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!


pacman said...

The list is a great help!
As I understand it "eruv" is also the area in which activities such as travelling, carrying things etc. is permitted on the Jewish sabbath- strictly speaking, this should be the home, buthis area is often artificially extended . Hence the importance of the boundary maven, who keeps a record of all these areasand thus provides sanction for what can and can't be done on the Sabbath without breaking
Jewish law.
I'm loving the book. Keep up the good work.

curious reader said...

Thanks for elaborating on 'eruv', Pacman. If any more definitions come to light please share them with me?

SqueakyChu said...

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

A Sheygets is a non-Jewish boy.

Ron said...

Thanks for the list.

Lynn D. Warner said...

THANK YOU! I was praying I'd find something like this on the 'net.

Daniel said...

Shamus = Detective
Shammes = A deacon

Not sure of context of Pilpil in your list, but maybe Pepper (in Hebrew Pilpel)?

Dennis M. Kirschbaum said...

Just rereading the YPU and found your list while trying to figure out why he calls a cigarette a 'papiros.' Nicely done!

By the way, 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. You may also want to include 'Tefilin' the ritual object used for prayer with the leather straps that Mendel uses to 'tie off' in support of his drug habit.

curious reader said...

I love this exchange of information! Ain't that a shocking use of the tefilin? Sacred object used for profane purposes ( or am I being too harsh on drug users?)

Ben Shaffer said...

Haha. I loved the list and it made me laugh. If you are looking for a complete Yiddish dictionary, then go to: Free Online Yiddish Dictionary

David Ball said...

A "Luftmench" is NOT "an intellectual", altho he could be. Literally "air-man", a man who lives on air, it designates someone who has to live by his wits--not his intellect, but his cunning--and the connotation of the word is that he doesn't do it very well.

David Ball said...

"Luftmensch" is not a synonym for an intellectual, but for someone who lives by his wits, or shifts, or tricks... usually badly.

Carolyn said...

Thank you for this very helpful glossary! Makes it so much easier -- & the book is both entertaining and educational.

YAM83 said...

Shammes in this book is akin to seamus/shamus, slang for a (private) detective. Maybe just as 'sholem' is yid for 'peace', which sounds like 'piece', slang for firearm. It's like rhyming slang, maybe.
As for shtekeleh, maybe that's a Filipino word.

Tim Cinead said...

Bessarabia is a historical region corresponding to Moldavia. Fish Eye is a clever reference to the "stink eye" or "evil eye" of Eastern Europe with a possible sideways glance (like a fish) towards Jewish dietary preferences for white fish salads and such. In total, the "Bessarabian fish eye" is just a neologism implying a long gaze by a Russian Jew expressing suspicion and disapproval.

John said...

The book has the spelling "shochet" on p. 13; different than the schochet in the list.

Juanita Heyerman said...

Your term "pilpil" may refer to "pilpul," talmudic hair-splitting. I believe it's described in Chaim Potok's "The Chosen."

ncs said...

Thank you all for keeping me company in this funny little book! a new edition would do well to include your annotated glossary along with some maps.

curious reader said...

Thank you for the compliment, ncs. I heartily agree that maps and a glossary would be a small improvement.
would like to be the author!

Lynda Newman said...

Thanks for the list. A Maven is an expert (of any type). A boundary maven is the one who sets up and inspects the eruv.
I gather a Rutachevski is a body guard or strong
arm, any thoughts on origin?

Lynda Newman said...

Pilpul is deep intellectual discussion of minute points of law. Example "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin"

curious reader said...

Thanks ever so much for clarifying pilpul for me.
Since writing the blog I have also found this article to be very interesting:

Tristan Black Wolf said...

For me, "pilpul" was part and parcel of the Rabbi Small books by Harry Kemelman (beginning with Friday the Rabbi Slept Late). That hair-splitting logic was at the root of every mystery, at one point or another.

Kawika said...

Very nice to have this list, but really should have noted words that have nothing to do with yiddish.
Examples: rappelling, satori, senescence, sententious, etc. etc. etc.

curious reader said...

Kawika- you want for me to remove those non-Yiddish words?
Or to say, "Here are some words I had to look up, found out their exact meaning and wrote them down for my own benefit- and perhaps for anyone else who may be stumbling along."
I read the book in the days before smartphones and dictionary apps.
Maybe the blog has outlived its usefulness.. but it did give me the pleasure of writing down one the lovely words from the English language 'susurration'.