Small word

Small word

The Jewish world is forever in debt to Jessica Levine Kupferberg,* a writer who in 2007 gave us a name — “bageling” — for the subtle and not-so-subtle ways Jews let other Jews know they’re Jewish. You know: You find yourself on line next to a potential landsmen, and just to make sure, you sigh just loud enough for him to hear: “Wow, this is more crowded than my shul on the holidays!” He smiles, you smile: The bagel has landed.

I just got back from a family trip to Maine, and realized Kupferberg’s hiddush (that’s Yeshivish for “innovation”) didn’t exhaust the need for new words to describe unique Jewish behaviors or phenomena.

Take for example, the impulse to drop obscure Hebrew or Yiddish words into English sentences — like, I don’t know, hiddush. Sometimes we do it to bagel — that is, in hopes of making a connection with a similarly educated or experienced Jew. I tend to do this in the company of rabbis, lest they think I’m an am ha’aretz. People who’ve studied Hebrew or spent a lot of time in Israel like to smoke out similar folk by peppering their phrases with signifiers like davka and balagan. In tribute to Kupferberg, let’s call it falafeling.

But sometime the impulse isn’t to connect, but to show off. “Yesterday after I picked up my Sari at gan — oh wait, what’s the English word again? — nursery school, excuse me….” We get it, lady, we get it: You speak Hebrew. Maybe worse is the guy who drops in complete talmudic phrases and dares you to understand him: “The president’s speech was piquant, but tell me: l’mai nafka mina?” Translation: I’m a poseur in two languages. He isn’t trying to make a connection, but rather suggest the kind of Jew you aren’t.

What do we call this anti-bageling? How about “dropping a sufganiya”? A sufganiya is an Israeli doughnut, puffy and as full of jelly as Mr. Nafka Mina is full of himself. Consider it a bonus that the phrase is an example of the behavior it describes.

Then there are the moments when you’d rather not let on you’re Jewish. It’s the way you drop your voice in public whenever you come to the “J-word”: “I didn’t see any Christmas lights, so I figured it was a Jewish neighborhood.” “He liked the school, but I wonder if there are enough Jewish kids.” You think we’d have gotten over this after 2,000 years, but some habits die hard. I even do it in synagogue. I call it “hebe-dropping” — offensive, I know, but sort of reflects the paranoia, no?

But back to my Maine trip. From a Jewish standpoint, we were sort of out of range — which is how I describe anyplace on earth without a Chabad House within 50 miles. Still, on a kayaking trip we met a short, gray-bearded guy from West Caldwell who gave out every vibe of being a member of the tribe.

We have a name for the sixth sense that tingles whenever there’s a Jew nearby: Jewdar. I know, I know, only a bigot would say that someone looks or acts “Jewish.” But I have two words in my defense: Michael Bloomberg.

Besides, I take pride in a certain Jewish distinctiveness, anti-Semites be damned. I love a good Jewish accent, whether it belongs to Jackie Mason or Linda Richman. I kvell when an actress like Lea Michele says she is keeping her “Jewish nose.” I think it’s a hoot that Hollywood is trying to turn Shia LaBeouf into an action hero, even if he looks like the wiseguy who sat behind you in Hebrew school.

Yet Jewdar doesn’t depend on stature or beards or even accents. It is a far subtler tool. Maybe it’s the syntax, or an attitude, but sometimes you just know. And is this really a bad thing? I  It will be a sad day when you can’t tell a Jew without his yarmulka.

But here’s the thing: The guy in the kayak? It turns out he wasn’t Jewish! My wife was just about to hit him with a major bagel, and he somehow let slip that he’s Irish. Now we need a word when Jewdar gives you a false positive, and bageling a blank stare. A Jew-boo? A misappre-menschen? I’ll keep working on it.

* A reader has pointed out that the actual inventor of the "bagel theory" is Doodie Miller, who was cited in Kupferberg's original piece. It's a boosha that I missed it. Mr. Miller has a web site devoted to "bagelling," here.

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