A Semantic Study of Yiddish-Origin Lexemes in English icon

A Semantic Study of Yiddish-Origin Lexemes in English

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4.5.2. shikse

This is a derogatory term used by some Jews to denote a gentile woman:

There's a hitch: David is Jewish, a fact that he hides from his Ivy League schoolmates and the shiksa who falls for his sensitive, broad-shouldered charm. (David Ansen, Newsweek, October 5, 1992: 49A)

Since my wife is not Jewish, I never use this term and nobody uses it in my presence.

4.5.3. davn

In an article about religious revival in the U.S.A., Newsweek (December 1990: 45) wrote:

There has been a modest revival of modern Orthodox Jews - congregations of successful, religiously committed Jews can be found from the Upstair Minyn in Los Angeles to Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. Reform temples find, often enough, that returnees want a strong dose of tradition, like davening in Hebrew. (Italics original)

Webster 3rd defines daven as "to recite the prescribe prayers in the daily and festival Jewish liturgies." It is derived from Yiddish davenen 'to pray , worship'. Obviously, Jews and Christians have different ways of praying; otherwise there would have been no need for a distinctive Jewish word.

Mordecai Kosover (1964: 364-365; as related by Gold 1985: 163) proposed that the verb davenen should be traced to Middle High German doenen 'singen spielen, tönen'. Birnbaum (1985: 169-172) rejects this etymon because the phonological development Kosover suggested, was most unlikely and because, semantically, there was not a direct development from 'to sing, play, sound' > 'to sing prayer' > 'to pray'. The cantor (khazn, bal-tefile) prays just as everyone else in the congregation does but, in contrast to others, he renders the prayers in a loud voice and musically.

Birnbaum ends the article by remarking that the riddle of the origin of this word is still unknown. Gold (1985: 173-181) continues the discussion. He accepts Birnbaum's rejection of Kosover's proposed etymon but does not accept the rejection of the suggested semantic change 'to sing, intone' > 'to pray'. Gold suggests that the origin of dav(e)nen may be found in other Jewish languages.

Praying has different connotations when applied to Jewish or to Christian practices. Cynthia Ozick described (1983: 1-8) the difficulties she had had finding an English equivalent for the Yiddish term bal-tefile while translating a Yiddish poem by Dovid Einhorn. The editor suggested "prayer leader" but to her opinion it was unfit: "It lacks even the smallest smell of Jewishness. It's empty-sounding" (p. 5; italics original).

After discarding the phrase "singer in the pulpit" because it might sound as if the "singer wears churchly robes", she tried "singer before the Ark" which had a Jewish whiff, but rejected it because bal-tfile is not usually much of a singer. She then mingled with "Reader of the Law" but that would not be wholly equivalent with the original term. "Master of Prayer", a direct translation of the Hebrew term, at least did not sound Protestant, but it inserted elements of authority and majesty which did not go well with bal-tfile. After nearly one year of trial and error the final version was this:

The last to sing before the Ark is dead.

Padlocks hang in the house of the Jews.

The windows are boarded, and shadows

huddle in shame in the pews.

Cynthia Ozick wrote the article some years after she did the actual translation of this poem and then, when she read it again, "pews" seemed to her very bad.

A traditional (Orthodox) synagogue differs from a church in almost every aspect. The 'prayer leader' stands on a small stage in the middle of the hall. The "pews" are tall so one can lay the prayer book on them and read while standing. The seats are of hard wood. The bal-tefile (always he, women are not allowed in the main hall) recites the prayers and everybody else follows. He is not a leader nor makes any decisions. The pattern of prayer has a tradition of hundreds and even more years and each occasion (morning, evening, Shabbat, holidays) has its own set of prayers recited always in the same order.

Throughout their history, Jews have been tenacious with respect to the use of Hebrew as their liturgical language and, therefore, praying in Hebrew is an indispensable part of davn. As the example in the beginning of this chapter suggests, some groups have adopted different languages, in this case English, as a language of praying. But, then, what they practice is no longer davning.


4.5.4. to sit shive

Traditional Jews observe a period of seven days' mourning for the dead. The count starts immediately after the funeral which takes place the same day the death occurs or the day after. 'To sit shive' literally means 'to sit seven' (in Yiddish zitsn shive) and is a partial translation of the Talmudic expression yashav shiv'a (Gold 1985: 368).

According to the ^ OED, this expression appeared in English for the first time in 1892 in I. Zangwill's book Children of the Ghetto (I.177):

If you had come round when he was sitting Shivah for Benjamin - peace be upon him! - you would have known.

Another example the OED cites, gives some idea of what actually this custom includes:

For seven days from the day of the funeral onwards a Jewish family sits Shiva. They sit on low stools in the drawing-room...and they sort of receive their friends and relations and get their sympathy. (1964. D. Gray ^ Devil wore Scarlet vi.41)

To sit shive can be used also not only in association with physical death. In an article about intermarrying among Jews Newsweek (July 22, 1991: 54) wrote:

Intermarriage, of course, is inevitable in the American melting pot, but 20 years ago many Jewish parents still sat shiva mourning the "death" of any child who married a gentile. Some Orthodox still do.

