Friday, August 1, 2008



Amidah: called “the eighteen” (even though there are really 19); the blessings said 3 times a day, composed in 5th century BCE, also called Semoneh Esreia

Aliya: the honor of being called to read blessings in the synagogue; also, emigrating to Israel

Ark: the cabinet in which the Torah scrolls are kept in the synagogue

Ashkanazi: descendants of Jews originally from Germany, Poland, Austria, and Eastern Europe (as opposed to Sephardi, from Iberia and the Middle East)

B.C.E.: rather than using B.C., “before Christ,” many Jews and Jewish books use B.C.E., meaning “before the Common Era.”

Bar mitzvah: coming-of-age ritual when a Jewish boy is thirteen and has completed the required Jewish studies; he is called to the Bima to read his Haftorah; after the service there is a celebration

Bat mitzvah: ritual celebrated in Reform and Conservative congregations to mark a Jewish girl’s coming of age (at age 12). In Orthodox Judaism, upon reaching age 12 a Jewish girl is considered a Jewish woman and is obligated to observe the laws, but since women do not lead the service, she does not do a Torah or Haftorah reading as do Reform and Conservative girls. However, it is customary for some sort of celebration to mark the coming of age in all three groups, Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative.

Bentching: saying a blessing, usually grace after meals

Bet din, beit din: the rabbinical “court” of three orthodox men; they preside over matters such as the granting of a get (a divorce) or a conversion

Bima: the platform in the synagogue where the Torah is read

Bris (also brith, brit): ritual circumcision as a sign of a male becoming a Jew; done the eighth day after the birth

Bubbe, bubbah: grandmother

Bubkes, bupkis: nothing, worthless (literally: goat turds)

C.E.: “Common Era,” used instead of A.D., which is latin for “In the year of our Lord.”

Cantor (also hazzan): person who sings and chants to lead the congregation in prayer

Challah: egg bread, braided; often served at—but not limited to—Sabbath meals

Chanuka: (see Hanukkah)

Chasidim (see Hasidim)

Chosen People: the Jews, who, according to the Torah, were picked by God to receive the gift of the Torah and to have the duty to be “A light to all nations.”

Chuppah: canopy under which the wedding party stands

Chutzpah: audacity—“of all the nerve!” is like saying “what chutzpah!”

Conservative Judaism: first appeared in the 1840’s. It is more strict than Reform Judaism in its adherence to Jewish law, but it is more liberal than Orthodox Judaism.

Covenant: contract, agreement, specifically the agreement between Abraham and God

Davening: reciting prayers—required for orthodox men three times daily (more during Sabbath and holidays)

Dreck: dirt, crap

Dreidel: a toy top, spun at Hanukkah in a children’s game; the Hebrew letters—on each of the four sides—represent the words “A great miracle happened there.”

Eruv: a boundary or border, erected around a community, within which one may carry objects during the sabbath

Etrog (citron): the largest, most beautiful lemon available, it is held in the left hand, close to the heart, during the blessing of the etrog and lulav during Sukkot

Fleishig: made with meat

Frum: observant, strict in following Jewish law

Get: Jewish divorce document; it nullifies the ketuba (marriage contract)

Glatt kosher: kosher food held to the most rigorous standard

Goy (pl. goyim): a word for non-Jews; literally the Hebrew word means “nations,” as in the sense that the Hebrew people were to be “a light among nations”

Haftorah: the scripture passage from the prophets read in the synagogue service

Haggadah: the telling,” the book read aloud during the seder (Passover meal) that tells the Passover story through narration, commentary, songs, and prayers

Hakafah: “circuit,” the march around the synagogue while carrying the Torah scrolls

Halachah: Jewish law

Hanukkah: an early winter feast celebrating a victory in a war for independence in the 2nd century, the Festival of Light, lasts for eight days

Ha-shem: “the name,” –i.e. God

Hasid (pl. Hasidim) a member of an orthodox sect begun in Poland in the 18th century, emphasizing worship through mysticism and joy; their appearance is distinctive because of the side curls (payes) the boys wear and the hats and coats many of the men followers wear

Kabbalah: a tradition of Jewish mysticism; it first appeared in the 12th century

Kahnahora: the Jewish equivalent of “knock on wood.”

