Since the establishment of Israel, the adaptation of Hebrew, language of piety and learning, to the uses of daily life has been proceeding at a high rate of acceleration, with results that are often amazing and sometimes amusing. Ruth Gruber here offers some samples of Hebrew as currently spoken, in a report which, she assures us, only skims the surface.
It is no small thing to take the tongue of Solomon’s love songs and Moses’ laws and make it the language of a new state, of bus drivers and farmers and statesmen, to make it so alive that it can be used by soldiers on the Arab fronts and by diplomats in world assemblies. Since all do not as yet speak Hebrew in Israel, a ride in a bus is like a trip through a latter-day Babel. Straphangers holding on for dear life speak French, German, English, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Polish, or Yiddish. Arabs in keffiyehs (headdress) and Yemenite women in embroidered pants, talking Arabic, sit next to people who speak Hebrew with all accents, including the Scandinavian.
However, the effort to make everyone talk Hebrew goes on unremittingly, though not without rear-guard sniping from the older tongues. During the fighting with the Arabs in Jerusalem, an old lady sat huddled in a bus while Arab shots whizzed all around. She put her hands to her head and shouted indignantly: “Dort shiest men, un do ret men Ivrit!—Over there, they’re shooting, and here they’re talking Hebrew!”
Some of the Germans of “Hitler’s aliyah” found Hebrew an almost impossible language to master. They tell the story of a German Jew drowning in the sea at Nahariya, who shouted: “Ezra, ezra!—Help, help!” Another German Jew, walking along the beach, saw him and shouted back: “Ivrit hast du gelernt? Schwimmen hättest du lernen sollen!—Hebrew you’ve learned? You should have learned to swim!”
Most of the newer immigrants do not know Hebrew. They are studying it in quick courses given everywhere—in the schools, in the army, even at the police stations. They need it, of course, for jobs, just as new immigrants to America needed English to get work.
In a few days, every visitor and new immigrant picks up the most common words. Shalom (“peace”) is the greeting that you hear more than any other word in Israel. Goodbye, Mr. Chips became on a movie marquee Shalom, Chaver Chips. “Thank you very much” is toda raba. And one of the expressions a visitor needs most is rega echad (pronounced ray-ga-hot), which literally means “one minute,” but can mean anything from an hour to a day. Trying to get off a bus, you break a path toward the door, shout “rega, rega, rega” as loud as you can, run like mad, and jump off.
A tourist can get along quite well with English, very well with Yiddish and German, but, if he comes with even a little Hebrew, he can find himself far along the road toward making friends. But he soon discovers two things. First, the Israeli accents will be strange to him. He has probably been speaking Hebrew with an Ashkenazic accent, the accent of Eastern and Central Europe. In Israel, Hebrew is spoken with the Sephardic accent. Second, he quickly realizes that the language of the bus drivers and soldiers and children on the street is not so much Ivrit (Hebrew) as “Sabrit,” the language of the native-born sabras, a brand new language, called by some of the soldiers sleng.
Sleng, which of course is “Sabrit” for “slang,” is a wonderful language built while you run. Any good explosive onomatopoetic word can be dropped into the grab bag. It is made up of English, French, Russian, Yiddish, German, Arabic, and any other language, simply switched into Hebrew syntax.
Sleng can be divided into three categories:
- Pure Hebrew of which the meaning is metaphorical. For example, nidbak [l’] shinaim means literally “it’s glued to the teeth”; in “Sabrit” it means “delicious.”
- English words, phrases, and idioms lifted bodily into Hebrew. “Get cracking” becomes ‘stadek, which means “split yourself up in small pieces.” During the early days of the Arab-Jewish war, American students, mostly ex-soldiers who had been studying at the Hebrew University, spent their evenings infiltrating American slang into Hebrew sleng. Literally translated, phrases like “big wheel,” “eager beaver,” and others have become part of the new language.
- Words brought over intact from another language with variations on the accent and a jovial broadening of the usage. One of the most common words is puntcher, from the American “puncture,” though it has nothing to do with a tire. Anything that goes wrong, from putting your slip on backwards to getting fired, is a puntcher. A hitch-hike is a tremp, from the British “tramp,” and a trempiste is a boy who rides on his thumb. Transportation is such a problem in the new state that the roads are full of trempistim (note the “im,” Hebrew plural ending for nouns) who queue up at various points, while an MP stops every military vehicle and any civilian vehicle and gets the trempiste a tremp. Qvaker, pronounced like the “qvack” of Donald Duck, is the name for any cereal. It comes from Qyaker Oats. A shvitzer (from the German Schwätzer for a man who talks a lot) is someone who runs around in a fury, talks constantly of how much he does, makes everyone mad, and gets practically nothing accomplished.
