Thursday, December 23, 2010

10 Essential Yiddish Words for the Holidays (And Then Some)

“Do you speak Yiddish?”  That’s how the conversation started in the office the other day, when a friend asked me: such a question.   Do I speak Yiddish?!   
Of course, I don’t speak Yiddish. What do I look like, my grandmother?  Who under 95 can speak Yiddish in actual fluent sentences?  

And yet the language lives and persists. Spoken everywhere. Yiddish is the salt and pepper of everyday speech, used with discretion, in a smattering of words, most helpful as a means of expressing disdain, irony, sarcasm, or extreme emotion. 

Then another colleague piped into the discussion with the observation that he knew but one Yiddish word,  meshugge.  (How crazy is that?)  He admitted that he didn’t know what the word  meant, but he was once told never to use it in mixed company.  Ha! I assured him that we all work in mishegaas (not to be confused with Michigan) and that the word isn’t by any means offensive.  
“You probably use more Yiddish words than you know,” I told him. Words like blinz, bagel, bubbe, kosher, kibbitz, klutz, mazal tov, nosh, shmeer, and of course, the all purpose insult -- schmuck!”    It’s all Yiddish, or words in their assimilated form of Yinglish or Ameridish. (Ameriknish?)  
Google the word Yiddish and all manners of lists of Yiddish words  can be found on the Internet. 

In a quick check on Wikipedia we learn that Yiddish is a language with a 1000-year history of adaptation, spoken first among Jews living along the banks of the Rhine. Over time and through assimilation, Yiddish grew into a tasty stew of German, Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic and Romance languages. Yiddish, as described by Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish is the “Robin Hood of languages,” stealing from the linguistically rich, and giving to the of lexiconically challenged. 

You understand: you don’t have to be Jewish to know Yiddish, and you probably speak it in more tongues than you imagine, especially under duress.   
It’s only a guess, but I wager that over the next few days, at least 10 essential Yiddish words (or their approximation) will insinuate themselves into your holidays: 

1. Mishpucha – that’s Yiddish for your nearest and dearest, your family – not to be confused with the word Mishmash which means all mixed up.  Or mishuginnah, which most families are anyway.  
2. Schlep.  Of course you know what that means: to lift (sigh), carry (and sigh), or to trudge (and sigh some more) traveling place to place, transporting unwieldy packages – in other words-  to suffer the crowds of fellow last-minute holiday shoppers, schlepping.  Careful not to schtup -- meaning to overstuff -- or uh, never mind.  
3. Schmaltz – literally chicken fat, but schmaltz in the Hallmark Card sense of the word has come to mean overly sweet or sentimental, as in the schmaltzy holiday muzak heard everywhere for the 55 Days of Christmas, starting the day after Halloween.  As for Schmaltz’s Alt from Schell Brewing Co. in Minnesota.   Hmmm, dunno, a seasonal beer may be worth a try. 

4. Glitch  Who knew?  Glitch is a Yiddish word.  And here we thought glitch was a computer term,  hiccup or F’up, as in a minor glitch in the system that holds a hundred thousand passengers sleeping overnight in an airport.  Not to be mistaken for glitz or Ritz (the hotel or the cracker).  
 5. Bupkes!  pronounced BOP-kess with an exclamation point and spoken with utter scorn to mean “nothing, nada, squat” (literally goat droppings).  Work like a dog all year, and what do I get for a Christmas bonus? Bupkes!  Make no mistake, the word is not Babka- as in the heavenly coffee cake rolled in chocolate and nuts, notably found in Jewish bakeries. (Photo and recipe source: thanks to Smitten Kitchen )

6. Tchotchke  pronounced t-chotch-kee, a beautiful useless thing, as in trinkets, inexpensive toys or Christmas kitsch. T’is the season for Tchotchkes like snowmen mugs, greeting cards that sing Jingle Bells, and shiny new things like diamond studs.   
7. Chutzpa  O.K, clear your throat as if you were about to swallow a fishbone or hawk a loogie for the sound of “ccccch”  in Cccchutzpa. There you have it, no other word like it. Chutzpa, just as it sounds, is brazen,  arrogant,  audacious. Undeservedly proud.   It takes chutzpa to insinuate Yiddish into a Christmas holiday post.  The nerve!
8. Kvetch   Oy-yoy-yoy.   This is to fret, complain, or fuss (literally to squeeze or suppress) finding fault for any reason, the more trivial the matter the better. As a noun, a kvetch is a wet blanket, one who can suck the air out of a room.   The opposite of kvetch is to kvel, from the German word quellen, “to gush” or swell, usually doting over a child, finding uncontrollable delight over some achievement,  the more trivial the better.  

