Tsotchke, chazzerai, schmate

I didn't notice how much Yiddish I use until I moved to Wisconsin and people had not heard any Yiddish. I keep using it, though because it’s a great supplement to English; almost all Yiddish words we use with English are actually extremely nuanced ways to express negative feelings about something or someone.

Take, for example, tsotcke, chazzerai, and schmate. In this photo, the candlesticks are tsotchkes—they are stuff I don't need but I have in the house because I like them. In general, if it's your stuff, it's valuable or sentimental, but to other people, it's just tsotchkes.

The stuff in front of my candlesticks is chazzerai—junky toys. The kids still play with them, but only in so far as they are weapons to catapult into each others' heads under the guise of a missed toss. Chazzerai is more negative than tsotchke. If it's a tsotchke, everyone wants to throw it out except for the owner. If it's chazzerai, even the owner will not rescue it from the garbage.

Using Yiddish is a way to feel a sense of belonging through a common language. There are lots of ways to feel like you belong. When I work at a company I belong through a common goal.

Last week I flew to Washington DC for a Brazen Careerist meeting, with Ryan Paugh. When he saw what I was wearing and he said, “Nu? What’s with this schmate around your waist?”

He didn't actually say that. He might have if he were Jewish. Instead, he said, “That sweater is pretty dirty.” I put another schmate over my schmate because if you have one schmate it's just a rag—which is the literal translation of the word. But two schmates, I was hoping, is more Mary-Kate Olsen.

I had a fun trip with Ryan. I was happy to talk about how to conquer the recruiting world with Brazen Careerist's new product, Network Roulette. I liked being part of the energy a group has when doing something big.

Then I went back to the farm, to the tiny town of Darlington. We live next door to the high school principal, who the farmer told me I would probably hate because the principal was the football coach for so many years. And, it's true, I hate high school football.

But in fact, I feel like I belong in Darlington because I adore our neighbors. They are dream neighbors. Here's an example: I needed a stick of butter and they weren't home but they said my kids could walk over and take a stick out of their fridge. And my kids made themselves chocolate milk before they came back home.

There has been only one time, ever, that the neighbors said we couldn't come over. It was a night they were having company. But the kids had already walked in their door by the time I caught up to them, so the neighbors let us stay. If there were a word that conveys houseguests who are schmates, I think me and the kids would have been it that night. But my neighbors didn't care.

Numerous studies show that a sense of belonging is a hugely positive force in good health. When I had a nervous breakdown after my second son was born it was because it was clear to me that I was not ever going to be part of mommy groups—I just don't understand how you belong simply because you're a mom. But I also was not a part of the business world. I was disconnected from everyone. Then: despair.

I'm convinced that the initial slip toward despair is the sense that you don't belong.

That sense of belonging I get from Yiddish is not language so much as Jews trying to figure out how to be Jewish in their life. Invariably, people who were brought up with Yiddish and still use it as adults are actively exploring religion and culture in a way that Brazen Careerist is actively exploring how to solve recruiting and social media.

I think our strongest sense of belonging comes not from belonging by default, but belonging by solving problems together.

Did you notice how I just did the redesign of this site and it could have been the perfect time to get rid of the workplace angle for my blog? After all, I dumped the moniker Brazen Careerist. But I want to keep writing about careers because I think the topic is actually mostly about belonging. We each want to contribute to something, and we each want to feel safe. Work is so much more than just earning money. Work is about figuring out where we belong in a wider context than our circle of friends and family.

Writing about the workplace and careers is writing about belonging in the most fundamental sense of the word.

64 replies
  1. Erica
    Erica says:

    For an athiest, I write so much about Yiddish, it’s ridiculous. Even my blog title is kind of meant to be said in a Yiddish accent. All of my traffic is for searches on Yiddish words. I wonder when I’ll give up the ghost and just decide that my blog is about Yiddish, cultural Judaism and my grandmother, and not about etiquette and advice?

