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The Yiddish Quiz of “Goodniks”

February 14, 2019 | by Marnie Winston-Macauley

Balabusta, kvell, zei gezunt, what do they all mean?!

We Jews are a passionate people full of vivid words and expressions in both anger and love. As our vocabulary for fools and our curses (“May you ….”) are legendary, we thought it was time to talk of our colorful words for those times we’re over-the-top happy, thrilled, proud and yes, even satisfied!

For millennials who may have missed the finer points of these all-important Yiddish words and expressions, have a go and see if you’re up to it!


Choose the best definitions!


Usage: “You should see my daughter! Who would have thought she’d become such a balabusta?”

  1. A Mrs. or Ms. Scrubber, her home is more germ free than a NASA clean room. Today the term may have OCD connotations, but in fact, from older Jews this is high praise.

  2. A true mistress of the house, not only does she clean and cook, but gives spiritual sustenance to her family and guests.

  3. Not quite “zaftig” (a little heavy), her curves are in the right places to make her luscious, not fat.

Answer B: A superb home-maker, she’s also the “hostess with the mostest.” Whether it was just for us or a sudden crowd of 30, my own mother, may she rest in peace, could serve and entertain with one chicken and silly string and make it look easy. All were fed, feted and felt the warmth.


Usage: “Darling, when it comes to you, I ‘kvell,’ which can be annoying to other people, so I only share on selected social media.”

  1. You’re filled with joy, and maybe yelling, such as AY-YAY-YAY so they can hear you in Paraguay.

  2. You’re filled with such pride, in say, your daughter’s achievement, that you call, email, and FB friends, neighbors, and strangers in all your groups, including those in Macramé Rules.

  3. A combination of both the Yiddish/Hebrew phrase, “kein aye hara,” (“no evil eye”) and the Yinglish for “well,” kvell, means the sender is wishing you “good health, knock on wood.” Old school Jews may also say and spit: “poo-poo-poo.”

Answer B: Your son just decided to become an oncologist, your daughter is on a dig in Israel, your husband’s blood pressure, thanks to your cooking, is down to 140/80 and your bursting with such pride you simply must share the good news with all in your life and even a few in the elevator at Bloomingdale’s.


Usage: “When all the grandchildren came at one time to us in Miami, just seeing them together in the pool was such a mechayeh!”

  1. “Getting all my children to schedule this was nothing short of a miracle!”

  2. An answered prayer, as in: “I said a special prayer during Shabbos, to have my grandchildren come to us together and frolic in our pool. My prayer was answered! A true mechayeh!”

  3. “Such pleasure we got; such joy, from seeing our grandchildren frolicking with us in the pool.”

Answer C: From the Hebrew root “chai” for “life,” a mechayeh literally means “resurrection” – a feeling of delight or relief – whether from an icy glass tea on a hot day, to seeing the grandchildren in Miami. According to Leo Rosten, “It’s uttered with a smile, a grin, or a pleased cluck.” For example, in the shtetl, if soldiers didn’t barge in, that was a big mechayeh.

Mensch (mentsch):

Usage: “Listen, mamala. Would dad and I interfere in your choice of partner? Of course not. As long as he’s a mensch.”

  1. Not just a “good” person, but a stellar one, with great empathy, heart, and noble generosity. He just “knows” when you need a hug, a hand – or a homemade noodle pudding!

  2. He’s got a job. A good one. He can afford to keep you in a house with two great rooms, with three cars, white carpeting, and a maid twice a week.

  3. He will donate a fortune to the Shul, even if he expects a sit-down dinner in his honor. He’s a bigshot, knows it, and is proud of his power to be recognized for his good works.

Answer A: It literally means “man,” but when used by Yiddish speakers he’s much more. Whether an academic or not, he has a deeply considerate soul. “Sammy” was our mensch. Many years ago, my father had a horrific accident that laid him up for a year. We noticed our snow was being shoveled but had no idea who was doing it. One day, my mother spied a man outside we didn’t know. He was a neighbor, Sammy, who lived three blocks away. He heard about the accident and did the deed. From that day forward, my father and he, two wildly different men, became “brothers,” as my father dubbed him a true mensch both for the work, and the sincere desire to help without even asking for recognition.


Usage: “I love my oytser and couldn’t even think of a life without!”

  1. An adorable child, generally either yours or a grandchild who is capable of making you a little meshugge, but that’s OK, as he has so much charm when he throws his toys.

  2. A sweetheart. The love of your life!

  3. A pearl engagement ring. The pearl, rather than the diamond, has a long and noble history among We Jews.

Answer B: “My Mendel is my oytser! A treasure. As my mama would say: ‘We were meant to be’ and the Bible agrees. ‘My cup runneth over’ from him.”

Bubbe: (pronounced “bubby”)

Usage: “That ‘bubbe’ tells the best stories! I’m LMHO from the analysis of Bart Simpson alone.”

  1. He or she is a Jewish comic who often appears on Andy Cohen. Not only is this a “bubbe” but calls Andy “bubbe” along with everyone else on his sofa.

  2. An endearing name you call a marriage prospect. For example: In a kosher Chinese restaurant when he asks how you want your rice, you say: “Bubbe darling, ‘thrown.’”

  3. A darling granny. Not only are you her mamala, she can she make gefilte fish from scratch and her chicken soup has just the right floating oil slick.

Answer C: When my parents took my Bubbe to see “Fiddler” she said of the shtetl … “Good! Only I don’t remember so much singing!” NOTE: Bubbeleh which no doubt relates, is one of the most endearing terms in Yiddish. Should bubbe call you this, you’re one "little doll."

Shayna Punim:

Usage: “Milty, my son, I noticed her acne and the limp, but even so, your girlfriend has a shayna punim.”

  1. Even though she’s no beauty, she has a beautiful soul. (Note: she’s a female mensch.)

  2. This girl has some courage! Despite adversity, she has pride in herself.

  3. “Your girlfriend has such a pretty face (underneath the acne).”

Answer C: The phrase, shayna (pretty) and punim (face) means what else? A pretty face. If you’re a bubbe saying it to your granddaughter, add a loving sigh as in: “Mamala, you have such a shayna punim!” Alternative: If you want to “kvell” about her whole body, use: “shayna maidel” for pretty girl!

Zei Gezunt:

Usage: “Thank you for inviting us! And take care of that cold. Listen, in this snow, we’d better get going. Oh, and zei gezunt, Sheila.”

  1. Sheila just sneezed and almost blew out a kidney, so her friend who has manners immediately piped up while pulling on Sheila’s ear.

  2. Upon leaving, Sheila’s friend throws her a “be healthy” – but doesn’t get too close.

  3. “May you have a full life,” her friend wishes, from the Yiddish “gezunte” which means “big.” It’s also used to describe a huge deli sandwich.

Answer B: Now, the only question that remains is why isn’t A also correct? After a sneeze, it’s customary to say “gezuntheit” (which literally means “health” or “in good health), however, the issue is one of usage. A brief history: The Patriarch Jacob was the first person to become ill before passing on. Before that, people would sneeze and die. When God infused the soul into Man, He "blew it" into Adam's nostrils so it’s only natural that the soul would leave through the same portal. More, during the Middle Ages, as a sneeze could have meant an incurable disease, people would bless the sneezer.

So how did you do?

Have more to add? Like this? I’m kvelling!


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