Words and sayings from an immigrant family by
(14 Stories)

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

What my family said, “What didn’t they say, would be more like it.”

Playing with curse words and other oddities of family tradition.

I came into life in a third generation immigrant family.   My grandmother was from Latvia.  I loved talking to her about her early life when I finally overcame my fear of her.  I once asked her if she ever spoke Latvian, and she said the Jews all lived together and that she was never allowed to learn Latvian or to mix with the Christian(?) society there.  She came to America at the age of 11 and went to live with some family that had immigrated earlier.  Someone once handed her a banana to eat and she didn’t know how to eat it so she bit into the skin.  She had never seen nor heard of a banana or many of the other things she experienced after coming through the port of NY.  She began working soon after she arrived, in a sweat shop in NY as a seamstress on a sewing machine.

Some of the Yiddish words I remember are mishugana which means crazy or nutty.  Mumzerim which means “little bastard”, polke, which as far as I can remember referred to children’s legs or chicken legs.  One wise thing that she told my mom and that my mom told me, was  “You don’t turn love off and on like a faucet.”  I found that very helpful when I was a young almost divorced widow, trying to take care of a child barely over a year old, working to earn  my first degree.

Although “polke”, and “mumzerim” may sound strange as words designated as affectionate, people still worried about the “evil eye” and were afraid of incurring bad luck if they showed too much attachment to the child they were discussing.  In those days we did a lot of knocking on wood as well, to protect ourselves from imagined disasters.  I was sometimes called a “maidlach”  which I think meant, “little tomato”.

Please don’t be offended, but another word I heard frequently was not a positive description, and has been at times common in America and that is Schmuck(In the German language, that is similar to the word for jewels or jewelry. Usually in Yiddish slang, it referred to an adult man, who might be a show off but in general was not good for much of anything. I also was not allowed to use it around adults, although as children we probably had fun practicing our curse words together.


PS  A friend of mine who converted to Judaism told me that the background of the “protection” of knock on wood, referred to the wood of Jesus’ Cross.  I doubt that that particular saying came across the Atlantic on the boat.  It was probably picked up after they arrived in America.  She also says that her family didn’t consider Schmuck such a “dirty” word.   I guess in my family, the rules were a little stricter.   She and her daughter speak Yiddish, much better than many of us who grew up with it.  My parents used Yiddish to hide what they didn’t want us to understand.  Such a shame, there is so much good literature that originated in this language.

Profile photo of rosie rosie
born, lived, cried, appreciated, lost, found, lived, laughed, flew in my dreams,
taught others to fly in their dreams, became a telescope reflecting the stars,
dove to the depths of despair ,recovered and walked along the beach as the water escaped from the sea and erased my footprints.

Tags: Polke, Schmuck, Mumzerim , Maidlack
Characterizations: been there, right on!, well written


  1. Susan says:

    Thanks for sharing your family’s history. Like your friend, I didn’t/don’t consider Schmuck such a dirty word, and would have characterized it more as a guy being a loser. Yes, it’s sobering to think how much rich language and culture is lost when groups assimilate.

  2. chardog says:

    great story, my mother’s parents were from Lithuania. I believe Vilnuis, on the coast. She had so many great sayings- Knock on Wood, Keep a Stiff Upper Lip and my favorite was ” Always Forward, Never Back”.
    Older generation, miss em

  3. Suzy says:

    Thanks for sharing. I heard many of the same words growing up. My understanding of schmuck is that it literally means penis. Therefore, not proper to say in polite company. The custom I knew was to spit over your shoulder 3 times to ward off disasters, rather than knocking on wood.

  4. John Zussman says:

    I love the saying, you don’t turn love on and off like a faucet. When that happens—when a parent uses love as a reward and withdraws it as punishment—I think it’s a recipe for disaster.

  5. rosie says:

    Thank you all. I appreciate each comment. I haven’t been on site for awhile as life has been a little busy. By the way, Schmuck, which means jewels in German was also considered to be a penis, so calling a man a Schmuck was a real insult. Thanks Suzy for including that information. One of the Yiddish writers I was thinking about was Singer. I have a collection of his translated stories. Susan, isn’t it strange how one word can mean so many things. I think in the case of Schmuck it is perhaps generational.
    John, I love that saying and it is my favorite from my grandmother and mother. As I have grown older, the wisdom contained in those simple words has served me well and from a broadening perspective.

    Thank you all for taking the time to read the story.

  6. Pingback: Lines We Liked | Retrospect

Leave a Reply