Oy Gevalt: The German Origins of Hebrew Words

An attempt by Haaretz columnist Neri Livneh reveals a lot of familiar words.

Neri Livneh
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Neri Livneh

From the responses to last week’s column, I sense that, without intending to, I overlaid it with an exaggerated tragic tone. Readers somehow came away with the impression that my children have left me and the country for good. Not so. Two of my children are in Berlin for a few months but will be back, and the third made do with a lightning visit and returned to Tel Aviv.

What’s important for me to make clear here is that I absolutely do not perceive the kids’ trip as something they are “doing to me.” They are mature young people who are responsible for their lives, and I am happy that they are able to realize their plans. I am even happier when I hear that things are going well for them and they are content.

What grieves me most is the thought that they are not fulfilling their desires because they want to please their mother, or because they pity her. It’s true that I miss them, but I will probably see them soon. In another two weeks, actually.
In the meantime, I am trying to acquire basic concepts in the German language and culture. So I was delighted to receive a copy of “The Ben Yehuda Strasse Dictionary: A Lexicon of Spoken Yekkish in the Land of Israel.” Its German subtitle is “Sabre Deutsch” German as spoken by native-born Israelis. (Yekkes are Jews of German origin.)

Aiding in the publication of this likable book were the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin and the German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum at Tefen Industrial Park in the Western Galilee. I myself have a bit of a history with the Central European group. It runs a few excellent old-age homes, and at one time my father wanted to move into one of them. “Where is your father from?” I was asked by the director of the Jerusalem home. “Czechoslovakia,” I replied. “Ah, Czechoslovakia, that’s fine,” the director said. Until then she had been apprehensive that my father might be from Eastern Europe, heaven forbid, and not its center. Regrettably, to this day, more than 14 years after his death, my father is still on the waiting list of that heimisch institution.

My father was thus considered to be of Central European origin and also spoke fluent German. However, not a word of German was ever uttered at home not only because it was the language of the “may their names be blotted out,” but mainly because my mother was clueless in both that language and its stepsister, Yiddish. The result was that despite the good education I received in the spirit of my parents’ values, I was 20-something when I learned from a person whom I dubbed Hansel because his wife’s name was Gretel that I did not have a kinderstube. “But I had a children’s room and they even had little armchairs and a table made for me in the kibbutz carpentry workshop,” I said in my defense. But it was explained to me that this was a borrowed term, a metonymic (or synecdochic) usage to describe the good education received by those who, in contrast to me, had a kinderstube.

As I had not been privileged to be acquainted with a kinderstube, my early acquaintance with the customs of the tribe derived from the jokes my mother told about the “yekke-potzes.” From her descriptions, I pictured the community as a collection of humorless types with rigid manners (a description that fit Hansel to a T; he specialized in alliterative jokes about famous composers); odd types who went around in suits even in the summer and wore socks with sandals; who spoke broken Hebrew but owned splendid pastry shops in Haifa and Nahariya.
As my trip approaches and my plans to learn German assume concrete form, my friend Margalit has been sending me text messages in German, written in Hebrew characters. She never learned German but speaks Yiddish from home and acquired a passable command of Deutsch during her many visits to Germany. Until we began this correspondence, I had been completely unaware that over the years I had acquired a lexicon of many hundreds of words in German, though of course I am unable to cobble together a grammatically correct sentence.

Like most of my generation, part of that lexicon consists of words that make me shudder even to contemplate: words like “Transport,” “Aktion” and “Juden,” which I learned from watching films about the Holocaust. Other words, related to musical instruments and works, were acquired in the course of studying music. A larger proportion of the words comes from my acquaintance with members of the community through family relations.

For example, I picked up basic German-language cooking terms from my former mother-in-law. From her I also learned about the daily schedule, which includes a schlafstunde followed by a kaffeestunde and sometimes also shpatziren. I also picked up some terms of endearment and words of insult. But most of my German lexicon comes from the simple fact that I grew up here, in the land of the sabres.

A perusal of the dictionary shows how many words we use in daily Hebrew without being aware of their German origin. Because many of the yekke immigrants acquired a profession they would be able to practice in Palestine, many of the Hebrew terms related to carpentry, mechanics and electricity are originally from German. A very long list of words that have entered Hebrew and appear in the new dictionary kompot, schnitzel, kaput, strudel, konsert, delikatess, tort, prinzip, shvitzer (show-off), tapet (wallpaper) and many others show that even as the first generation of yekkes had a hard time adjusting to Israel, the Hebrew language adjusted to many of the words they brought with them. So it’s possible, after all, that without our being aware of it, in the end we all had a kinderstube.

Illustration by Avi Ofer.