Cathy Chester | An Empowered Spirit

Why The Colorful Language Of Yiddish Is The Most Memorable

As a child I’d hear my mother and grandmother pepper their sentences with colorful Yiddish words that were always more descriptive than their English counterparts. The words were lively and so vivid that despite not knowing the language I understood their meaning.

For example the word “baleboste” means someone who is a capable homemaker. Boring, right? The Yiddish meaning also describes someone who is reliable, a good friend, and a person who has your back in any crisis.

I smile when I hear the word “feh” – to disapprove. When my angelic grandmother sprayed the word “feh” (it needs extra emphasis) it was surprising. Nanny was a lady in every sense and never said an unkind word except when talking about Hitler or the Cossacks. If she said “feh” it meant she vehemently disapproved or was disgusted by something or someone. She’d scrunch her tiny face while her luminous green eyes uncharacteristically hardened. Don’t mess with Nanny, Cossacks.


Yiddish is a dying language, and when it’s finally obsolete it will be a sad day for logophiles.

As many of you know my beloved father passed away this summer. At some point I’ll write about him but the wound is still too deep and raw. For now I’ll tell you why one Yiddish word brings a smile to my heart because it reminds me of Dad.

As a parent I know how hard it is when your child is sick. You feel helpless and concerned, especially when it’s chronic with no cure. My parents had to learn their own “new normal” after my diagnosis, and together we worked to find a balance between their need to know how I was and my need for privacy.

As time passed we found a middle ground but I found it easier to be honest with my dad who worried less than my mom. When my parents were together I’d sugar coat my symptoms. Right or wrong it’s what worked best for me.

But my father had a sixth sense that there was more to the story. Inevitably I’d get a phone call or email asking two little words:

“The emes?” meaning “The truth?” It was endearing to hear him ask that question.

He wanted to know what I was facing, what my symptoms were and how I was doing. He’d call when my mother was out or in the other room because he knew in those private moments I’d open up. Then he’d pause to think before giving advice. I knew this all came from love and the extraordinary breadth of knowledge he had. It was astonishing how often he was right. Our father-daughter relationship was special and rare and I always felt a sense of relief after speaking with him.

My mother told me after my grandmother died she missed having someone tell her to take a sweater in case it got cool outside. Now I understand. Among so much else I will miss my father asking me to tell him the emes. Just two little words that mean so much.

I know Dad is always with me because love is forever. And if you can hear me, Dad, I love you with all my heart.

That is the emes.




19 thoughts on “Why The Colorful Language Of Yiddish Is The Most Memorable

  1. Miriam Hendeles

    First of all, Cathy, my condolences to you on the loss of your dear father, may he rest in peace. I don’t know how I missed knowing that….may you be comforted over time.

    From your touching words about your father, it’s clear that you and he had a special relationship –

    Oy and re the Yiddish-speak- I’m kvelling, Cathy. I can so relate, as my parents spoke to each other in German and Yiddish when they didn’t want us to understand….

    I also only know tidbits and words and phrases here and there in Yiddish from my grandmothers etc….

    I love your story about your dad wanting you to just tell the emes so he’d know how you felt and how you were. How sweet that you didn’t want to hurt him and how sweet that he just wanted to know and cared so much.

    Have a Shana Tova and only good news from each other.

  2. Lois Alter Mark

    What a beautiful tribute to both your wonderful dad and the crazy, fascinating, mysterious language of Yiddish. It makes me sad, too, that the language will probably be obsolete soon. It’s so colorful and unique and, of course, brings back so many memories of my grandparents. All I can say about that is feh.

  3. Julia

    Your relationship with your father is so special. I love the way he could honor your need for privacy but yet make sure he kept tabs on his little girl. I am sorry to hear that yiddish is a dying language because I have learned a few words from friends that I love.

  4. Ellen Dolgen

    My Dad spoke Yiddish, too. I wish I had learned the language. You are so right, there are so many words that have such full meaning that nothing more needs to be said. My heart hurts for you and your loss, Cathy. I do understand it in a very real way. My father passed away 36 years ago. He was the parent I called for advice and unfeathered support. As the year’s pass, it does get a bit easier. My heart is full of happy memories and special moments instead of tears and heartache now. However, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of him.

  5. Pia

    This is a lovely story. Made me miss my parents in a good way. My father gave advice, solicited or not. Constantly. Yes I miss it– a bit. Though I miss him a lot. My mother gave one piece of advice (and from your post I guess it’s a mother or Jewish mother thing) In the midst of a NY heat wave–95 degrees, she’d say: “take a sweater. The night air….” I had no idea what she meant by the night air as she couldn’t explain it further. I have friends who make me say the expression the way she did as there was something so endearing about it. And yes I miss it.

    Both my parents were born in Manhattan but my father’s first language was Yiddish. He and my mother would speak it when they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about. By the time I was 5 I could translate to my sister as our mother’s was so bad. She later took Yiddish lessons. At 80 (my sister and I agree on little but we do agree on this) she developed a Yiddish accent.

    Write about your father often Cathy. I know that it’s hard now but write down little memories like this one–later you can fashion stories.
    He sounds so fascinating. I learned that blogging about my parents helped me remain close to them in ways other things including talking to close family didn’t. It also helped me remake sense of the world

    Thanks for such a beautiful post at a time the rest of us are screaming about protests. Because Jews scream when it comes to Nazis Cossacks and I guess more

  6. Helene Cohen Bludman

    Oh do I love this post. Why? Well, I love you, my friend, for one. And I love Yiddish as well. It pains me that the language is dying since there really is nothing quite like it. Future generations will miss out on a huge part of Jewish culture. Thank you for sharing this tender moment between you and your dad. i love that, too. xoxox

  7. Linda Waxman

    I too love this post. Both my parents spoke fluent Yiddish and it makes me sad that it’s a dying language . But it’s just the way it is. The expressions have come into use in the English language and will live on for am extend time, epis

  8. Jennifer

    This was a beautiful memory of your Nan and your Father. Your connection to your Father touched my heart because it reminded me of the connection that I had with mine. It’s 17 years now, but I can still hear him call me “Pumpkin.”

  9. Gert

    Oh Cathy..first I’m so sorry about your father. And how blessed you were to have such a loving and caring father. Mine too was very caring.
    I love this post…you immediately brought into your home, where I could hear the conversation with your mother and grandmother! What a wonderful post!!! Thank you for sharing.


  10. Corinne Rodrigues

    I love reading books about Jewish families and am always fascinated with the Yiddish phrases I come across.

    So sorry to hear about your Dad, Cathy. I lost my Mom two weeks ago and still find myself reaching for the phone to have a natter.

    Hugs to you.

  11. janet tancredi

    Cathy, I seem to have a black cloud over my head regarding technology. I write these emphatic posts which you never get. So before I post my comment,maybe you can let me know if you receive this. If you do, then I will continue. Oy, Oy, Oy, you’ve had your share this year! I wish you and your family a very Happy and Healthy New Year so deserved!
    I so look forward to seeing mail from you!

  12. Sandra Sallin

    Oh, so touching. I was just speaking with my grand-daughter about Yiddish the other day. She said how she loved it. How do we keep it alive? My parents would speak in Yiddish thinking I would not understand. But soon I knew it all. Of course, now I’ve forgotten so much. Beautifully touching story Cathy. So sorry to hear about your father. What a loss.
    Sandra Sallin recently posted…Thinking Outside the BachsMy Profile

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