Hebrew Hear-Say: It's all relative

To be halachically Jewish, you need to have a Jewish mother. But to be a Jewish mother, you don't have to be Jewish, at least linguistically.

To be halachically Jewish, you need to have a Jewish mother. But to be a Jewish mother, you don't have to be Jewish, at least linguistically. You just have to worry a lot, feel guilty and pass the guilt on. In fact the best Jewish mothers, in Hebrew at least, are Polish. Imma Polaniya is an unrivalled expression of the ever fearful stereotype. Plainly speaking, "imma" means "mother." But, you know how it is with a Jewish mother (imma yehudiya): Nothing's quite that simple. In Hebrew there's a saying that you only have one - irreplaceable - mother: Imma yesh rak ahat. That might be so, but that word "imma" gave birth to a number of other expressions. "Mi gaon shel imma?" "Who is mother's little genius?" is used as a marketing slogan and catchphrase. "Imma adama," Mother Earth, is also breaking new ground in this post-Gore era. There are songs about "imma yekara li" ("My dear mother" - sentimental fare, not the same thing at all as the Crawford hiss-and-tell movie and book "Mommie Dearest"). And there is, of course, the oh-so-Israeli "layla rishon bli imma" ("the first night without mom"), immortalized in a song about a recruit's first night in the army. "Immaleh!" (Mommy!). It's all in the delivery. Immaleh can be used simply to mean Mommy. Yelled syllable by syllable, however, it is used to designate fear. (Think what happens when all the lights suddenly go out before the lightbulb joke: How many Jewish mothers does it take to change the bulb? "Don't worry about me, dear. I'll just sit here in the dark.") It might not even be necessary to be a woman to be a Jewish mother. And you certainly don't need to have X-only chromosomes to be a "mami." The Yiddish word, in Israel, has come to be used as "sweetie," used fondly for both kids and animals, as in "eizeh mami!" "What a cutie!" It can also be employed with perfect and imperfect strangers, as in "Mami, ata mafria li" "Sweetie, you're bothering me." Fathers, also, deserve a mention - zchut avot, the merit of the fathers, and all that. Tateleh, the Yiddish used for little darling, has gone out of fashion and been replaced by abbaleh or abba (dad). This, too, can be used to connote a cutie or screamed in fear. A distant relative (karov rahok) indeed. Speaking of which, there are also terms for those close to our hearts but physically distant. Israelis call Uncle Sam Hadod Sem. This should not be confused with "hadod me'Amerika," a concept which came to designate outside help from defense deals to care packages. A doda, on the other hand, is used in slang to designate someone who dresses frumpily. There used to be a special breed of doda who volunteered at soldiers' hitchhiking posts and on army bases. Strangely, not only do the soldiers today seem younger, the older women volunteers, also, have an elegance sorely lacking in the days when Golda Meir set the tone. Nowadays, it's not hard to find what they call a savta zapta (the image of a hard-hitting granny), something far more go-getting than the average saba (grandfather). Israelis might not all be one happy family but there is always that element of familiarity. Shomer ahi anochi? (Am I my brother's keeper?) Blood brothers, ahim badam, need not be related, although in Israel they are usually brothers-in-arms (ahim laneshek). Brothers, in general, are undergoing a transformation in the holy tongue. In the army, during that first proverbial night without mommy, rookies automatically become "brothers" even if their substitute family is somewhat dysfunctional at times. "Ahi," my brother, has come a long way - as any Israeli backpacker on the post-army trek can tell you. Bumper stickers with the slogan "Kravi zeh hachi, ahi," ("Combat service is the best, brother") are still common despite talk of the drop in motivation and national conscription. But ahi is now used between guys being, well, guys, anywhere from Katmandu to the Katamonim. A man might call a woman "ahoti" (my sister) as a sign of friendship (real or opportunistic) but, of course, it's devoid of romance. Ahot, sister, like its counterpart in so many languages, is used for a (female) nurse. Male nurses are ahim. They are the exception to the (grammatic) rule. While most teachers are women, their strike is called "shvitat hamorim," abiding by the rule that if just one male is involved the Hebrew takes the masculine form (and the sociological dictum that if the majority in a profession are women, the wages will be low). When nurses strike, however (justly complaining of the long hours, hard work and emotional toll - without months of annual vacation and a sabbatical year), even Israel Radio, the bastion of correct Hebrew, refers to it (in the feminine form) as "shvitat ha'ahayot." Oh brother! What can I tell you? In the end, it's all in the family: Hakol nishar betoch hamishpaha. [email protected]