Kashrut: kosher laws

Ketubah: a marriage contract signed before the wedding, written in beautiful Hebrew calligraphy and richly ornamented

Kibitz: to look over others’ shoulders and give unsolicited advice

Kiddish: blessing of the wine and of the Sabbath

Kiddish cup: ceremonial wine glass

Kippah: skullcap worn by Jewish men and boys in synagogue; Orthodox men and boys wear it at other times as well

Klezmer: eastern-European-sounding music often heard at Jewish weddings and celebrations; if a clarinet is wailing, think klezmer

Klutz: a clumsy person

Kvell: to be overcome with happiness

Kvetch: complain

Latke: potato pancake, a specialty at Hanukkah; my youngest son’s nickname

L’chayim: a wonderful Yiddish toast “To life!”

Lost tribes of Israel: in 722 B.C.E. the Assyrians took over Israel, dispersing its inhabitants. Where did they go? Or did they stay and assimilate?

Lubavitcher (also Chabad-Lubavitcher): one of the largest Hasidic movements, based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Lulav: three branches—palm, willow, and myrtle—in a holder; used during Sukkot; they are held in the right hand, and a lemon in the other, while a blessing is recited; this follows the description of what to do during the holiday as given in Leviticus 23.

Machzor: “cycle,” the prayer book for the holidays

Magen David: “shield of David,” six-pointed star which has become a symbol of Judaism

Maimonides: great Jewish thinker of the 12th century CE who composed the 13 Principles of Faith

Matzah (pl. matzot): unleavened bread eaten by Israelites when they fled from Egypt; it is eaten instead of bread during Passover

Maven: a know-it-all, a so-called expert

Mazel: good luck

Mazel tov: “Congratulations!”

Megillah: scroll, “the whole megillah” is the entire story of the Purim holiday found in the book of Esther

Melacha: constructive work (forbidden on Sabbath)

Menorah: candelabrum; the one for Hanukah has 9 branches

Meshugge:: crazy

Mezuzah: a case on the doorpost of a Jewish home; it contains a small parchment inscribed with the Shema, the prayer that begins “Hear, O Israel.”

Mensch: a good person

Milchig: dairy, made with milk

Minyan: quorum needed for communal prayer (10 men)

Midrash: a collection of early interpretations and commentaries on the Torah

Mishna: the collection of oral law forming the basic part of the Talmud; it was compiled by the 3rd century C.E. It was necessary because Jews were dispersed throughout many lands needed to have one standard way to practice their religion.

Mishegas: craziness

Mishpachah, mishpocheh: the extended family

Mitnagdim: literally "opponents"; those who refused to join Hasidim, preferring a more scholarly approach to Judaism

Mitzvah (pl. mitzvot) religious commandment (there are 613); also used in the sense of a good deed

Moshiach: “anointed one,” the person who will be designated King by God at some future time

Mohel: person trained to perform ritual circumcisions

MOT: member of the tribe

Musaf: the service added on the sabbath and on holidays; it follows the morning service

Lubavitcher: (also Chabad) one of the largest Hasidic movements, it is based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Naches: pleasure derived from the achievements of one’s children

Nebbish: a loser, a milquetoast, an ineffectual man

Nosh: a little snack, a little something to eat

Nu? : well?.....

Orthodox Judaism: the branch of Judaism which is most traditional and most strict in its observance of Jewish law. Major divisions of orthodoxy include Modern Orthodox and Hasidic.

Oy veh!: oh dear!

Parasha: weekly portion of the Torah to be read aloud at synagogue service

Pareve: neutral dishes, neither meat nor dairy, which can be served alone or with meat or dairy meals, according to kosher laws

Payes: side curls worn by Hasidic men and boys

Pesach: Passover, a major holiday during which there is a festive ritual meal featuring symbolic foods and a retelling of the Exodus story; the story, along with commentary and songs and prayers, is contained in a book called the Haggadah

Phylacteries: see Tefillin

Piyutim: hymns

Plotz: to explode, to die, as in “Oy veh, my son is dating a shiksa and I could just plotz.”

Purim: a merry festival, held late in winter, celebrating how Queen Esther saved her people from extermination in Persia

Rabbi: “teacher,” the scholar learned in the Torah who is chosen to lead the congregation

Rachmones: pity, compassion

Rebbe: Hasidic term for rabbi

Reform Judaism: the branch of Judaism least strict in its observance of Jewish law; it was first institutionalized in Germany in the 1840’s and has become the largest of the three basic divisions (reform, conservative, and orthodox) in North America. It asserts that much of the religious code of law no longer applies since Jews are dispersed among many nations and therefore act as citizens of those nations. However, the basic moral laws of Judaism are, of course, still operable and necessary.

