I hurt my knee a while back, and it’s still bothering me. I try not to dwell on my own aches and pains, but it’s hard to play against type. But instead of cataloging ailments, it might be interesting to look at just a few of the parts of the body (where those ailments might occur) and see how Yiddish understands them and their associations.

Much like in English, Yiddish “harts” (heart) is primarily the seat of the passions and strong emotions. It encompasses a wide range of emotional associations, including courage, love, regret, and relief. But it is the alignment of the heart and the stomach that is most interesting. Unlike in the Bible, for example, where the heart is both a vital and an intellectual organ, in Yiddish it is more appetitive. To do something “afn níkhtern hartsn” is to do it on an empty stomach. “Hártsbrenung,” much as in English, is heartburn. “Es shlogt mir tsum hartsn” (literally, it beats at my heart) is to be nauseated by something. And to have a little bite to eat or a snack is “únterlenen zikh dos harts” (literally, to fortify one’s heart). Despite this alignment, there are some things that differentiate them. As the saying goes: “der mogn halt a sod béser vi dos harts”—the stomach keeps a secret better than the heart.

Lung in Yiddish is, unsurprisingly, “lung.” The word comes ultimately from a root that has to do with lightness, which is not especially remarkable given that they are air-filled organs. This is where English gets the word “lights” for the lungs of slaughtered animals, particularly when used for food. There is a dish, for example, called “liver and lights” that features those two ingredients. In Yiddish, however, those two organs in combination have a different meaning. A “kálter lúng-un-léber” (literally, a cold lung and liver) is an aloof, unfriendly, distant, or cold person; a cold fish, as it were. More colorful is the expression, “a lúng-un-léber af der noz” or sometimes “a lúng-un-léber únter der noz” (literally, a lung-and-liver on, or under, the nose). This refers to some kind of fantastical or illusory thing. And from this meaning we get the expression, “er hengt mir on a lúng-un-léber af der noz” (literally, he is hanging a lung-and-liver on my nose)—that is, he’s pulling one over on me. As with the heart, the lung also features in the expression of secrets: “vos bay a níkhtern af der lung is by a shíkern af der tsung” (what a sober person has in his lung, a drunkard has on his tongue)—that is, what a sober person keeps to himself a drunkard says out loud. And in a slightly different vein, “bay im iz vos af der lung dos af der tsung”—he says what he means and he means what he says.

As we were talking a moment ago about livers, the most important Yiddish use of liver is “gehákte léber” or “gehákte léberlekh,” chopped liver. The liver is similar to the heart in that one can “ópesn zikh dos harts” in exactly the same way one can “ópesn zikh di léber,” namely, eat one’s heart out in grief or regret. “Es nemt im di léber” (it takes him by the liver) means he takes it on a deep emotional level. In this way, the liver serves a similar function as other internal organs, as reservoirs of emotional resonance, the place one can be cut to the quick. And because of that, it is a target for cursing. One way of imprecating someone is by calling down “a máke in boykh” (an abscess in your belly). Other places can be so cursed: “in zayt” (in your side), “in kop” (in your head), “af der shpits noz” (on the tip of your nose), and notably, “in léber” (in your liver). A “híntishe léber” (a canine liver) is an especially cruel or nasty person, as is a “váyse léber” (white liver).

The last organ I would like to mention is the innards, the intestines. Yiddish has two primary words for this: “gedérem” and “kíshkes,” the latter being the most figuratively emphasized. For something to turn one’s stomach or make one nauseated is “es dreyt íber di gedérem” or “es dreyt íber di kíshkes” (literally, one’s innards are turning over). One can curse someone by calling down “a kramp im in di kíshkes” (a cramp in his guts). But much like the heart’s appetitiveness, so with the guts. “A kíshke on a dno” (literally, bottomless guts) means an unquenchable appetite, a situation I try to rectify when “ikh shtop on di kíshkes”—I stuff my guts (with food). And while Cromwell may have loftily besought “in the bowels of Christ,” Yiddish makes of the innards more heymish fare. A “yídishe kíshke” (literally, a Jewish gut) is a folksy way of referring to a Jewish soul, the essence of a Jewish heart.

So from one yídishe kíshke to another, I wish you all the very best. And as always, “léyent gezúnterhéyt”—read it in good health.


(Please send Yiddish questions to: yiddishcolumn@americanisraelite.com)