Word of the Day / Ma Yesh Lakh Babayit?: How Israelis Ask About Your Family Life

Expression literally meaning 'What do you have in the house?' carries a built in assumption - in Israel, your life is everybody's business.

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When my oldest child was a baby and had yet to become a big sister, I was picking her up from our local day care center one day when one of the caregivers asked me a seemingly simple question that had me totally stumped: Ma yesh lakh babayit?

The question literally means “What do you [feminine] have in the house?” and the words are straightforward, with no tricky idioms here. I just had no idea what kind of answer the caregiver was looking for.

I mean, what does anyone have in their house? “We’ve got a couch,” I remember thinking. “We have beds, a table, too many kiddie toys, a kitchen sink.”

I said none of that, of course, because though I didn’t know what she did mean, I was sure that wasn’t it. My face must have betrayed my confusion, because she offered a follow-up question: “What other children do you have?”

I hate being asked questions with a built-in assumption (in this case, “You obviously must have other children, so even though I’ve never seen you with any or heard you mention any, I’ll just go ahead and presume you keep them stashed away somewhere”), but suppressed my irritation enough to answer her civilly.

It turns out this is a common Israeli way of asking about the quantity and gender of one’s children, whether or not one has any. And before you ask, I can’t imagine what could possibly make you think your personal life – whether it’s marital status, number of kids or how much you paid for your house – is none of the caregiver’s business.

It may be an overhyped cliche, but it’s also a home truth: In Israel, your life is everybody’s business, and that includes the stranger waiting with you at the bus stop and the cashier at the supermarket. By these standards, your child’s caregiver shoots up in confidante status to one of your besties; at least you (hopefully) know her name. So sit back, make yourself at home, and get ready to disclose all its contents.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

Word of the Day: Ma yesh lakh babayit?Credit: Haaretz

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