Word of the Day / Yeled Tov Yerushalayim

Behavior, it seems, is geographically specific, at least according to this phrase, which places good boys in Jerusalem and relegates the bad boys elsewhere. But while a good boy from Jerusalem may be a joy to the in-laws, to others, he’s merely a square.

yeled tov yerushalayim
Yeled Tov Yerushalayim. Rob McEwan from "Diary of a Wimpy Kid."

You may be a “good boy Jerusalem,” but in Hebrew, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re actually from Jerusalem. The phrase “yeled tov Yerushalayim” can refer to boys or men who are, to borrow from the Yiddish, mensches -- a good kid from a good home, the kind of guy a woman would want to bring home to her parents, someone who does the right thing.

By the same token, the phrase -- which comes from cloth skullcaps from the 1950s that had those words embroidered on them, according to Hebrew language expert Rubik Rosenthal -- can also take on a pejorative, mocking tone, depicting a nerdy, obedient type who won’t stray a centimeter from the straight and narrow. The sample sentence one Hebrew dictionary gives for this aspect of the phrase is: “He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink, a real yeled tov Yerushalayim!”

It’s that aspect that seems to be reflected in a song about the good boy’s foil, “Yeled Ra Tel Aviv” (“Bad Boy Tel Aviv”), written by the late folk singer and songwriter Naomi Shemer. Parts of it sound like a description of someone who would probably be diagnosed with ADHD today: “The Carmel Market is always his kingdom / And when he’s closed up in his house he’s kind of tense / A great big kite is sitting in his chest.”

Of course, the dichotomy also feeds into stereotypes about the cities themselves. It’s no coincidence that the good boy comes from the holy city and the bad boy from Israel’s city of sin.