Tag Archives: yiddish

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.


Yiddish Jinx: “Kneina Hura”

Main Piece: “So in the Jewish tradition… it’s really a Yiddish term… so I think more of the older generation identifies with it and it’s been passed down my family from my grandparents and, so, the term is ‘kneina hura’. It’s basically what we would consider a jinx and so it’s when you say something in advance and then if something is going well but then you’re like don’t say it… that’s kneina hura. I’m trying to think of an example. So it might be if you have an event coming up over the weekend and you look at the forecast and you say oh what great weather– my mom would say don’t say that, that’s kneina hura because then it may rain.”

Background: The informant heard this term from her mother and grandmother, who still uses Yiddish. The informant has very little knowledge of Yiddish, while her mother knows only what she’s heard from her own mother. Growing up, the informant intepreted this saying as a way to ward off a jinx. Her mother occassionally uses Yiddish informally, but her grandmother uses Yiddish terminology quite often. The informant notes that jinxes are important to her family because they believe that despite the inevitability of things going wrong, there is some higher authority with control over these events.

Performance Context: The informant sat in a chair while I sat at my desk.

My Thoughts: The informant’s piece of folklore has been passed down orally directly through the grandmother, who is the family’s holder of Yiddish terminology. Yiddish is considered a dying, or even dead, language with little contemporary usage. The informant herself rarely uses Yiddish and can only remember a few phrases from her grandmother, so it seems unlikely that this saying will be passed down generationally. The superstition and value placed on the power of the jinx is interesting, as the evil eye (a source of protection against harm) is quite dominant in navigating chance and fortune in Jewish tradition.

Oyfn Pripetshik – Yiddish Song

Oyfn pripetchik brent a fayerl,

Un in shtub iz heys,

Un der rebe lernt kleyne kinderlekh,

Dem alef-beys.
Zet zhe kinderlekh, gedenkt zhe, tayere,

Vos ir lernt do;

Zogt zhe nokh a mol un take nokh a mol:

Kometsalef: o!

Lernt, kinder, mit groys kheyshek,

Azoy zog ikh aykh on;

Ver s’vet gikher fun aykh kenen ivre –

Der bakumt a fon.

Lernt, kinder, hot nit moyre,

Yeder onheyb iz shver;

Gliklekh der vos hot gelernt toyre,

Tsi darf der mentsh nokh mer?

Ir vet, kinder, elter vern,

Vet ir aleyn farshteyn,

Vifl in di oysyes lign trern,

Un vi fil geveyn.

Az ir vet, kinder, dem goles shlepn,

Oysgemutshet zayn,

Zolt ir fun di oysyes koyekh shepn,

Kukt in zey arayn!!!


English Translation:

On the stove, a fire burns,

And in the house it is warm.

And the rabbi is teaching little children,

The alphabet.

See, children, remember, dear ones,

What you learn here;

Repeat and repeat yet again,

Kometsalef: o!”

Learn, children, with great enthusiasm.

So I instruct you;

He among you who learns Hebrew pronunciation faster –

He will receive a flag.

Learn children, don’t be afraid,

Every beginning is hard;

Lucky is the one has learned Torah,

What more does a person need?

When you grow older, children,

You will understand by yourselves,

How many tears lie in these letters,

And how much lament.

When you, children, will bear the Exile,

And will be exhausted,

May you derive strength from these letters,

Look in at them!

The song Oyfn Pripetshik (translates to above the stove) is a traditional Yiddish/Jewish song that is usually taught by teachers to their juvenile students in their kindergarden class. The song is about a rabbi teaching the alef bet (the hebrew alphabet) to his young students. Because of its simplistic tune and lyrics, the song is often used to teach students Yiddish grammar and vocabulary. Interestingly, the song also contains a lyrical reference to the many struggles that Jews have struggled throughout history in the lyrics “When you grow older, children, You will understand by yourselves, How many tears lie in these letters, And how much lament”.

The informant, Reyna Babani, is a 71-year-old Mexican Jew who lives in Mexico City. Because she grew up in such a close knit community, Reyna considers herself an expert on Jewish culture. She was taught the song as a young girl in a Yiddish elementary school in Mexico City. She has a strong emotional connection to this song, as it was an easy way for her to connect with her immigrant grandparents. They did not speak much Spanish, and she was the only grandchild who spoke Yiddish, so they very much liked it when she sang to them in their native language.

