Yiddish is the language of my grandparents, the language of all our Ashkenazi Jewish ancestors. It originated during the 9th century in Central Europe and I grew up surrounded by it. This here is a list of important and commonly used Yiddish and Hebrew words and phrases that I like to pepper in here and there. Feel free to add your own in the comments below.
(Hebrew) One who was not raised Orthodox, but who explored Jewish religion and culture, and as a result took on religious observance. This is the feminine construction of the term. A male would be referred to as a baal teshuvah. There are so many people who are BTs today that it has become a vibrant sub-culture of Orthodoxy.
(Yiddish) The perfect homemaker. She cooks, she cleans, she bakes, she owns the best spice rack. And she does it all with grace, donating her spare time to local charities. To show you how low the bar was for me, when I successfully microwaved dinner without setting off the smoke alarm, my dad proudly called me 'a real balabusta!"
(Yiddish) Not a term of disgust, though it sounds like one! It’s just a metal stovetop cover used on Shabbos to keep cooked foods warm.
(Hebrew) What you say when you walk into someone's house and interrupt their dinner; loosely translated into plain English, "bon appetit."
(Yiddish) Nanny, Grammy, Grandma—the woman with the soft wrinkles and soft arms, candy in her pocket and a tissue up her sleeve, hugging you and telling you it will all be okay. A bubby’s chicken soup has serious healing powers.
(Yiddish) Unbelievable gall. The classic example is the man who murders both his parents and then pleads for mercy from the court—because he’s an orphan!
(English-Yiddish) Posh; Upper East Side; absurdly elegant. Anything can be fancy schmancy: your outfit, your mansion, your nails, your poodle.
(Yiddish) Potato pancakes fried in oil, customary on Chanukah, but so good you may add them to your repertoire year-round. The oil is a reminder of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, when a small jar of oil meant to last for one day miraculously lasted for eight. But I bet these won’t last more than eight minutes. They’re usually eaten straight from the pan, with family and guests standing over you as you fry. You’re lucky if you get them to the table.
(Hebrew) [Good] Fortune, a little helping hand from the One above. A mazel is not always good, but no one ever talks about bad mazel. At worst, one has 'no mazel."
(Yiddish) “Mother tongue”, i.e. Yiddish, but somehow the term seems a lot warmer in the original. It reminds you of lullabies, fresh butter and big family gatherings.
(Yiddish) Fuss. As in, “I never thought I would want to potchke in the kitchen.” It’s one of those interesting words that’s both a verb and a noun, as in “I wouldn’t try cooking that; it’s such a potchke.”
(Hebrew) Jews whose ancestry hails from countries south of Spain. (The Hebrew word 'Sepharad" means 'Spain.") They could be from Syria, Portugal, Turkey, Iran, Morocco, Israel. Definitely not from Philadelphia. Jews from Eastern Europe are referred to as Ashkenazic.
(Yiddish) A really small village in Eastern Europe. If you blink when you ride through it, you’ll miss it. Since most shtetlach were destroyed during the Holocaust, the word has come to mean any Jewish enclave where religious Jews go about their lives. It’s a warm, homey place, where everybody knows everybody’s shtick. Definitely not Philadelphia.
(Yiddish) (As in 'not my shtick") So not my thing; not my style.
(Yiddish) Synagogue. Somehow the Yiddish term is far more popular, maybe because 'synagogue" sounds so very Latin. Shul actually means 'school" in Yiddish and German, and evokes the use of the shul as a place to gather and to learn Torah at all hours of the day and night, as well as a place where religious services are held.
(Hebrew) The day to disconnect from your workday chores, worries and mundane activities. It’s the day to recharge spiritual batteries through praying, studying Torah, napping and of course, eating well. A great family experience.
(Hebrew) Fried, powdered and jelly-filled doughnuts typically eaten on Chanukah or at your local kosher Dunkin.
(Arabic) Middle Eastern sesame paste dip. Like hummus, it’s a standard Israeli dip, one that Americans have come to know and love (but can never quite replicate, unless they follow the instructions in this book).
(Hebrew) Literally taste, such as "tam Gan Eden -- ahh, the taste of the Garden of Eden" but the connotations also can be deadly. If you bring home a new dress, and your friend yawns, "it has no tam" -- it goes back to the store! Anything can have tam, or disastrously, no tam.
(Yiddish) knickknacks, the stuff your husband or wife has covering every bit of counter space, so there’s nowhere to set down the mail or your keys.
(Hebrew) Plural of yeshiva, a school dedicated to teaching Jewish religion, culture and pride to the next generation of Jews. It’s the place most BTs didn’t go as children, and wish they had.
(Hebrew) Literally a “Good Day,” a generic term for Jewish holidays. It’s a time to pull out all the stops when it comes to your menu.
(Yiddishization of Yom Tov) It’s a form of Old World slang used even by people whose only Yiddish consists of naming the parts of a chicken. They will greet each other in the street (whether or not they’re actually acquainted) during a Jewish festival with a smile and a nod and a “Goot Yuntif!”