For me, the most descriptive word in the language is the Yiddish word nudnik, in all its forms. Brought over by the Russian Jews, the word is used for anybody who is a bore. There are wonderful variations on nudnik. A phudnik is a nudnik with a Ph.D.; a shudnik is a nudnik who says, “Should I—shouldn’t I?” and so on.
“So what?” or “never mind” is malesh, which every American soldier in Cairo or Casablanca learned, and which must be spoken with the Arabic shrug of the right shoulder.
The most accomplished “slengists” are the Israeli soldiers. They look down with rare contempt upon the grammarians who are building modern Hebrew out of the Bible and who thumb through the Old Testament to find something in Isaiah or Jeremiah that resembles a jeep, which in sleng is simply a jip.
Here is a list of words and expressions, including many built from languages all over the world, spoken by accomplished “slengists”:
artiste: a man who never does any work and gets away with it. In the Israeli army there are two kinds of people, artistes and soldiers.
bek-ex: the back axle of a car. A bek ex’l is a small bek-ex. A front axle is a front bekex, and a small front axle is a front bek-ex’l.
Ben Gurionchiki: an affectionate name for a child born at the time the British slowed down Jewish immigration. Ben Gurion was urging mothers to defy the British by having large families. It was a kind of immigration from within.
bnai dodenu (lit., “our cousins”): Arabs.
blintze (from the Russian): a pancake. But since nothing is simple in Israel, there is constant debate on whether to call a pancake blintze, melintze, blinitzi, blintshe, blintzke, or blintses.
chutzpa: a combination of cheek and guts, sassy; the classic definition: a man who murders his father and mother and then pleads for mercy on the ground that he is an orphan.
dreher (from the German, lit., “twister”): a man who wangles himself in and out of situations, usually with success.
eisen (from the German): colossal, terrific, super.
eisen beton (lit., “iron concrete”): supercolossal.
festukes: peanuts; what little boys call little girls.
finjan (from the Arabic): an Arabic coffee pot. Young Israelis sit around a finjan the way young Americans sit around a campfire.
fresh: salmon; because in some farm colonies all the salmon cans from America had a large word “fresh” printed across them.
jip: the most popular vehicle in Israel.
jokair (from the British “joker”): an Englishman.
habibi (from the Arabic): darling, sweetie; ya habib’ti—“Hi, toots.”
kumsitz (from the German, lit., “come sit”): informal gathering, usually around an Arabic coffee pot; see finjan.
l’kaleps (from the English): to collapse.
lo fidaltee (from the Yiddish nit gefiedelt, lit, “did not play the violin”): sour grapes; so, I didn’t succeed; a fellow can try.
masmer (lit., “a nail): a poor fool—a man whom everybody hammers on the head.
mea achuz (lit., “100 per cent”): mission accomplished, everything O.K. Eisen mea achuz is supercolossal.
meshuga: “nuts.” The classical Hebrew word for “mad” is meshuga
meshugayim l’syort: sport fans.
messtink: mess tin.
namer (formed from the first letters of nudnik madrega rishona): nudnik first class. Literally, namer is Hebrew for “leopard.”
nudnik: a pest, an ear-bender (see above). The difference between a summer nudnik and a winter nudnik is that you can tell a summer nudnik right away, but it takes a little longer with a winter nudnik; you have to wait until he removes his coat.
nylon: terrific, marvelous; see eisen.
qvaker: any cereal (as noted above).
shlemiel (from the Yiddish): bull in a china shop.
shlimazel (from the Yiddish): a poor fool who has only bad luck. The difference between a shlemiel and a shlimazel is that a shlemiel is the man who spills the hot soup on the shlimazel’s pants.
sabra (lit., a variety of cactus): a native-born Israeli, thorny outside but sweet and juicy within.
tchizbat (from the Arabic): tall stories told especially by soldiers; derived from the Arabic custom of sitting around a campfire telling true stories but with rich embroidery.
tchizbatron (from tchizbat and the Hebrew teatron, “theater”): the USO of Israel.
tziyonut: the boring conversation of an intellectual nudnik, derived from the Hebrew word for “Zionism,” which you almost never hear in Israel except in this connection.
