Pass the shpilkes! Shlepping Yiddish to the office

There were papers, books, bagels, cream cheese, smoked white fish spread and other stuff. I needed help carrying it all to a meeting and asked one of the attorneys in my office to help.

“There’s a lot to shlep,” I said.

He smiled an uncomfortable smile.

“You do know what ‘shlep’ means, don’t you?” I asked.

“Of course I do,” Ian replied. He didn’t. “I’m just not sure that I could define it.” He couldn’t.

Was it possible that someone could live in the Bay Area or even Des Moines or any English-speaking country for that matter and not know “shlep”?

“Shlep” isn’t even Yiddish anymore. It’s in the dictionary. What other word would you use to describe a woman with a purse falling off one shoulder, ill-assorted papers and book in one arm, a pen between her teeth, glasses slipping off her nose, a cup of coffee in one hand and a basket of bagels balanced in the other, walking to a meeting?

“‘Shlep’ means to lug or carry,” I said, realizing that defining “shlep” wasn’t so easy. Like most Yiddish words, shlep has a fullness that goes far beyond a mere definition. “It means to be overloaded with stuff. It also can be a noun. ‘Shlepper’: disheveled, one who shleps, a Jewish sherpa.”

I could have gone on but I left it at that.

Ian nodded, but I wasn’t sure he got it. My work was cut out for me. I had to fill in that part of Ian’s education that had been neglected. I had to teach him enough Yiddish to get by.

A few days later I had the occasion to use the expression feh!

“Fay?” He asked.

“No. Feh!” I repeated.

“Fffeh,” he said tentatively.

“F-e-h exclamation point. Feh! It’s an expression. To aggressively dismiss. It’s always spelled with an exclamation point. That’s the way you say it, too.”

Next came “tsuris.”

“Sir-us,” he said. His pronunciation was a shanda.

“Tsuris,” I said, emphasizing the first syllable. “Tsur, tsur, tsur.”

“How do you spell it?”

“T-s-u-r-i-s. Tsuris,” I said.

Ian wrote it down on a Post-it, and slipped it under his desk blotter. “What does it mean?”

“You should know. I’m sure you’ve got it. ‘Tsuris’ means troubles or woes.”

And then I told him about the four women sitting down to play bridge. “Oy,” the first woman says as she takes her seat. “Oy vey,” the second says. “Oy vey iz mir,” the third says. “I thought we agreed not to talk about our children this week,” says the fourth woman.

“That’s tsuris. It’s the sighing and the hand-wringing and, of course, the problems that goes with that. That’s what I mean about Yiddish. It’s invaluable. One word can convey an entire concept, an entire image,” I said. “But ‘aggravation’ isn’t Yiddish, even though it should be, at least the word isn’t.”

It wasn’t long before Ian had shpilkes, mitzvah, gonif and an assortment of other Yiddish words tucked under his blotter.

“Is there a Yiddish word like mish-poo-key?” Ian asked one morning. He had heard the word in a movie.

“Mishpoche,” I said. “It means family.” Just saying it brought an image to mind of a dozen people sitting around a table mounded with food. Reaching, chewing, talking, laughing. That’s mishpoche.

We worked for a while on Ian’s “ch’s.” It’s a wet, guttural sound that sits in the back of your throat while you glide over it. It’s a hard one to get if you weren’t born around it.

Ian had quite a collection of Yiddish words and I could see his confidence was growing.

Finally the day came when we were at another office meeting. Ian was talking about a case.

“I’ll give you the whole megillah,” he said. His delivery was a little awkward, but it was good — smooth and natural. It was almost like megillah had just been sitting there, along with the rest of Ian’s vocabulary, and it came out because it was the right word.

Megillah, he said. Ian was going to give us the whole, drawn-out story.

Oy. I was so proud I could plotz.

Ronnie Caplane is an attorney, a Piedmont-based freelance writer and a columnist for the Piedmonter and the Montclarion.