My family members were never particularly religious, but they were certainly proud of their heritage — especially my grandparents, who kept their menorah in a cabinet high above the counter where it awaited the eight days of Hanukkah.
Not long after, my family also celebrated Christmas. We did not go to church or temple regularly and only recognized the holidays because we liked anything that brought us together. Even weekly fast food dinner outings, followed by a movie rental felt similar. Even though I was young and often had little interest in the movie we were watching, something still resonated with me as I sat on the living room floor with my head supported by the couch cushion between my parents. It was as if I unconsciously knew my grandfather would die while my grandmother’s memory faded, my mother would have to take a second job after divorcing my father, and the living room would quickly fade into lifelessness.
I have countless memories of my family, but not too long ago, I was flooded with a wave of nostalgia after a good friend of mine called me a schmuck. I was caught in a strange emotional feedback loop comprised of longing, hilarity and fondness. I had not heard that word since living with my family.
My grandparents frequently sprinkled Yiddish into their vocabulary, and though I was not exposed to a large amount of the language and was never bar mitzvahed, I appreciated that every word seemed to be common sense in that they mean exactly how they sound. “Schmuck,” for instance, is usually used light-heartedly and means “fool.”
Other great Yiddish words include klutz (clumsy person), chutzpah (arrogant nerve), schlep (physically or figuratively drag something), schmaltzy (excessively sentimental), schtick (routine or act), and my personal favorite, schmutz, as in, “wipe that schmutz off your face!”
All these words have a sentimental connotation to me since they were some of the first informal words I learned and heard regularly. I never integrated Yiddish into my everyday vocabulary, so it’s always a pleasant surprise when I hear them from someone else. It reminds me how intimately language can bring us together and has the power to be more than cut-and-dry communication.
Ever since I schlepped myself across the country to be a student, I have been searching for a sense of what I had before I left, but much of that was simply childhood, something everyone has and runs out of. But every so often, I’m run into the schmaltzy things in life that transcend time and hit home in all the right ways.