This song is noteworthy because it seems to be an attempt by the elders of the Mexican-Jewish community to encourage children to embrace their Jewish identity. Even though this school was in Mexico, children were taught several Yiddish songs and were even instructed in how to speak the language itself. This goal to have children stay connected to their roots seems to have worked, as Reyna’s learning of the song left her feeling encouraged to spend more time with her grandparents.


Zog Nit Keynmol – Yiddish Song

Original Yiddishזאָג ניט קיין מאָל, אַז דו גייסט דעם לעצטן וועג,
כאָטש הימלען בלײַענע פֿאַרשטעלן בלויע טעג.
קומען וועט נאָך אונדזער אויסגעבענקטע שעה –
ס׳וועט אַ פּויק טאָן אונדזער טראָט: מיר זײַנען דאָ!פֿון גרינעם פּאַלמענלאַנד ביז ווײַסן לאַנד פֿון שניי,
מיר קומען אָן מיט אונדזער פּײַן, מיט אונדזער וויי,
און וווּ געפֿאַלן ס׳איז אַ שפּריץ פֿון אונדזער בלוט,
שפּראָצן וועט דאָרט אונדזער גבֿורה, אונדזער מוט!ס׳וועט די מאָרגנזון באַגילדן אונדז דעם הײַנט,
און דער נעכטן וועט פֿאַרשווינדן מיט דעם פֿײַנט,
נאָר אויב פֿאַרזאַמען וועט די זון אין דער קאַיאָר –
ווי אַ פּאַראָל זאָל גיין דאָס ליד פֿון דור צו דור.

דאָס ליד געשריבן איז מיט בלוט, און ניט מיט בלײַ,
ס׳איז ניט קיין לידל פֿון אַ פֿויגל אויף דער פֿרײַ,
דאָס האָט אַ פֿאָלק צווישן פֿאַלנדיקע ווענט
דאָס ליד געזונגען מיט נאַגאַנעס אין די הענט.

טאָ זאָג ניט קיין מאָל, אַז דו גייסט דעם לעצטן וועג,
כאָטש הימלען בלײַענע פֿאַרשטעלן בלויע טעג.
קומען וועט נאָך אונדזער אויסגעבענקטע שעה –
ס׳וועט אַ פּויק טאָן אונדזער טראָט: מיר זײַנען דאָ

Zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg,
Himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg.
Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho,
S’vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do!

Fun grinem palmenland biz vaysn land fun shney,
Mir kumen on mit undzer payn, mit undzer vey,
Un vu gefaln s’iz a shprits fun undzer blut,
Shprotsn vet dort undzer gvure, undzer mut!

S’vet di morgnzun bagildn undz dem haynt,
Un der nekhtn vet farshvindn mit dem faynt,
Nor oyb farzamen vet di zun in der kayor –
Vi a parol zol geyn dos lid fun dor tsu dor.

Dos lid geshribn iz mit blut, un nit mit blay,
S’iz nit keyn lidl fun a faygl oyf der fray,
Dos hot a folk tsvishn falndike vent
Dos lid gezungen mit naganes in di hent.

To zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg,
Himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg.
Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho –
S’vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do!


English Translation

Never say this is the final road for you,
Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.
As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message: we are here!

From lands so green with palms to lands all white with snow.
We shall be coming with our anguish and our woe,
And where a spurt of our blood fell on the earth,
There our courage and our spirit have rebirth!

The early morning sun will brighten our day,
And yesterday with our foe will fade away,
But if the sun delays and in the east remains –
This song as motto generations must remain.

This song was written with our blood and not with lead,
It’s not a little tune that birds sing overhead,
This song a people sang amid collapsing walls,
With pistols in hand they heeded to the call.

Therefore never say the road now ends for you,
Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.
As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message: we are here!

Zog Nit Keynmol (translates to Never Say, also known as Hymn of the Partisans), is a traditional Yiddish/Jewish song that is considered to be one of the main anthems of the Jews that managed to survive the Holocaust. It was written during WWII by a Jewish prisoner of the Vilna Ghetto, after which it quickly became a symbol of resistance agaisnt the Nazi occupation. Sang to the tune of a traditional military march, the over time came to symbolize the memories of those lost during the war. It is often sung at annual Holocaust memorial ceremonies.

The informant, Reyna Babani, is a 71-year-old Mexican Jew who lives in Mexico City. Because she grew up in such a close-knit community, Reyna considers herself an expert on Jewish culture. She was taught the song as a young girl in a Yiddish elementary school in Mexico City. Beginning at the age of 13, all students were made to participate in a yearly Holocaust memorial ceremony. Because of this, at that age Reyna quickly became familiar with the song and the heartache that was associated it. Although the song was considered quite sad, she insists that it also had a hopeful tone, as the lyrics called for courage and strength during difficult times.