  2. Luci Klebar
    Luci Klebar says:

    Hi Penelope,

    This column was funny. Especially about the chocolate milk! t I really enjoy Yiddish words. They are often much more expressive and funnier than English. Matzo ball soup is waay funnier than chicken soup, and schmate is a great nickname for a designer dress. I think the night you invaded on your neighbors uninvited you would have been schnorers or putzes for not knowing that you weren’t supposed to be there. Putz I believe means little penis, but also “dumbbell” or “idiot.” As in “Woody, you are such a putz!”

  3. Bud Bilanich
    Bud Bilanich says:

    Great post that makes a really key point about effective communication…make sure that the person with whom you’re speaking knows and understands the words you are using.

    Guys make this mistake all the time when they overuse sports terms.

    I grew up in a Polish Catholic home. We had tons of tsotchkes around. I always thought it was a Polish word. Reardless, ever since I was a kid, I’ve known that tsotschkes are stuff — usually knick knacks.

  4. Harriet May
    Harriet May says:

    My personal default, I think, is set at not belonging. It’s not that I think I’m that different from everyone else, or something special. I just spend so much time feeling like an outsider. I think I hide it pretty well, but not well enough to be able to make really good friends. And because I’m English, I can’t even fall back on language. (Really, I should make better use of “wanker”.)

    I think the place I feel I belong the most is tucked away in the comments of this blog. I learn so much here, more so than if it was filtered down to include only traditional “advice.”

  5. Kate
    Kate says:

    Schmate! I haven’t heard that in a while!! Sometimes my dad says it about something I’m wearing.

    Love the new blog design. I’m inspired. Maybe I’ll redo mine.

  6. Amy Parmenter
    Amy Parmenter says:

    Oy. What a keppy you have! And often you write with such Chutzpah! Kvetching about one thing or another….or…shtuping!

    Meanwhile, you are lucky to have such menschs as neighbors -not shmucks! Thanks for given us the whole megillah!

    Love it!!

    Amy Parmenter
    The ParmFarm

  7. Tatiana
    Tatiana says:

    Since I’ve only just graduated university, I’ve only held three jobs so far and I can’t say I really belonged there. Yeah, the people were my age and I love that, but I didn’t feel like I “belonged” there in a sense. This lack of belonging is something I’ve experienced since elementary school, and it’s very difficult. So I’m glad that through your work and your culture, you can feel so connected to others. And that others can feel connected as well.

    I definitely would love to read more posts about being Jewish!

  8. Cousin Jenny
    Cousin Jenny says:

    Hi P,
    I like this blog as I can totally relate! It makes perfect sense since we grew up together. I was exposed to the same lingo as you! I use Yiddish without even thinking! I then have to explain what the word means…I like that too. Also, finding a sense of belonging at work is really a key to success. I like the tie-in, it truly fits!

  9. Bert Savarese
    Bert Savarese says:

    Hi… well, what an opportune time to read this post about communication and language! I just came in from talking with the policeman who went with me to my neighbors next door to ask them to please not take down my post (dividing line between our property) & the guy currently living there tried to tell me HE built the post.. .which is impossible because it is the post from my fence that Katrina took 99% of it away. But the guy didn’t want me to tell him not to remove it …. so he was very snarky to me. I realized I could either back down and be scared of this guy — I am 67 — or I could let the police make the point to him that he is to respect my property. (the 18 yr olds were told NOT to remove my fence and they happily chopped it down when I wasn’t looking later…) So I finally decided I would use communication more effectively an do it in a way that would make sure the neighbor guy would know that I didn’t for sure want the fence post down and why I wanted it up (even though I had told him all this). The guy didn’t want to listen – he would ask me a question then constantly interrupt me –

    The point of all this is that though we spoke the same language, it may as well have been me speaking yiddish because his English wasn’t hearing my words! Though I clearly said what I want in front of the him and the policeman — it took the policeman to keep the guy on track. His uniform, I think, spoke a language ALL of us understand. And did I need it today!

    I need to work on the word Brazen for myself so I don’t feel so weak against young hippie guys with long hair who are nasty to older women! Not trying to be snarky, but didn’t know a better way to communicate to him other than let the policeman translate exactly what he had just heard….

    you are welcome to remove this… but maybe I need to learn some good yiddish phrases, you think?

