Tag Archives: yiddish

Pui Pui: Spitting the words off of your lips

Main Piece:

What does Pui Pui mean?

“It’s like ‘get the words off your lips,’ kind of a purification thing, but it’s also about spitting. It’s like when you don’t’ want to jinx something, like ‘I hope I start feeling better soon, pui pui pui.’ It’s so the evil eye… to get rid of the evil eye, and it’s an Ashkenazi Jewish thing. Plus there’s hand motion associated with it! You kinda flick your hands like you’re getting rid of something, though all of the old people point their hands instead. I guess it can be spelled ‘ptui ptui’ like spitting, but the real question is how is it spelled in the original Yiddish (laughs)?” 


The informant is my mother. She is was raised Conservative Jewish and has an Ashkenazi (Easter European) Jewish background. This information was collected during a family zoom call where we were checking in with each other.

Analysis: When explaining Pui Pui to people who have never heard of it before, I often call it the Jewish “Knock on wood.” My entire family uses it as a replacement to knocking on wood whenever we don’t want to jinx something. Most Jews I’ve met have never heard of this saying, and those who have heard of it have strong ties to Eastern Europe. The combination of the spitting sound and the flicking hand motion are reflective of sympathetic magic practices, and it’s as if miming spitting the words off of your lips will actually prevent them from having been spoken. 

Hudavaoff kinder

Context: This is a Jewish proverb (spoken in Yiddish). It was said to my father (a fifty-six year old man) growing up, and when he began raising children, he started saying it to us. It is used to treat an otherwise tense situation comedically, a way to blow off steam, and promise their children that one day they will be saying it to their own kids (more as a warning than as actual advice). It is almost always said to the child when they are misbehaving or generally being a nuisance. Children never use the saying, and it is not spoken by people who are not parents or guardians of those children. 

  • Hudavaoff kinder 
    • Transliterated proverb. 
      • Hudavaoff: go raise
      • Kinder: children

Full translation: Go raise children. 

Explanation: When a child is being annoying, disrespectful, or irritating their parents, the parents tell them “go raise children”. Part of the proverb works as an incredulous “Why am I raising these brats?” and the other is “Wait until you have your own children. See how much you like it.” 

Analysis: Hudavaoff kinder works to both let the parents laugh off a situation where their kids are being annoying (this proverb is never spoken in full anger, but rather have annoyance/half incredulity) and lets them tell their children it is time to stop misbehaving before they have to get truly upset with them. On occasions, the parents use the saying to acknowledge that the children are being irritating, but don’t want/need to punish them, and instead use it to laugh along with them. Hudavaoff kinder almost works as a form of delayed revenge; the threat that one day the child is going to become the parent, and they will be the one using the saying on them. As someone who has been on the receiving end of this proverb often, I know it means that I need to dial down whatever I am doing before I get myself in real trouble. However, the threat that one day I will be equally irritated by children of my own has little to no emotional impact. 

My Father’s Favorite Yiddish Joke

Main Piece: 

The following is transcribed from a conversation between me (LT) and my father/informant (JET). 

JT: So here’s the story. A man owes another man money, but the guy who owes the money doesn’t have any money. It bothers him so much he can’t sleep. So, on the day that it’s due, at like three or four in the morning, he goes and knocks on the other guy’s door. And he says “you know that money I owe you? I don’t have it, I can’t pay you.” And the other man says, “okay” (laughs) “so why are you telling me this at three in the morning?” (laughs) And the first man says “Bis jetzt hub ich nisht gekennt schlufen, jetzt solst dee nisht schlufen!” That means “‘til now, I couldn’t sleep, now you shouldn’t sleep!” (laughs). 

LT: I love that one. Can you explain the punchline a little more? 

JET: Yeah, it kind of plays with your moral compass. Sure, he couldn’t pay the guy back. But hey, he was honest! 


My informant is my father, whose parents were Holocaust survivors who immigrated from Poland to New Jersey without speaking any English. My father was raised primarily speaking Yiddish around the house, and he learned English mainly at school. This particular joke is a classic Yiddish joke and was one of my grandfather’s favorites, who told it to my father throughout his upbringing. My father likes this joke “because, first of all, it’s funny,” but also because there’s a lot of truth in it: “It would really bother you if you couldn’t pay someone back, if you have any morals at all, but the thing about that line is the roles get flipped. Now it’s the other guy’s problem, and it must really bother him to know he’s out of money!” 