Yeke: German Jew; formed from the first letters of Yehudim keshai oref, “stiff-necked Jews.” Or, perhaps, from the German Jacke (“jacket”) which the German Jews continued to wear even for work on the kibbutz.
Another language spoken in Israel is “Pinglish”—Palestine English, born during the Mandate. “Pinglish” is English translated from Yiddish or German or Hebrew idioms. It is seen at its best on signs which are printed in both Hebrew and “Pinglish.”
A butcher puts up a sign: I am killing myself twice a day.
A billboard on a road in Haifa, showing a torso properly brassiered and corseted, announces: corset saloon.
A woman’s dress shop declares: Women can have fits here by appointment.
A doctor calls himself: specialist for women and other diseases.
And in a Jerusalem garden, a corsetiere’s sign says: corsets made to order, entrance from the rear.
Ivrit, Sabrit, Yiddish, English, Pinglish, and good humor are all applied with irreverent outspokenness to the situations and problems of life in Israel:
An airplane was said to have flown over Tel Aviv on the anniversary of Independence, carrying Ben Gurion, Dov Joseph, who was Minister of Supply and Rationing, and Eliezer Kaplan, Minister of Finance. The three men looked down at the mass of people in the streets.
Kaplan said, “Just think how happy I could make all those people if I threw down ten thousand pounds in money.”
Joseph said, “Just think how happy I could make them if I threw down ten thousand pounds of meat.”
Ben Gurion said, “Just think how happy I could make them if I threw you both down.”
One day, Ben Gurion and his wife were finishing their austerity meal in a cafeteria when they saw a clerk eating a huge dinner. Ben Gurion walked over to the clerk and said:
Excuse me. I know how much you earn each week. How can you possibly afford such a meal on your salary?
“Very simple,” the clerk said. “The government made a mistake this week. They took my wages and gave me the income-tax deduction.”
Dov Joseph is now said to be more religious than the Chief Rabbi. The Chief Rabbi makes you wait six hours between eating meat and milk. Joseph makes you wait six weeks.
They say that Israel is now concluding a new commercial pact with Egypt. The first item of business will be the resale of Joseph to the Egyptians.
The morning after the bones of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, were reburied on the highest hill in Jerusalem, Herd’s ghost visited Dov Joseph. Herzl said, “Tell me, Dov Joseph, how are things with my people in Israel?”
“Fine, fine,” Joseph said. “The people are with me.”
“Be careful,” Herzl said. “The way things are going, in another year, they’ll be with me”.
During an air raid, a man waited in a queue for food. A bomb dropped near by. “For two thousand years,” he sighed, “the Jews prayed to return to Israel—and it had to happen to me.”
An elderly couple arrived in Jerusalem during the water rationing. The wife complained to her husband that the apartment they had received was fine but that water flowed from the tap only one day a week.
Her husband was reassuring. “Don’t worry, dear,” he said. “The rest of the week the tap is reserved for milk and honey.”
Reilly, an Irishman from America, went to Israel to live. One day an old friend from America arrived and saw Reilly drinking an Israeli brandy and soda.
“Reilly,” he said, “and what are you doing in Israel?”
“I’m living the life of Cohen.”
Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog, who was once Chief Rabbi of Eire, was talking with his good friend Eamon De Valera.
“A basic trait that our people have in common,” Rabbi Herzog said, “is that the Irish don’t know Gaelic and the Jews don’t know Hebrew.”
Dov Joseph received a telephone call. A voice said, “Mr. Minister, I think rationing is fine. The food restrictions are wonderful. People ought to be singing your praises all over the country.”
Joseph, accustomed mostly to criticism, was pleased. “I’m delighted to hear you say that,” he said. “Would you be willing to travel around the country and tell people?”
“I’d be glad to,” the voice said. “But I have no strength.”
A new immigrant complained to another new immigrant: “I’m sick of it. I queue up for food. I queue up for a ration book. I queue up for a medical examination. I’m going to shoot Ben Gurion.”
The next day his friend met him on the street. “Well, how did you make out?”
“I took my gun. I waited until dark. Then I went to Ben Gurion’s house. But there was such a long queue waiting to shoot him that I got disgusted and went home.”