There’s a word for it...

The Hebrew phrases you wish you hadn’t said.

Cleaning notes from the Western Wall 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Cleaning notes from the Western Wall 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Twice a year the Western Wall is cleaned – once ahead of Rosh Hashana and once just before Passover. The sight of all those notes being carefully removed from the crevices of the ancient stones means it’s time for this column to run its traditional biannual compilation of comments in the “Oops! Did I say that?” category.
First, a lovely “Mazal tov” (congratulations): A reader sent out a group announcement to friends and family following the birth of a grandson. The announcement went like this (the names have been changed to protect privacy): “Hi everyone! On Monday morning, Na’ama and Amir gave birth to baruch Hashem another healthy little prince (brother to Prince Yaacov and Prince Yosef), weighing in at 3.5 kilo. Mom and baby doing fine! May we only share happy occasions.”
And here is the note that arrived with the gift from cousins in California: “Mazel Tov to Na’ama and Amir: For Prince Hashem.”
This, of course, elevates the status of the child from the regal to the divine (“baruch Hashem” meaning “with thanks [blessings] to God.”) A reader from Netanya still remembers the time in 1962, as a newcomer with “two young children and zero knowledge of Hebrew,” when a friend drove her to Tel Aviv and took me to a great “konditoria“ (cake shop). As there was no parking (what, even in the early ’60s?), “she asked me to go in and buy a cake. Stepping out of the car, I began practicing the sentence I’d need to negotiate the deal.”
All the reader really had to do was point at the cake and pay, which she did. After which she “graciously nodded at the man who’d served me, and out it came: Toda raba, adonai,” thus promoting the baker from “sir” to God.
The cake might have been heavenly but the reader admits she never went back to the shop again.
Many names have played games with hapless non-native Hebrew speakers.
A letter-writer began: “To Mr. Shalom U’lehitraot” – which was the way the letter she was replying to had been signed. Except that that would be shalom u’lehitraot, as in “Goodbye, until we meet again,” not some guy called Shalom with an unusual surname.
The army has its well-known – legendary, in fact – Rav-Seren Shmuati, “Maj. Rumor,” the figure who is blamed for spreading false stories quicker than wildfire. It also has, I learn anew each time I gather material for this column, a rather uncommunicative “Ruth,” or “Root,” as the name is pronounced in Hebrew.
“Who’s Root?” has been asked by more than one rookie during military service or civil guard, as radio contact ended: Root Sof. FYI, this was not the end of Ruthie, just the Hebrew equivalent of “over and out.”
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All immigrants who have served in the army can fire off a list of bloopers. The number of olim who told me about mistaking the firing range (mitvah) for kitchen (mitbah) remains constant. As they say in Hebrew, “Freierim lo metim, hem rak mithalfim” – suckers don’t die, they just get replaced.
As a very new immigrant and soldier (less than a year in the country), I also confused mahlaka (platoon) with miklahat (shower), producing a burst of laughter as I tried to announce the number of girls present and accounted for.
At least that was a clean mistake. What is it about these slips that makes them so, well, Freudian? As a friend once put it: “It’s as if you were to go into a store in the US and instead of asking for a six pack, just one little letter were to change in that first word.”
Many of you have made bloopers that are barely publishable. And, as I’ve noted before, if the Jewish Agency had a shekel for every immigrant who confused mishkafayim (glasses) with michnasayim (trousers) they could probably fund an extra ulpan.
One reader noted: “While serving in the IDF, my son overheard another immigrant soldier – who wanted to place his duffel bag in the bus’s hold – ask the Egged driver: ‘Ha’im ata yachol liftoah et hatahat shelcha?’” which roughly (or politely) translates as “Can you open your bottom?” An old-timer from Montreal, who arrived in Israel in 1962, sent in another classic: “At a kumzitz [campfire] with approximately 10-12 friends one evening, I wanted to be sure of something that was said by a young girl, and so turned to her, and instead of asking ‘at betucha?’ [are you certain?] I asked her, “at betula?” [are you a virgin]? ’Nuff said.”
A reader who wishes to remain anonymous sent in the following item: “Our shul [synagogue] in Israel has various fundraisers and the women’s league had one a number of years ago by selling plants, flowerpots and seedlings.
On Shabbat the president got up in front of the whole shul of about 400 people and reminded people that the women’s league was having a ‘tzitzim sale.’ Interest went sky-high after that.” Eh, yes: If you offer tits in synagogue it might raise more than eyebrows. Selling atzitzim (plants) seems so much more down to earth after that.
Another seed-of-doubt item: “A coworker declared that he was mechoar [ugly] when he was late [me’acher], and that the flowers were menuvalim [dirty and disgusting].” He meant wilted – novlim.
The lack of vowels in written Hebrew continues to keep us amused. Fear not; even old-timers like myself can fall prey to it.
Every time I recall the story of the immigrant who mistook the sign “To the ceremony” (latekes) for a “sale of latkes,” I find someone else has been down that path.
Recently passing a sign on a building being converted into dental offices, I wondered out loud that they had a permit to do facial surgery.
“Um, Liat,” muttered my companion. “I think the sign referred to the building contractors doing ‘shiputz pnim’ [internal renovations] not shiputz panim [facial renovations].”
That left me with egg on my you-know-what.
But at least I am long past the truly embarrassing stage of juggling with the word for eggs, beitzim, which is the equivalent of the English slang word “balls.”
Although the reader who tried to mail an omelette (havita) at the post office instead of a package (havila) still feels she has to tread on eggshells every time she needs to send anything abroad.
That’s the funny thing about these bloopers; once you’ve made them nobody will let you forget them – so keep sending them in, and in the words of the reader who confused ke’ev with kef, share the pain – or the fun. Whatever.
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