    • Steve Cook
      Steve Cook says:

      Oops, see my reply to the next comment. Must have drifted down the page when I hit reply. My bad. I was suggesting ways to deal with your property issues.

  10. QuinnCreative
    QuinnCreative says:

    Oy, Penelope [spits in handkerchief, rubs imaginary spot on P’s cheek] What a cute punim! Ach, I hate to say this, but a breyre hob ich? [What choice do I have?]If you are going to use Yiddish, get the transliterated spelling from Chaim Potok or Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish. Otherwise you’ll sound, well, farmisht.[Confused] Tschotske is complicated, but schmatte is only schmatte if it has 2 Ts.

    Putz indeed means penis, but not necessarily a small one. It also means “jerk” (rather than ‘dope’, which just means dumb without malice). Schmuck, which in German means “jewlery” but in Yiddish refers to the family jewels, is a stronger word, more along the likes of Mother****er. Not to be used by women of my generation.

    Yiddish is incredibly nuanced, and about 30 percent of it comes from the country in which it was spoken. So Russian Yiddish is about 30 percent Russian (and gave us all the -chick words, like boychick). I was disappointed when I finally had to learn English, which was not so nuanced IMHO.

    • Steve Cook
      Steve Cook says:

      Sorry to hear you had difficulties with young male neighbors. They’re not really Hippies if they are rude to older women, just Hippie posers. Glad to hear you got some help from a policeman, but a word of advice: you need more than a fence post to define your property boundary. You should look at your deed and see if it refers to Iron Pins(IPs)or other markers at the corners. Fences may indicate where a boundary is, but may not necessarily define the boundary legally. Monuments referenced and described in a boundary description in a deed are the governing boundary definitions. There are other precedents failing these, but monuments in the ground are the first choice of the law. If you can afford one, hiring a professional land surveyor is the best way to protect your interests. Hope this helps.
      Steve C.

  11. Gloria
    Gloria says:

    In awe, inspired; such an epic flow of eloquence.

    “I think our strongest sense of belonging comes not from belonging by default, but belonging by solving problems together.

    “We each want to contribute to something, and we each want to feel safe. Work is so much more than just earning money. Work is about figuring out where we belong in a wider context than our circle of friends and family.”

    Thank you. <3


  12. Mishigas
    Mishigas says:

    I always find it a little strange hearing yiddish associated with being Jewish. As a child, it was frequently used in my household. Dad was American (mid-west) and mother was German.

  13. Roberta Warshaw
    Roberta Warshaw says:

    First, I need to say, I am not crazy about the new design. The brown boxes around the words at the top, career, romance etc etc, are especially bothersome. Unnecessary. Just an opinion from a graphic design perspective.

    The second thing is the part about belonging. I used to feel a real sense of belonging and camaraderie at my job. Then I turned 60. Suddenly I am the oldest in my department and I don’t feel that sense anymore. I feel invisible now.

    • PJayBee
      PJayBee says:

      Hey, Roberta,

      Aging is an interesting process. One slowly becomes invisible. I’m 64 and still going strong in my career (crim. defense attorney), but the new young lawyers and researchers in my office dismiss me. They talk around me as if I weren’t there. I want to tell them I’ve won more jury trials than ALL THE LAWYERS IN MY OFFICE COMBINED, but then, that seems desperate.

      Each generation grows and prospers, learns from those who come before, teach those who come after, and then move on. I’m ready to move on . . . I don’t like the new people — for one thing, kindness is not their priority and there is a sort of hive-think that distresses the hell out of me.

      I know what you mean. It is harder to get up, blow dry my hair, do the make-up, dress in my warrior wardrobe and then go take control of the courtroom. What do I want? Sleep in until 11 am and then drink some wine and sleep some more…and then wake up and read crime novels. But, then again, there is the mortgage.

      We move on. I’m not religious, to say the least, but I will say, may the universe bless and keep you.