Songs like this are great indicators of what life was like for Jews after the war. Clearly, they were very distraught over what had occurred. But somehow, they managed to stay positive and move on through the inspiring songs sung by the youth. It appears that children like Reyna were instrumental in keeping Jewish communities alive and strong.

“It is better to have tuchus than sechel” – Yiddish Phrase

“Es mejor tener tuchus que sechel”

Phonetics: “Ez meˈxoɾ teˈneɾ ˈtuʧus ke seˈʧel”

Translation: It is better to have a bottom (understood as persistence) than a brain.

This phrase combines two Yiddish words with the Spanish language. Because it was understood that having a bottom implied being persistence and that having a brain implied being intelligent, this proverb implies that it is better to be persistent than to be smart. It is often said by a wise adult after witnessing another struggling to complete his or her work.

The informant, Reyna Babani, is a 71-year-old Mexican Jew who lives in Mexico City. Because she grew up in such a close-knit community, Reyna considers herself an expert on Jewish culture. She was taught the proverb by her father after he observed her struggling to finish various tasks, such as finishing her homework. To her, the proverb represents the idea that it is better to keep working hard than to simply be smart.

This phrase is a clear example of something that resulted from the Mexican and Yiddish cultures mixing together. Reyna’s father was born in Europe but had been raised in Mexico, so it makes sense why he would mix both languages into the same sentences. It is interesting to see how her father maintained his Yiddish identity, but still assimilated into his new country.

Keyn eyn-hore and Wearing Blue

According to the informant, it is traditional for young newborns to wear clothing and accessories that have the color blue on them for about the first two years of their lives. The idea is that by wearing blue, the weak and helpless infants would be protected from the evil eye, which in Yiddish is known as keyn eyn-hore. This blue protection can come in many forms, including blue clothing and blue jewelry.

The informant, Reyna Babani, is a 71-year-old Mexican Jew who lives in Mexico City. Because she grew up in such a close-knit community, Reyna considers herself an expert on Jewish culture. Although she does not remember who taught this idea to her or when it was learned, she claims that it is a staple of Yiddish culture because everyone she know participated in it. She enjoys this tradition because it helps her feel that the newborn children are safe, especially since they are at such a vulnerable stage in their lives. She also acknowledges that other colors, like red, have been known to work in the past.

What is strange about this tradition is that the color blue has been chosen out of all of the colors that humans can see. Why was blue chosen to protect these children? Why is red not used universally? What other colors are used around the world for a similar purpose? These are questions that would be quite interesting to research.

For more research on the evil eye and Judaism, look here: Brav, Aaron. “The evil eye among the Hebrews.” The Evil Eye: A Casebook 2 (1981): 44-54.

Jewish Jokes

*Note: The informant, Harriet, is my grandmother. She’s a Jewish woman who identifies with Yiddish aspects of Jewish culture.

The following are several Yiddish jokes. At least in my family, humor is considered an integral part of being Jewish, and there’s a special breed of joke that’s distinctively Jewish. Often these jokes come in the form of long stories that can be customized and drawn out by their teller. They often involve old Jews, rabbis, and/or Yiddish words, and a lot of them emphasize wordplay or poke fun at Jewish stereotypes or non-Jews skewed understanding of Jewish culture.

It’s important to note that when these jokes are told, it’s customary for the teller to speak lines of dialogue in a thick, exaggerated Yiddish accent.

INFORMANT: “So there was a big civic dinner one night at the local community center, and there were a bunch of people there from the local synagogue and the local church. And the main dish was this big glazed ham. So when they passed the ham platter to the rabbi, he shakes his head no, and the priest kind of chuckles and teases him and says ‘Rabbi, when are you going to forget that silly rule of yours and eat ham like the rest of us?’ And the Rabbi replies, ‘Oh, at your wedding reception, Father.'”

This is an example of a Jewish culture clash joke that points out the objective silliness of religious traditions and calls out the hypocrisy of other religions who scorn keeping kosher and other Jewish customs. The Christian priest thinks it’s silly that the rabbi doesn’t eat ham, but the rabbi points out that it’s just as silly that the priest can’t get married.