9. Farklempt  To be overwhelmed, overwrought,  overcome with emotion, choked up ready to cry (in a good way), as in Mike Myers’ Coffee Talk on Saturday Night Live - Oy. I’m getting a little farklempt, talk amongst yourselfs: Rhode Island, neither a road or an island. Discuss!”    That’s Farklempt: not to to be confused with Farmisht - which means confused,  or Farblondget, meaning lost and clueless. Then there’s Farshluggina,  meaning messed up and Farpitz, all dressed up, and Fercockt, all effed up.  Farshtay? Understand?   

Zaftig: pronounced zoff-tik, with heft.  Exactly how we all feel after the holidays.  Well fed and well rounded, juicy and plump, but in a good way. Not to be confused with Zoloftig, well medicated - but in a good way.   

Oy, enough already!  

Thanks for schmoozing by, and Happy Holidays.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On the Shabbat before Christmas

Our family is a merry blend: a mishmash of Jewish, Irish Catholic, Presbyterian. By marriage, there’s a rabbi and a minister; there are sons of missionaries who grew up in India,  and a couple of resolute atheists for good measure.   Religious backgrounds and sensibilities notwithstanding, geographically, we are all over the place: we’re Detroiters, Clevelanders, Chicagoans, Floridians, New Yorkers, Texans, Minnesotans, Wisconsinites, Seattleites, Portlanders, Canadians, you get the idea.  There’s an itinerant lot of us.   
When it comes to holiday celebrations, we’re everywhere and nowhere in particular.  Our holidays - all of them, from Rosh Hashanah to New Year’s Eve, from Thanksgiving to Passover -- involve a gentle negotiation, sharing families and traditions.  Who’s going where?  Who’s cooking. And what do we eat?  
Try as I may to seduce my family with my cooking, (all would agree that I am an excellent cook) coming “home” to Detroit  tends to be a something of a hard sell, particularly since we raised our two sons in Cleveland.  We moved a decade ago, when our boys were in college; to them, Detroit is just a place to visit us.   Without their childhood memories,  family roots, or even a sports allegiance, Motown is not their hometown.  And so it goes.  In compensation, my husband and I find ourselves on the road, or in an airport on Christmas Day. Heading West or East or South for some extravagant holiday of our own making. 
In years past, our kids had it “rough.”  As a young family, we’d fly off to visit “Gran’ma and Gran’pa in Florida" one year, and in “Gran’ma and Gran’pa in California”  the next.  Either way,  all grandparents were hale and hearty and fun-loving. Our holidays were a whirlwind of museums, movies, and zoos, and unnaturally warm weather. 
As for a tradition to observe, a set of rituals to follow, the simple comforts of home for the holidays?  Those were never a priority, and never particularly in our mix of frenetic activities.  
Do I sound wistful?  I suppose I am, just a little.
My husband and I are now the senior class of the family.   With adult sons living out of town, with a grandbaby on the way this spring, and a wedding in May, all bets are off for where and how the holidays will go. There’s the gravitational pull of work and travel schedules, new in-laws to accommodate, new family traditions to adopt and celebrate, new invitations to extend and accept.  
But last Friday night something changed on the horizon, something remarkable, the dawning of a new age, and perhaps a new tradition  There were stars in the sky, and cars from out of town in our driveway: both sons - (and with them my new daughters!) came home for Shabbat dinner. From Chicago and from Cleveland, they drove in for a visit, albeit just for a night in Detroit.  There we were, for the first time, three adult couples, seated around my table to light candles, open a bottle of wine, and break . . .a fresh-baked challah.  
I declare: the moment was a Christmas miracle. By whatever powers I can bring my family together on the Shabbat before Christmas at my table from now on, there will be poinsettias and matzoh ball soup, chicken and cranberries, a winter solstice salad of greens and fresh berries, chocolate pound cake (see previous post for recipe) . . . and birthday gifts for all.

A mixed up, crazy new tradition.  Oh, why not?
And merrily, we’ll roll along.  This Friday night, we’ll drive to Cleveland for Christmas Eve at my son’s house. There we will be, with his wife’s family, our new meshpucha, travelers all.  We’ll light the tree, open the wine, stuff the stockings, celebrate.  Our new, extended family tradition . . . bearing birthday gifts for all. 

