the schmooze
"OY"--The BIG Two-Letter Yiddish Word
Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe
Syosset, New York

I recently had the pleasure of re-reading Marcia Gruss Levinsohn's book, "The Three Bears - Goldylocks Apologizes."  The book is written in English and Yiddish and makes frequent use of the word "Oy."

     "Oy!  My goodness!  Who has tasted my porridge?"

     "Oy!  Oy-vey!  Ver hot farzukht mayn kashe?"

     "Oy!  Who ate my porridge all up?"

     "Oy!  Ver hot oyfgegesn mayn kashe?"

     "Oy!  Oy!  Who has been sitting on my rocking chair and has broken it into little pieces?  OY!"

     "Oy!  Oy!  Ver iz gezesn oyf mayn vig-shtulekhl un hot es tsebrokhn oyf pits-pitslekh?  Oy!"

According to Rabbi Benjamin Blech ("The Complete Idiot's Guide to Learning Yiddish"), "Oy, it has been said, isn't a word--it's a vocabulary.  Within it resides all the pain of the past, the discomfort of the present, and the fear of the future."

Blech continues, "Oy is the short form of Oy vey iz mir (oh, woe is me).  It can be used to react to simple frustration (oy, it's you), minor tragedy (look at the way they sent me back this dress from the laundry), and true grief (Oy, my son didn't get into medical school.)"

How is the word "oy" used today?  The Zagat Survey 2007 New York City Restaurants [guide] wrote:

Sarge's Deli, 548 Third Avenue, New York
"Oy vey!" - "they don't make 'em like this" "hunger-busting" "authentic 24-hour deli" in Murray Hill anymore, where regulars "double up their Lipitor" to handle the "must-try" sandwiches; maybe it's on the "seedy" side, but for most it remains a "perennial favorite" within a dying breed.

At a recent "simkhe"/"simcha" at a Long Island (NY) synagogue, one elderly gent said "Oy!" when he saw two teenagers wearing a Red Sox kipot.  Fortunately, he didn't see the kid wearing a Harry Potter yarmulke.  The Rabbi would have had to "ruf a doktor" (call a doctor) to handle his anxiety.

In the book, "Yiddish with Dick and Jane," the authors say that "oy vey" is what a person says when the TiVo breaks down right before the season premiere of The Sopranos.  It's an involuntary response to the unexpected, like a sneeze.  'The elevator's broken?  They live seven flights
up!"  (Sigh.)  "Oy vey."

I also enjoyed reading "Too Young for Yiddish" by Richard Michelson.  In the story, Aaron loves his grandfather ("Zayde").
When Aaron asks to learn Yiddish, Zayde refuses.  In America, Aaron is told, Jews should speak and read English just like everyone else.  Aaron and Zayde's bond grows deeper as they realize you're never too "yung"--or "alt"--for Yiddish.

On page 22 we read,

"Zayde's voice trembled.  "In America," he said, "the soup has lost its flavor.  Everyone has mixed too well.  No one remembers
anymore where they came from.  For Yiddish it is the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and no one on base."

Then Zayde smiled:  "Oy, gevalt!  Listen to me.  I guess you're never too old to talk baseball."

When the show, "Jewtopia" opened in New York City--and elsewhere--these headlines appeared in various newspapers:

     "Jewtopia, Just Say Oy"

     "Putting a Little Oy In the Goy"

     "Oy gestalt!"

The authors of "Jewtopia"-- the book-- Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson, also complain "oy" when they find that the in-flight movies on El Al Airlines is always Yentl, Fiddler on the Roof, or The Chosen."

In Michael Wex's book, "Born To Kvetch," he writes about a man who boards a Chicago-bound train and who sits across from an elderly man reading a Yiddish newspaper.  The man starts to whine, "Oy, am I thirsty...Oy, am I thirsty...Oy, am I thirsty."  After he is served several cups of
"vaser" (water), he tilts his "shterm" (forehead) forward and says, just as loudly as before, "Oy, was I thirsty."

In "The Big Book of Jewish Humor" by Novak & Waldoks, we read this joke:

Four friends are sitting in a restaurant in Moscow.  For a long time, nobody says a word.  Finally, one man groans, "Oy."

"Oy vey," says the second man.

"Nu," says the third.

At this, the fourth man gets up from his chair ("shtul") and says, "Listen, if you fellows don't stop talking politics, I'm leaving."

The late Sam Levenson COULD HAVE used the word "Oy!" when he described his Papa's response to his request for a penny:

"You want a what?...Who gives me pennies?
...You're a good asker.  Maybe you should work for the United Jewish Appeal?...You mean I have to pay you for living with us?...
You mean you want your inheritance ("yerushe") now?  While I'm still alive?  You can't wait for me to die?  Just for that I'll cut you off without a dollar."

And when Levenson said to Papa, "Give me a nickel or I'll run away from home!," he replied, "I won't give you a penny, and you can take your brother Albert."

    (Source:  "In One Era & Out the Other" by Sam Levenson)

And, finally, Molly Goldberg (AKA "Gertrude Berg"), COULD HAVE said, "Oy!" in the "Milk Farm" episode about food.  Jake sends her to a reducing farm because HE THINKS she's too "zaftik" (fat).  He says, "It's only your health I'm worrying about."

Molly thinks that the reduced "kalorye" diet and sauerkraut juice is unbearable.
Pretending she needs to see a "tsondokter" (dentist) in town, she brings back salami, pickles, and other contraband.  She is expelled for being a "corrupting influence."

"You're a compulsive eater," Jake charges; "you can't help yourself."
Molly, in anger, shouts that she is a "human being" (a mentsh), like you."  She will not give in and become "moger" (slender).  Oy!

Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe agrees with the folk proverb, "Man comes into the world with an Oy!--and leaves with a gevalt."


Search for Stories Beginning with the Letter
N O P Q R S T U V W   Y Z
Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe is the author of
two books:
yiddish for dog and cat loversbook
"Yiddish for Dog & Cat Lovers" and
"Are Yentas, Kibitzers, & Tummlers Weapons of Mass Instruction?  Yiddish
Trivia."  To order a copy, go to her

NU, what are you waiting for?  Order the book!

Yiddish Stuff
Jewish Humor
Schmooze News
More Majorie Wolfe
Jewish Stories
All Things Jewish
Jewish Communities of the World
Site Designed and Maintained by
Haruth Communications