Reflections: Yiddish. Food Metaphors. Show Biz.

April 27th, 2011 § 1 comment

In the Bronx of HG’s youth, Jewish delicatessens often had a bowl of salami chunks on the counter with a sign: “A Nickel A Shtickel.” The literal Yiddish translation of “shtick” is: “a piece.”  You got it. “Shtickel” is the diminutive i.e. “a little piece.” Hungry customers could nibble “ah shtickel” while their pastrami and corned beef orders were being sliced.

All of this has made HG muse on Yiddish show biz terms. “Shtick”, of course, means a comic routine or a performer’s riff of some type. The term has been broadened to include all sorts of political and sales approaches.

“Schmaltz” is chicken fat. It is also the term for sentimental, over-dramatic emoting. “Schmaltzy” music or “schmaltzy” acting, therefore is that which is solely intended to pluck the heart strings (or clog those heart strings as shmaltz tends to do).

A performer of talent who lacks the ability to emotionally move an audience is known as a “lox.” A curious designation, since “lox” is the salty, highly flavored cut of smoked salmon favored by folk with hearty tastes. In performing terms, the opposite of a “lox” is a “shtarker” — a performer who uses every means at his (or her) disposal to excite or grab an audience (by the “kishkas” as they might say). Al Jolson, Bobby Darin, Liza Minelli, Zero Mostel, Bette Midler, Billy Daniels, Louis Armstrong—all “shtarkers”. The word literally means a tough, strong guy. In the Europe of yesteryear, when Jew haters attacked scholars, merchants, etc., “shtarkers” were summoned — Jewish guys who worked with their hands and who did not back down from a fight.

Amazing to think that many of these Yiddishisms have made the leap from the old, Odessa ghettos to the Lower East Side Vaudville circuit to finally entering our shared American vernacular in such a permanent way that a Presidential speech could be described in a major Newspaper as “schmaltzy.” Certainly a development that the great Boris Thomashefsky couldn’t have foreseen!


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