    • chris Keller
      chris Keller says:

      Yes, @ Roberta. I am now semi-retired, having left my large (healthcare) corporation job recently, at age 64. I felt, increasingly, that I didn’t belong. Not necessarily due to unkindness from younger employees. I felt, as I got older, that I have my own definitions of health care and nursing, which diverged more and more from the corporate mission, vision and values statements. However, if you are being treated like a lesser citizen, for whatever reasons, you may find yourself wanting to find your place in a more accepting and open atmosphere. How will people work longer and longer into their sixties or seventies if a pattern of non-acceptance is the norm?

  14. lb
    lb says:

    HOLY CHALLAH! Awesome post, sis.

    I worked in a Madison kosher-style deli (on State St) back in the late 80’s when I was a poor undergrad who knew nothing about Jewish food. I learned all about challah & blintzes & matzoball soup; fortunately, I only had to serve gefilte fish once.

    P.S. Bought your book. Even tho i dont need a job, I’m always looking for new ways to play The Game of Life.

  15. Stacey
    Stacey says:

    I would definitely love to read more about work as belonging, or problem solving as fostering community. I’ve been obsessed with the idea of belonging since… well, therapy! I really don’t feel like I belong to groups easily. What makes us feel like we belong? What makes us stick around? I love this stuff.

    I’m a Southern Protestant, and I love Yiddish! Some of those words speak like no other.

  16. Mairzy
    Mairzy says:

    In high school I dated a guy whose father called me “the shiksa” – to my face. I had a sense it was not a compliment and I was correct. I did not marry the guy.
    My brother (raised Irish Catholic, now atheist) married a lovely young woman (my son’s age) in 2009 and they are expecting their first baby on April 14. A scheduled Caesarean to allow for the bris on April 21. I am curious to know what Sean and Lauren will name their son. My money is on Josh or Noah but really, I’m verklempt over being an aunt again. Oy!

  17. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    The link to the Harvard Magazine article titled ‘Costs and Benefits of Connection’ in the sentence “Numerous studies show that a sense of belonging is a hugely positive force in good health.” is a gem. Thanks for that one. There’s a lot to digest in the article so I bookmarked it so I can read it again and refer to links within it.

  18. Riley Harrison
    Riley Harrison says:

    Dean Ornish (diet guru) used to preach that low fat diets were the
    primary remedy for heart disease. In later years he revised his thinking and now thinks unhealthy isolation and lack of connection are the main culprits that cause heart disease. My wife’s interpretation of his findings is that it’s now OK to eat sticks of butter (disguised as desserts)as long as you are with friends.

  19. Steve Cook
    Steve Cook says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head re connecting and belonging and the relationship they have to careers and the world of work. I also think you expressed these concepts very eloquently. This is really one of only posts of yours that resonated with me in a while. I gave up on all that drivel by the twenty-somethings. Too illiterate for me.
    I only vaguely understand a few basic yiddish expressions, but I do think they are uniquely descriptive. The one I understand, or at least like the best is mensch. Mensches make the world go round, even if they can only start to balance out the bad stuff out there.
    Sorry, but I’m not a fan of the new layout. It seems so….commercial and bulky.

  20. Kenosi
    Kenosi says:

    A sense of belonging can be elusive for some personality types. For some people, myself included, we have constantly work at connecting and belonging within our communities or groups (i.e. work, church, PTA).

    Interesting post as usual!

  21. JB40
    JB40 says:

    Mom groups are just junior high with wine and toddlers. The moms there are just as insecure as they were back in school and they still feel better about themselves by putting others down. Accept yourself for who you are. If you like yourself, you really don’t need to belong to some arbitrary group, where you have nothing in common. Find people you like, and hang out with them when you can. If you’re confident in yourself, then you’ll feel at home anywhere. It took me a long time to figure this out, but I’m glad I finally did–what a waste of energy it is to try to be liked by everyone!

  22. CS
    CS says:

    I love incorporating words and linguistic constructs from Spanish and Portuguese in to English. They allow me to express myself in a broader way than I could using English alone. That being said, I feel like there is nothing that acheives the effect of a good old F-bomb. It bugs me when people hate on the the word “fuck!” because there is nothing that acheives the same expressional release. How do you translate THAT in to Yiddish!?