I doubt whether 20 years ago 'many' Jewish parents indeed expressed their sorrow over intermarriage in such an ultimate venting and that some still do it these days, but a hundred years ago, it was indeed a custom among observing Jews to consider a marriage to a non-jew as a death. In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, which takes place in a small village in Russia in 1905, there is a scene where Tevye, after hearing that his daughter Chava got married to Fyedka, says to his wife Golde: "Chava is dead to us! we will forget her. Go home" (Stein, Joseph 1965:147). The musical is based on Sholom Aleichem's stories and in the original text the family is actually sitting Shiva:

Get up, my wife, take off your shoes and let us sit down on the floor and mourn our chlid for seven days, as God has commanded. (p. 128)

Bluestein (1989:84) gives an example from Malamud's story "Black is my Favorite Color":

I sat shive for a week and remembered how she sold paper bags on her pushcart."

In 'proper' English this sentence can be rendered as "I sat seven days' mourning" for a week..." which may sound a bit ridiculous or at least redundant, but there is no mistake in it. (Malamud certainly knew what ^ Shive meant.)

Gold (1985, 1986c) observed paid obituaries in the New York Times for 1981 and 1982 and found that the announcements of mourning period ranged from the most Jewish to the most un-Jewish. The closest expression to Yiddish was in the form of: "The family will sit shive at 123 Jupiter Lane." An example of an innovative form was "Shive will be sat at the home of ------" because the Yiddish expression is never used in passive. Another innovation was "The family will observe shive at ------" because the Yiddish verb means 'sit' not 'observe'.

A less observant family announced that "Shive Wednesday evening at ----- ". "The family will observe the memorial week at ----- " is further de-Judaized because there was no mentioning of shive. A further step is "The family will observe a period of mourning at -----“ but still there is reference to a Jewish practice because non-Jewish obituaries do not contain the collocations mourning period or memorial period. Expressions like: "The family will be in mourning at ----," "The family will receive (friends) at ----" or "The Family will be at home after 4 PM Sunday" are fully general English.

Gold wrote that the innovative expressions were not to be found in the everyday language and claimed that they had been invented by non-Jewish funeral home personnel in order to make the announcement sound more American and 'fancy'. This is part of the process in which Jewish funeral has, for all but the most traditional families, already become highly Americanized with all that it involves: funeral homes, funeral directors etc., which are not traditionally Jewish.

The linguistic innovations Gold observed were the use of passive ("Shive will be sat at the home of -----."), the use of the verbs 'observe', 'held', 'commence' instead of 'sit', or such expression as shive services, shive week, pay a shive call etc. If indeed Gold is right, the question is what makes these expressions more American and 'fancier' than the simple rendering of the original Yiddish term.

Following the discussion on passive voice in Quirk et al.'s ^ A Comprehesive Grammar of the English Language (1985: 159-171) I would like to make these observations:

Meaning constraints: Active and passive sentences do not always have the same meaning:

Beavers build dams.

carries a different meaning than

?Dams are built by beavers.

In subject position, a generic phrase tend to be interpreted universally: 'All beavers ... ' and 'All dams ...' which in this case is incorrect. Therefore:

The family sits shive at ....

is equivalent to

Shive will be sat at ...


Shive will be held at ...

since there is no universal interpretation involved. It is only the immediate family which sit shive.

Agent constraint: The agent by-phrase is generally optional. The omission occurs when the agent is irrelevant or unknown. In some cases, when the agent phrase is left unexpressed, the identity of the agent may be irrecoverable. In our case the agent is obvious: the immediate family. Therefore, the active and the passive sentences carry the same meaning.

Verb constraints: ^ To sit shive is an intransitive verb and it cannot take an object. The expression in inseparable and we cannot ask: Sit what? It is therefore ungrammatical to say

Shive will be sat ...

Shive without to sit is, as far as Yiddish is concerned, meaningless. It means 'seven'.

Frequency constraints: There is a stylistic factor in the usage of active or passive forms. The passive is more commonly used in informative, objective and impersonal style of, for example, scientific articles and news reporting.

The announcement of a mourning period is a highly personal matter and the use of the passive voice in this occasion carries a connotation of distance, as if the announcer is not involved in the event. According to Gold, the passive mode was invented by funeral homes, which apparently deliver the announcements to the newspapers. Every expression but to sit shive is an English innovation and does not follow the traditional Jewish terminology. When a passive form is used, one may assume with high certainty that the family no longer follows closely Jewish tradition.

I examined The the obituaries in the Sunday issues of The New York Times from August 2 till November 1, 1992 and despite the fact that many announcements concerning Jewish people appeared, only in three cases it was announced that the family would sit shive. The form of the announcements was passive: "Shiva at the home of.....", "Shiva will be held at his home", and "Shiva will be at ........"

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