Wishing you the happiest of holidays and a healthy, peaceful New Year.
And thanks for dropping in.  


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lunar Eclipsed. Missed It!

Sleeping on the job.  A night of a lifetime, gone forever.   

And here I missed it, a rare view of a burnt orange moon in a night sky, the pictures posted on Flickr, live video feeds from robotic telescopes, tracking the  Earth's Sky on Google. For all the nights I'm up writing, puzzling, working,  this night I slept through, like a log,  and in my dreamless sleep, I eclipsed a winter solstice marked by a lunar event of rare occurrence.

Dull, witless and without intent, I slept through and missed NASA's site, Up All Night.   

Knowing full well there was to be a total lunar eclipse, with peak viewing starting around 2:30 a.m, I took one last glimpse of the moon in misty distance from the living room window around midnight.   Slipped into bed with a book as usual, for a night like every other, drifted to sleep right through the event, unconscious of the opportunity passing, as a shadow passes through a starless night.   

Awake at 5:30 this morning: there was the moon, essentially as I had left it, full circle, now in cloud-cover and in view from the front hall window.  So much for my interior night sky watching.  So much for standing in the snow, robed and slippered, fully engaged and enthralled in the moment, mindful that I will not be here next time the opportunity comes around in 2094.  So much for the Canon shot I would have taken for memory's sake, stopping time at shutter-speed.  So much for being fully present, alive and well, and blissfully aware of the turn of the earth, the urgent call of the season, the rarest of lights in the sky, and the imperative to breath deep and experience that which we can see, only once, in a blink, in this life.

Dang, if I didn't sleep thru it.  

Wishing you happy holidays, and thanks for passing by.  

Photo Source: Emily S. Rueb/The New York Times

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Best Chocolate Pound Cake Ever. Are You Ready?

Counting the days until Christmas, enumerating what yet “needs” to be done, working late into the night kitchen.

Are you ready? 

The question is incessant, often used as a greeting,  like a secret handshake, a password spoken among friends and strangers, like shorthand for the last-minute rush of retail.  Are you ready?  The answer hangs in the air,  at the mall, in the grocery store, at holiday parties,  wherever Christmas chitchat and pleasantries are sold and exchanged.  Are you ready?

Yes. in fact,  I’m ready.  I’m always ready for Christmas.   No matter that I’m Jewish, Christmas is inescapable. It’s everywhere, and I’m ever-ready to celebrate. 

In terms of sheer volume, majesty and imagery, let’s face it, eight little Hanukah lights and a spinning dreidel can’t hold, uh...a  candle to silver bells, chestnuts roasting, nutcrackers and sweets, Frosty the Snowman, halls decked with boughs of holly, reindeer on rooftops, mommas kissing Santas, and partridges in pear trees.
Religious practices and spiritual sensibilities aside, getting ready for Christmas involves very little on my part, little more than raking the last leaves of autumn and removing the  the frozen Halloween pumpkins, still sitting on front steps.  

On a street lit up like uh . . . a hundred Christmas trees, our house stands as a beacon of neutrality, a study in detachment.   No wreath at our door. No ornamental lights strung around our two-story Douglas fir.  No scent of pine in the house, no candlelight flickering in the windows.  No boxes of decorations to take down from the attic, no stockings to stuff and hang on the mantel, no sugar cookies to frost, no greeting cards to mail,  no menus to plan,  no table to set,  no honey baked... anything. And it's all fine with me.

To be Jewish at Christmastime offers its own pleasures. And blessed release.   Christmas is, after all, our national holiday for shopping and giving, a time for family and travel, lox and bagels for brunch, and a movie in the afternoon.  Without the trimmings and trappings, without the obligation to make the day any more special than it is, Christmas comes and goes, stress-free, with no particular needs or expectations to fulfill, and with no pressure whatsoever to get ready. With one exception . . .

Oh, Joy of Chocolate

There is one concession I make for the holidays and that is an extravagant chocolate pound cake. It's a bit of a fuss, but worth the effort, and the best thing I know to do with chocolate. This one cake never fails to get oohs and ahhs at the table with frequent requests for the recipe.  

So here it is,  from The Joy of Chocolate, a little gem of a cookbook, by Judith Olney, (a Barren's Educational Series, first published in 1982). My well worn copy just flops open to the recipe, batter splashed on page, 68, where the author claims it's the best pound cake she's ever tasted. I believe her.  Judith, a genius of chocolate baking, is lamentably no longer among us,  but I'm here to tell you, one bite of  this cake is enough to bring you to a culinary epiphany. 