    Please note: I know this article was more about belonging than about Yiddish alone. You made a great point about the lack of a place to belong leading to despair. I also liked the point about how our greatest sense of belonging comes from solving problems together, and how that should translate in to a career. Nice post!

  23. MiekSpeak
    MiekSpeak says:

    I grew up in a town in NJ with a large Jewish population. So I say a lot of yiddish words (even though I’m black ha ha)

  24. Adria
    Adria says:

    Wow, I recently re-read Kurth Vonnegut’s Palm Sunday which is all about the importance of community, extended family, and so on (if you’re a Vonnegut fan you’ll get that). It’s worth a look.

    PS re: the yiddish words- from what I was told by friends growing up on LI, most of these translations are too kind!

  25. chris Keller
    chris Keller says:

    I grew up in Rogers Park in Chicago–near “Devon Avenue”.
    My family history is pure Polish–but Rogers Park/Devon Av
    was a Jewish neighborhood, and my mom used all the words in this post freely. I always thought schmatte was Polish for
    raggedy housedress/housefrau appearance. Thanks for clearing that up.

  26. Laura
    Laura says:

    Yay for Yiddish! It is so useful. I learned lots of Yiddish words from my mother– her best friend is Jewish so that’s where she got them. :-) It was always entertaining to have Jewish friends say, “How does a nice Catholic girl from Ohio know the word ‘schmuck’?”
    But seriously, please don’t try to dress like Mary-Kate. She always looks like a homeless person.

  27. Clare
    Clare says:

    I really enjoyed this post and the comments – thanks.

    But I think there’s another side to the community = happiness / better health thing.

    You may well get a sense of belonging, but you’re also much more tied to the norms of the community. If you’re not a member to start with, you get far more freedom to do your own thing.

    Case in point: I once worked in a Jewish-owned, and primarily all-Jewish company. I was one of the few not related / personally known to the CEO. At our Christmas lunches, there were no comments about me eating the bacon rolls. But if any of my Jewish colleagues did, they got an evil look. And they were also expected to take off High Holy Days as holiday.

    I’m not sure what’s “better” – being part of a community and having to adhere to societal expectations, or not belonging but having complete freedom.

  28. Leon Hewer
    Leon Hewer says:

    Isnt irony what we (me, maybe not you…) white trash anglophiles have to convey nuance? (ask a 10 year old).
    I also freely use slang (mainly old hip-hip (I cribbed heavily from The Wire too), more recently 90’s metal terminology, poor grammar (I now compulsively say ‘a’ rather than ‘an’ before words starting with a vowel – see Barton Fink. I wouldn’t do this speaking withmy mum, but it adds extra layers to convo’s with my mates. We try not to be wankers, but ultimately, who cares. See you newsreader types later…

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s really interesting about a and an. I do it too, when I’m in certain, I’m-so-flip sort of mood.

      Recently I’ve become really aware of vernacular that would be “wrong” technically, but sounds sweet to me like a song here in the country. Like, where’s it at? There’s always an at slipped into the end of a where question. And I like it. I could never do it, but I can’t bring myself to correct my sons when they ask, “Where’s my coat at?”


  29. Michael Prager
    Michael Prager says:

    I love this post. My parents and grandparents grew up speaking some Yiddish and my wife and I still use these words and more all the time. We actully have a no Tsotchke policy in our house so we don’t end up on Hoarders some day. The sad thing however is that no matter what your culture is, it seems that kids are losing that sense of belonging to cultural group. How will kids feel a sense of community and belonging if all they know is texting, Wii, and Justin Bieber? I think you should write about whatever you want, career or not.

    • Arcinian
      Arcinian says:

      I’m confused by this – being a fan of Justin Beiber is an example of community and how communities are created. You might not like it for many valid reasons but to argue that having lots of people do activity X or like person Y destroys rather than creates communities is strange and inaccurate.

  30. New Normal
    New Normal says:

    Excellent. I love any & all blog posts about language & usage.

    But what about “schlemeil” (sp?)… doesn’t it mean “kindly old fool”??

