Expert or enthusiast

Cafard Blues or depression

Caisson A watertight structure used for repairs to piers, boats etc

Calliope A musical instrument fitted with steam whistles, played from a keyboard

Caravel Small, light sailing ships

Curare Skeletal-muscle–relaxant drug belonging to the alkaloid family of organic compounds

Dybbuk A malicious spirit of a dead person

Emes Truth, correct

Entropy Inevitable and steady deterioration of a system or society

Eruv Public domain transformed in to a private domain

Exegesis Interpretation and understanding of a text on the basis of the text itself

Fairings An auxiliary structure or the external surface of a vehicle, such as an aircraft, that serves to reduce drag; the workings?

Forshpiel Small reception

Four-corner a 'four corner' is a tallis katan (Hebrew), a small fringed garment that observant Jewish men wear under their shirts. Often the fringes are visible. Thanks for that D.M.K

Freylekhs Up-tempo klezma music, cheerful

Furze Gorse bush

Gabay Status name from Hebrew gabay ‘warden’, denoting a trustee or warden of a Jewish public institution, especially a synagogue, or a manager of the affairs of a Hasidic rabbi.

Ganef Thief, scoundrel, or rascal

Heifer A young cow, especially one that has not yet given birth to a calf

Kaynahora Something said to ward off the evil eye

Kibitzer To look on and offer unwanted, usually meddlesome advice to others. Kibitzers

Laminaria An instrument used to dilate cervix

Latke A pancake made of grated potato, also slang for a uniformed cop because their hats are shaped like a latke

Luftmensch an intellectual

Macher An ambitious person; a schemer with many plans

Mentum Part of the chin

Mikvah Ritual bath for purification

Momzer Bastard

Mukluks Moccasins or winter boots made of reindeer skin or sealskin

Muskeg Wetland or bog

Noz Yiddish for nose, but here means a cop

Papiros Cigarette

Patzer I gather that is actually chess slang! I didn’t know there was such a thing. It’s also Yiddish for “blunderer” and used to mean “poor player.”


Pisher Child, humorous (“little pisser”)

Rappelling To slide down a rope

Racnination The process of reasoning, deducing

Sarmali Are we talking about a Turkish recipe here?

Satori Enlightenment

Schlemiel Inept bungler, someone who is easily victimized

Schlosser mechanic or hit-man?

Schochet One who slaughters according to ritual

Senescence The study of the biological changes related to aging

Sententious Given to pompous moralizing.

Shammes A deacon in a synagogue

Shaydl A shadyl is a wig worn by an religious Jewish woman to keep men other than her husband from seeing her own hair.

Sheygets is a non-Jewish boy.

Shiv A razor, knife or other sharp implement of weapon

Shkotz A naughty boy

Shofar The ram's horn blown on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; Also the brand name of the mobile phones the characters use

Sholem Peace/harmony (in the US they carry ‘a piece’ meaning a pistol.

Shomer Guards or to guard

Shtarker A strongarm, or one who

Shtekeleh Sounds good, but I can't find a recipe for this doughnut!

Shtetl Small town or village

Shtinkers Informants

Shvitz To sweat, steambath

Sukkoh A temporary outdoor dwelling

Susurration A rustling, whispering, or murmur

Tefilin the ritual object used for prayer with the leather straps that Mendel uses to 'tie off' in support of his drug habit. (again, DMK)

Tekia A blast made on the shofar

Tohubohu Chaos; confusion

Tzaddik The Rightous One

Tzimmes A casserole flavoured with cinnamon and sweetened with honey

Yahrzeit Anniversary of a death, prayer and candles

My advice is to print out the list and keep it close by when reading this novel. It could save you many trips to the dictionary or computer!