I follow the recipe religiously. No substitutions for its ingredients and no use counting calories, 'cuz you're in for a pound: almost a pound of sugar, a pound of butter, a pound of flour and rich, creamy buttermilk.   The batter whips up to a velvety mouse and bakes to a dark, dense chocolate dessert that needs no embellishment but a dusting of powdered sugar.  The cake stays moist for days, you can bake it Christmas eve and still serve it New Year's Day.  

Are you ready?   Take out your tube pan, your mixer and get ready to enjoy.


1 cup cocoa powder
2 cups sifted all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons instant coffee powder
3 sticks unsalted butter
3 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
5 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup water

1. Preheat oven to 325/ butter and flour 10" tube pan
2.  Sift flour, cocoa, baking powder, salt and instant coffee, set aside (I use food processor for this)
3. Cream butter until fluffy/ continue beating and add sugar in slow stream, beat at high speed for 5 minutes, slow mixer, then add eggs, 1 at a time, beating briefly after each addition
4. Mix dry ingredients alternating with liquid, starting and ending with dry ingredients, scrape down mixer
5. When batter is well blended, pour into tube pan  (batter will be very fluffy and velvety in texture) 
6. Bake in upper third of the oven for 1 hour and 20 minutes or until cake tester comes out clean.
7. Let cake rest in the pan for 20 minutes, then unmold onto cake rack. 

From my kitchen to yours, wishing you happy baking and merry holidays. Thanks for stopping by.  


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Enough is Never Enough with Latkes

There’s nothing like a platter of potato pancakes to inspire excess.  
Plain and simple, the recipe I grew up with called for measurement in pounds: as many potatoes as you could stand to peel and grate by hand, as many onions chopped as needed to bring tears streaming to your eyes, eggs and matzoh meal - enough to hold the ingredients together, salt and pepper enough to taste, and if you really wanted to give your Lipitor a workout, a dollop of chicken fat, enough to add that indescribably heavenly Jewish flavor.

Latkes, the Yiddish word for the potato pancakes we know and love, are the iconic food of Chanukah, Festival of Lights and Oil. Fried until golden in a pool of vegetable oil, drained on paper towels, latkes are best when eaten still sizzling, cooled just enough so as not to burn the tongue. Serve with sour cream and homemade apple sauce or apple-cherry compote.  Make plenty - the more, the merrier.  When it comes to latkes, ain’t no mountain high enough to slow down the descendants of the Maccabees.

Put a plate of potato pancakes in front of me,  and it evokes memories of my father in his prime, with his appetite for a latke feast.   He’d take second helpings, then a third and fourth without qualms, stopping only to bring sugar to the table, to sprinkle over the pancakes left on the plate and polish them off for dessert. 

Now with the shredding blade of the Cuisinart, I’m no stickler for the old recipe.  I throw in the potatoes, peel and all, add carrots or sweet potatoes for color and delicate flavor.  For company, I make petite latkes in appetizing little spoonfuls, topped with a creme fraiche  or an elegant mix of chopped smoked salmon, red onion, caviar (red salmon roe) and capers.

(For more idea on latke toppings, see Small Latkes, Large Toppings — A Good Appetite -   (Article by Melissa Clark, photo below by Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times) 

On beyond latke
Google "potato pancakes," or wander through the pages of a Joan Nathan cookbook, and latkes take on a whole new meaning.  We learn, for example that latkes in Israel are calledlevivot, the Hebrew term for any and all sorts of vegetable or flour pancakes. Take vegetables and grains in their glorious variety, legumes, beans, rice, add cream and cheese, and voila, you can fry! 
  • Leek Latkes
  • Corn Scallion Latkes with Chipotle Cream
  • Veggie Latkes with Eggplant, Zucchini, Carrots and Potatoes
  • Herbed White-Bean and Zucchini Latkes
  • Rumanian Zucchini Potato Latkes
  • Lentil Levivot 
  • Daikon Radish and Potato Latkes 
  • Sweet Potato/ Jalapeno Pancakes with Salsa Dip
  • Mushroom and Thyme Risotto Cakes 
Cooking tip: the more liquid you squeeze from the shredded ingredients, the crispier the latke.   

Got any family secrets for making latkes?   Do share.

And thanks for stopping by.