Yiddish abounds in distinctive features, vocabulary, and idioms. The more familiar we become with Yiddish, the greater our cherished storehouse of intimate expressions, and the happier we are to let them vie for pride of place. But it can often be the little, unremarkable things that leave the greatest impression. One candidate for the Yiddishest of Yiddish words is “nébekh.” Related to Czech “nebohý,” which came to mean “unfortunate,” this is one of the oldest Slavic words in Yiddish; so early did it enter Yiddish, in fact, that it has been used as evidence for the rather far-fetched theory that Yiddish originated as a Slavic language.
Nébekh is one of an arsenal of words and expressions that Yiddish speakers add parenthetically to indicate the particular emotional coloration of what they are saying. Nébekh indicates that a person—including oneself—or situation is particularly unfortunate and worthy of pity and commiseration. “Mayn shokhn iz, nébekh, a tóyber” means “My neighbor, poor guy, is deaf.” Derived from this adverbial use is the noun “nébekh” or “nébekhl,” which has a wider range of meanings. It can mean the unfortunate, pitiable person. But it can also mean the hapless individual who is in a constantly pitiable position. The nébekhl can be a sad sack or a loser, as Leo Rosten describes him, or even a bit of a nobody.
It is in this latter sense that the word entered English as “nebbish,” which is always a noun, never a parenthetical adverb. Interestingly it is often in these narrower or other more specialized semantic contexts that Yiddish words enter other languages. In German, for example, the noun “nebbich” can indicate just such an insignificant person, but the slang “nebbich!” means “so what?!” Or take the Yiddish verb “shmuesn,” which is the completely normal, everyday way to say to talk, chat, or converse. In English, however, “schmooze” can often indicate chatting in an especially flattering or cajoling way, whereas in German “schmusen” can mean to flatter, or even to gossip, but it can also mean to cuddle up physically with someone.
Beyond being a particularly useful expression, one of the reasons for its great popularity is that it has always been a repository for the kinds of irony that Yiddish speakers relish. In his wonderful collection of Yiddish humorous anecdotes, Royte Pomerantsen, Immanuel Olsvanger tells how “a group of prisoners were being led off to jail. Among them were several Jews. Some Jewish women were standing nearby, shaking their heads. They asked one of the Jews, ‘Why are they leading you away?’ He replied, ‘On account of a passport,’ at which the women cried, ‘Oy, nébekh, far a pas!’ (‘Oh, poor man, because of a passport!’) They asked a second Jew. ‘And why are they leading you away?’ He replied, ‘Military conscription,’ at which the women cried, ‘Oy, nébekh, vegn príziv!’ (‘Oh, poor man, because of conscription!’) When a third Jew, a well-built young man, passed by, the women asked, ‘Why are they leading you away?’ He replied, ‘Ikh bin, nébekh, a gánef’ (‘I, poor man, am a thief’).
The figure of the nébekh abounds in Yiddish literature. I will end on one of the Jewish world’s first nébekhlekh, one whose story prompted a particularly clever flight of linguistic creativity. The tragic story of Cain and Abel is doubtless familiar to you. These brothers feature in the rather straightforward expression “káyen iz nisht hevl” (“Cain is not Abel”), which is to say that the murderer and his victim are not the same thing, emphasizing the difference between apples and oranges. But to say the exactly homophonous “káyen iz nisht hevl” (“to eat is no trifle”) is to say that the question of making a living is not something to take lightly. After all, in the story of Cain and Abel, the question of their livelihood was the whole matter. And while we treasure humor and prize wordplay, we should never take the unfortunate, nébekh, or their real misfortunes lightly. That is the ethical core of Yiddish culture. And as always, “léyent gezúnterhéyt”—read it in good health!