While I’m not in quarantine with my informant/father, I do call him every day, and this piece was collected during a routine call. 


I like this joke because it plays on a famous Jewish stereotype. Although it’s never explicitly said, all the characters in Yiddish jokes are jews (unless specified otherwise). One of the most widely known stereotypes is that jews are stingy. Well, this joke is about two jews who don’t have any money. However, they do have other virtues that play into the joke. The first is generosity. The fact that the man’s debt couldn’t be repaid means that the other man gave him money in the first place. The second virtue is honesty. The man not being able to sleep at night shows how he was uncomfortable leading the other man on. Lastly, and arguably most importantly, is a sense of humor. There are so many ways to tell someone you can’t pay them back, but the man did it in a punchline. While this story probably isn’t true, what makes it funny is that it could be. Everyone in the community knows people who have the characters’ qualities. In addition, virtues like generosity, honesty, and sense of humor are what I think of as some of the core values of the Jewish community. 

Yiddish Proverb

Context: The 20-year-old informant from Montclair, New Jersey was telling me how his mother’s grandfather, the informant’s great-grandfather, was a Yiddish teacher for many years. He often spoke fluent Yiddish to his granddaughter, and she picked up many interesting and sometimes hilarious phrases, jokes, and proverbs. I asked him if he could give me a few examples of these Yiddish phrases, and he told me that there is one thing that his grandparents, and sometimes his mother, always say to him. While this proverb always contributes the same meaning, it can be delivered in a multitude of variations, each one more descriptive than the next.

Piece: “So my great-grandfather was a Yiddish teacher, and he taught my mother many Yiddish phrases, which she, in turn, passed down to me. Definitely, the most memorable thing that he used to say was how he would tell someone to leave a room in response to them doing something idiotic or clumsy. Or if a person just said something rude, or like flat out stupid.”

1. Yiddish: “Gay esen a bagel”

English: “Go eat a bagel”

2. Yiddish: “Gay kachen afen yahn”

English: “Go take a shit in the ocean”

Analysis: While these two examples of folk speech seem to be completely different in meaning when first heard, they are actually employed to convey the same message: I want you to leave my presence. The speaker may not actually want the recipient of these words to leave; it may just be a way to bring a certain humorous shame upon the subject. I have noticed an interesting trend in the folk speech of eastern Europeans, such as Germans, Pollocks, and those who speak Yiddish. There seems to be an abundance of humor involving vivid, oftentimes grotesque imagery of the human body engaged in vulgar acts, sometimes even involving bodily fluids. Such a level of vulgarity is only socially acceptable to use if you are speaking to a family member or anyone else that you are very close to. When a father tells his son to “Gay kachen afen yahn” or “go shit in the ocean,” he is using it partially as a term of endearment. This type of folk speech, specifically telling someone to leave a room, exists in many other places around the world, including the United States, where they say, “Go take a hike!”

Shayna Punim

Background: Lila is Jewish. Her father is a Rabbi in the Reform Movement and is the head rabbi of a temple in Los Angeles. Lila’s grandmother is also Jewish, and grew up hearing Yiddish phrases from her parents that she now uses with her grandchildren.

Context: Lila was brainstorming things that her parents say to her and was very excited to share what her grandma calls her.

“My grandma always this thing to me in Yiddish, that I’m her Shayna Punem and that means that I’m a pretty face, but it means more than that, it means that I’m her pretty face, I’m the light of her life. She always says “my shayna punim” this, this and that. My grandma is very American, like she was born in America, but spoke Yiddish all the time because her parents because they were from Poland, they spoke Yiddish all the time. That’s one of those phrases that stuck with her and she’ll use when she’s talking to me or her other grandchildren, “you’re my shayna punim” like you’re my pretty face.”

Original phrase in Yiddish: Shayna punim

Reflection: I come from a Sephardic Jewish background since my family is Moroccan so I did not grow up hearing Yiddish from any members of my family. Yiddish is used mainly by Ashkenazi Jews.