    Like others here, I only get “contact Yiddish”, but I love to learn.

  31. Margaux Z.
    Margaux Z. says:

    I loved this, Penelope. Yiddish is rarely used in my own family; it has the same intensity of otherwise using one of the seven dirty words. I was compelled to reply to this article because of my own “sense of belonging” in the culture you reference. Thanks for posting. :)

  32. -k-
    -k- says:

    Can I just say–as someone who drops in occasionally (versus being a long-time follower/regular reader), I’m really okay with the new look. Yeah, the caps are harsh, but not wholly off-putting.. I’ve seen some disastrous redesigns, and this doesn’t come close. People will get used to it.

    This point about belonging–it’s profound. There’s a lot more to be written about it.

  33. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    My old boyfriend gave me a copy of "The Joys of Yiddish" which I foolishly gave away after we broke up. Our relationship was totally meshuga and I wasn’t comfortable being the shiksa.

  34. Steve C2nd
    Steve C2nd says:

    I just re-read this post. I think language, and even just regional accents, are incredibly defining, and probably develop out of a need to belong. I recall the distinctive tone and nuances of the girls from East Cambridge, Mass in comparison to, say, the California Valley Girl. Very distinct. I think it’s a very important phenomenon that we all take for granted.
    More than that, reading the last several paragraphs and sentences of the post just really struck me again, particularly:

    “I'm convinced that the initial slip toward despair is the sense that you don't belong.”,

    “I think our strongest sense of belonging comes not from belonging by default, but belonging by solving problems together.”,

    “But I want to keep writing about careers because I think the topic is actually mostly about belonging. We each want to contribute to something, and we each want to feel safe. Work is so much more than just earning money. Work is about figuring out where we belong in a wider context than our circle of friends and family….
    Writing about the workplace and careers is writing about belonging in the most fundamental sense of the word.”

    I think these thoughts are profound, and they have definitely moved your writing to a new and higher level in my opinion.

    I also think you have identified the source, or one of the sources, of much of the strife and despair in this country today, if not the world. My own thoughts go to all those whose livelihoods and hope for the future have all but disappeared, be it from technology or outsourcing, or age. The post deserves a wider reading. I hope it gets one.

    • chris Keller
      chris Keller says:

      Yes, I, too, think there are many levels of meaning in this post.

      Belonging based on mutual problem-solving equals teamwork, in my book. Which is sometimes undercut by competitiveness. And/or power grabs.

      Hmmm. Belonging via love and work, a new twist–an expansion– on an old Freudian concept.

  35. Pamela Gottfried
    Pamela Gottfried says:

    This is a great post, Penelope! I had a similar experience when I moved from NYC to Atlanta. I was teaching in a Jewish high school and the non-Jewish teachers didn’t “speak my language.” So I started sending “weekly word essays” via emails to teach my favorite Yiddish words to my co-workers and to create a sense of community around a common language. Eventually, I took a sabbatical to collect my top-40 essays into a book. You could say that my love of Yiddish led to my career-shift from teacher to author! You can read the introduction to my book, Found in Translation: Common Words of Uncommon Wisdom at my website http://pamelagottfried.com/MyWordsinPrint.html.

  36. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Tsotcke has a very endearing connotation to me. I like tsotckies & nic-nacs but only ones that are really blatantly chazzerai. I have a strange collection of religious paraphernalia, not because I am religious, but because I am enamored with things like my jesus erasers and my ganesha night light. They are all terribly terribly ugly, except I love them anyways.

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  39. Steve
    Steve says:

    My wife and I both have decided that we are not ideally going to belong anywhere but unto our own little world of not belonging. Since making this decision, we have felt a lot more people wanting to join us in not belonging anywhere and to our amazement, we now belong with all of them. Go figure…

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  40. Pam
    Pam says:

    OMG! Same thing happened to me when I moved to Boston- I had no idea how much yiddish slips into my conversation, and I’m not eve Jewish! Every now and then my daughter will say ” I thought everyone knew what schvitzing was”. Of course, she’s also shocked that nobody here knows from a pumpernickel bagel with lox spread.

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