Schlep: to pull or drag

Schmeer: a helping of cream cheese spread on a bagel; also a bribe

Sedakah (Tzedakah): charity

Selihot: prayers of repentance

Sephardi (pl. Sephardim) descendants of Jews originally from what is Spain and Portugal today. They were forced to leave at the end of the 15th century. In a broader sense, any non-Askanazi Jew

Shabbat (shabbos in Yiddish): the Sabbath, which begins at sundown on Friday and ends on Saturday at nightfall (approximately 45 minutes after sundown)

Shavuot (also Savuos) : a holiday celebrated in May or June, considered the conclusion of the cycle begun by Passover; it is also called the Feast of Weeks since it falls seven weeks after the second day of Passover; most importantly, the holiday celebrates God’s giving the law to Moses; originally Savuot was an agricultural holiday celebrating the grain harvest

Shaygets: a non-Jewish boy or man

Shema Yisrael: “hear, Israel,” the first two words of the most important prayer in Judasim. Used in morning and evening prayers.

Sheitel, shaytl: wig worn to cover head of married orthodox women

Shiksa: a non-Jewish girl or woman; from the Hebrew word for “blemish”

Simchat Torah: important holiday marking the end of the annual Torah reading and the beginning of a new year of Torah reading

Shiva: seven-day period of mourning

Shmuck: dope, jerk (obscene slang from the Yiddish word for penis)

Shofar: ram’s horn, which is blown during the morning service during both days of Roshashana, the Jewish New Year

Shtetl: small Jewish village in Eastern Europe

Shul: synagogue, temple

Simcha: a celebration

Siddur: jewish prayer book; most of the prayers were compiled during the 9th century in Babylonia

Society for Humanistic Judaism: organization whose mission is to enhance Jewish identity through study and practice of Jewish history and culture; however, it does not promote or practice worship.

Streimel: black fur hat which some Hasidic jews wear

Sukkot: An important and joyous seven-day holiday following on the fifth day after Yom Kippur. Originally a harvest festival of thanksgiving, it commemorates the desert wandering of forty years. Observant Jews build temporary shelters, called sukkot—booths—outside and use them for eating all meals and even, in some cases, sleeping.

Sukkuh: temporary house for eating and often sleeping during Sukkot, to remind Jews of where they lived as they wandered in the desert

Talmud: the compilation of law and custom that includes the early part, the Mishna, which was set by 200 C.E., and the later part, the Gemarah, which was established by the mid sixteenth century

Tallit: prayer shawl worn both during synagogue services and during private prayer at home

Tchotchkes: knickknacks, such as figurines

Tefillin (also phylacteries): a pair of black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with biblical verses worn by observant men during weekday morning prayers. One is placed above the forehead, and the other is strapped around the arm, hand, and fingers. The black leather straps which hold them in place are knotted in the form of specified Hebrew letters. Wearing these boxes honors the order to bind the commandments “on thy arm and on thy head.”

Temple: synagogue, shul, house of worship

Tikkun: “fixing”; tikkun olam: healing or fixing the world; sometimes interpreted as one’s spiritual purpose on earth

Tisha B’Av: a day of mourning and fasting to commemorate the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. ; this day, which falls in summer, is the end of a three week period beginning with a fast on Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, the day when the walls of Jerusalem were breached

Toches, tuchis: Yiddish for derriere

Torah (from the Hebrew “to point the way”): the central element of Judaism, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; commonly called The Books of Moses; in a broader sense Torah refers to the entire content of Judaism—its commentaries and interpretations as well as all the scriptures

Torah portion: the scripture passage from the Torah read aloud in synagogue

Trayf: food that is non-kosher

Tsuris: troubles, problems

Tush: bottom, derriere, toches

Tzitzes: fringes on garments, to remind the wearer of the 613 Jewish laws

Verklemmt: all choked up with emotion

Verbissene: sourpuss, embittered person

Wailing Wall: (also Western Wall, also Kotel): a tremendously important site in Jerusalem for Jews, it is all that is left of the Temple Mount, the base of the Temple. All but this wall was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.

Yahrzeit: anniversary of someone’s death

Yarmulke: skullcap, kippah

Yente: a nosy, gossipy woman

Yeshiva: Jewish school

Yiddish: language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews, it is related to German and eastern European languages such as Polish but is written using the Hebrew alphabet

Yom Kippur: day of Atonement

Zaydeh, zeydie: grandfather

Zaftig: pleasingly plump, curvy (said of women, not of men); literally it means juicy!

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