Word of the Day

Yefeh-nefesh: A Bleeding-heart Liberal in a Dark Alley

On the upside, having a beautiful soul is a good thing. But it can be incredibly annoying, too.

The kinds of people you’re supposed to avoid running into in an alley in the middle of the night can probably be described as having dark souls, or maybe even as being soulless. So having a nice soul should be a good thing, right?

Well, yes and no.

Being “nice-souled,” or yefeh-nefesh (yeh-FEH NE-fesh), means being sensitive, delicate or someone with highly refined taste. That’s on a good day. The rest of the time, it’s used insultingly, to mean someone who’s overly sensitive, often in the sense of being too concerned about others or about such refined niceties as civil rights – in other words, a bleeding-heart liberal.

When he was interior minister, Eli Yishai was not particularly appreciative of Israelis who help labor migrants or asylum seekers in the country, referring to them as yafei nefesh (that’s the plural) who “threaten the Zionist enterprise.”

One chat room thread showed that even Israelis were understandably confused by the fact that the positive-sounding term was often used in a derogatory context. “Is yefeh-nefesh a curse or a compliment?” asked someone with the handle Israel_for_ever.

The responses reflect the range of meaning. The thread starts off on the sunny side: “It means a person has a good soul, soft, nice = positive, in short.” But it shortly moves on to the revealing question “So why do people say it about Arab lovers?”

“Liberal” – like other loaded words such as “neocon,” “feminist” and “Zionist” – can, of course, be either a curse or a compliment, depending on who’s uttering the word and the tone of voice in which it’s being uttered (or shouted). Those with bleeding heart and nice souls had better also have thick skins.

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.

Limor Edri