As nature barrages us with its many signs of “fríling” (Spring), those of us not incapacitated by “mayóve kadókhes” (hay fever) will want to greet the season by emerging from our wintry (and Covid) confinements. Though still masked, we will be tempted also to greet our neighbors. A few words, then, on Yiddish greetings.
As in English, the simplest greetings involve some combination with the word “gut” (good). “A gut mórgn” is “good morning,” but it is also a general greeting of “hello” until about mid-afternoon. “A gutn óvnt” means “good evening.” To say goodbye one would say “a gutn” or “a gutn tog.” (Compare that with the cognate German phrase “guten Tag,” which is said exclusively upon meeting, not on parting.) If it’s later at night one would part with “a gúte nakht.”
In a kind of politeness one-upmanship, all of these expressions—indeed any Yiddish greetings that uses the word “gut,” such as “gut yóntef” (happy [Jewish] holiday) or “gut shábes” (good Sabbath)—have one important thing in common: they all share the response “a gut yór” (literally, a good year). Speaking of the Sabbath, on parting after the holiday one would say “gut-vókh” (have a good week), prompting the anticipated “a gut yor.”
One will sometimes hear the response given after repeating the original greetings. For example, to “gut mórgn” one might respond “gut mórgn, gut yór.” However, “zayn mit émetsn gut mórgn-gut yór” (literally, to be ‘gut mórgn, gut yór’ with someone) means to be on barely speaking terms with someone, that is, the only civil thing you can say to them is “hello.”
There is one Yiddish proverb along these lines that might need a little explanation. “Béser a fálsher gut-mórgn éyder an émeser gut-yór” (literally, better a false ‘hello’ than a real ‘same to you’) means something rather like: better false kindness than actual animosity. The key is recognizing that the final “gut-yór” acts both as the appropriate response and as a euphemism for “shvarts-yor,” a word that literally means “black year” but is used to refer to the devil. “Tsum shvarts-yor,” for example, is a way of saying “go to hell.” Putting it all together, the proverb can be read as “Better a false ‘hello’ than a sincere ‘go to hell.’”
Returning to our greetings, if you haven’t seen someone for a while and have finally been reunited, the appropriate greeting is “shólem aléykhem,” which is from a Hebrew expression meaning “peace be upon you.” This phrase, too, has a formulaic response, namely “aléykhem shólem.” (The famous Yiddish writer Sholem Rabinovitz (1859-1916) took this expression as the pen name by which he is better known, Sholem Aleichem. And I never fail to chuckle when I read a reference to “Mr. Aleichem’s work.”)
One of the most common greetings involves inquiring how someone is doing. “Vos mákhstu?” (literally, what do you make?) is the most neutral way of asking “How are you?” A slightly less informal version of this replaces “you” with the phrase “a yid” (literally, a Jew). In Jewish-neutral situations this phrase is simply a polite second-person pronoun. Thus “Vos makht a yid?” simply means “How are you?” Given both Yiddish’s love of wordplay and, as we remember from an earlier column, its avoidance of incurring the evil eye, the proper response to “Vos makht a yid?” (How are you?) would be the deflective “Vos zol a yid makhn?” (How should I be?). However, since this last phrase literally means “What should a Jew make?” a typical humorous response would be “gelt un kínder” (money and children). (I know of one person who routinely responds “a shlékhtn áyndruk” (a bad impression), but I leave it for him to justify his bon mot.)
The proper parting expression is “zay gezúnt” (be healthy) for individuals one is close to, and “zayt gezúnt” for groups of people or respectfully to an individual. A slightly more idiomatic way of expressing this would be “zay mir gezúnt” (something more like ta-ta). The expression “zayt ir gezúnt,” on the other hand, has the connotation of good riddance. Seeing someone of on a trip one might say “a gúte ráyze” (bon voyage). More common in this situation, though, one would say “fort gezúnterhéyt” (travel in good health). The only proper response in such cases is to have a good time.
On that note, here’s to healthy responsible vacations in the not too distant future. And as always, “léyent gezúnterhéyt”—read it in good health!
Dr. Finkin, the Rare Book and Manuscript Librarian at the Klau Library of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, writes a monthly column for The American Israelite, on Yiddish, the area of his academic expertise. Please address questions for Dr. Finkin to firstname.lastname@example.org.