INFORMANT: “A little Jewish boy goes home to his mother and is excited to tell her about the part he got in the school play. He runs home and tells her, and she asks, ‘Oh, Saul, that’s wonderful, what part are you?’ Saul says, ‘I’m gonna play the Jewish husband!’ And his mother frowns and says, ‘Saul, honey, I thought you said you wanted a speaking part?'”

Jewish jokes often play on the fact that Jewish wives and mothers are perceived as extremely strong-willed and stubborn – they often run the house and are dominant over their husbands. The mother considers the role of Jewish husband a non-speaking role, poking fun at Jewish marital dynamics.

INFORMANT: “So there was this Jewish town and they didn’t have enough men to have a decent number of weddings, so they started importing men from other towns. One day a groom-to-be came in on the train, and two mother-in-laws-to-be were waiting for him. The first one said, ‘Oh, that’s my son-in-law,’ and the second one said, ‘No, he’s MY son-in-law.’ The town called a rabbi to settle the dispute. He gave it some thought and he told them, ‘If you both want the son-in-law, we’ll just cut him in half and give each of you one half of him.’ And one woman replied, ‘No, that’s horrible! Just give him to the other woman.’ And the rabbi says, ‘I will give him to the other woman. The one willing to cut him in half must be the true mother-in-law!'”

This joke is a play on the old Biblical story of King Solomon and the baby, except in that story, the real mother is the woman who tells King Solomon not to cut the baby in half, because she truly cares for her child and wants to see it live, even if it has to belong to another woman. In this variation, the family members involved are sons and their mothers-in-law, a relation that can generally tend to be tense in American culture. The joke implies that all real mothers-in-law dislike and wish harm on their sons-in-law, so the man’s real mother in law must be the one who was about to let him get cut in half!

INFORMANT: “There’s this beautiful lady at a charity ball and she’s wearing an enormous diamond, so another lady comes up to her and compliments her on it. The woman with the diamond goes, ‘Oh, thank you, darling. It’s the third biggest diamond in the world. There’s the Hope Diamond, the Kohinoor, and then this one, the Lipshitz diamond.’

‘You must be so lucky,’ said the other lady, and the diamond lady says, ‘Oh no, but it’s not all peaches and cream. With the Lipshitz diamond comes the Lipshitz curse.’

‘Well, what’s the Lipshitz curse?’


This is another joke poking fun at Jewish marital relations and the notion that Jewish people are greedy. In this scenario, the woman with the diamond is excited to have the diamond, but she considers the husband that gave it to her a curse. Jewish wives are often portrayed as being sick of or disdainful of their husbands.

Yiddish Names

*Note: The informant, Laura, is my mother. She’s a Jewish woman who identifies with Yiddish aspects of Jewish culture.


INFORMANT: “A lot of the jokes were based on misunderstandings of Yiddish words, because there was a lot of that. There were a lot of things like… my great uncles were three brothers, and in Russia they were Levenbuch, and when they came through Elllis Island, they each went through separately, and the people at Ellis Island just wrote down what they thought they heard them saying, and so when they started their life in America, one was Levenbook, one was Levenbrook, and one was Levenburg. So there was a lot of that, but the story that they like to tell was about a nervous Jewish guy coming through Ellis Island, and he was so flustered when he got there that they asked him his name and he said in Yiddish: “Jin fergessen,” which means “I forget,” and they wrote down “Shane Ferguson.” Which couldn’t be any less of a Jewish name if you tried. There was a lot of that, making fun of the language, because Yiddish is not a written-down language, it’s a spoken language, so pretty much everything we did in terms of calling things … speaking in Yiddish, calling things Yiddish names and the Yiddish jokes were all based on this language that developed over time that wasn’t really a written language but it was more like a cultural language. so it’s very rich in, you know, this is the cultural part of Judaism that we’re imbued with.”


Yiddish is an interesting case of folklore because it’s a language that’s almost completely carried by oral tradition – Yiddish is not a written language like Hebrew, and it’s hard to peg down agreed-upon spellings for many Yiddish words. Yet, Yiddish is carried on by the Jewish people and even by non-Jews, because several Yiddish words have been adopted into the general English vocabulary. People use words like “shmutz,” “shmuck,” and “nosh” on a regular basis, without really even realizing they’re using Yiddish words!

These stories are also significant to folklore because they exemplify the hilarity resulting from cultural differences. Americans at Ellis Island couldn’t quite grasp the Jewish last names of the incoming immigrants, so Jewish people often lost their names to more Americanized surnames like “Ferguson” in the case of the Shane Ferguson joke. It’s a moment of cultural mixing.