Nebekh, an interjection meaning “the poor thing, it’s a pity, alas,” is one of the oldest Slavic words in Yiddish, one of the few to have penetrated the Yiddish of Western Europe, where the non-Jewish population did not speak Slavic languages. “Nebbish” is a Germanized pronunciation of nebekh, which is usually spelt nebbich when transliterated into German. A nebbish is called a nebekhl in Eastern Yiddish, a person at whom you take one look and think, “Oy, nebekh, the poor thing.”

The fact that nebekh managed to travel backwards, as it were, into non-Slavic territory indicates how indispensable it is to almost any Yiddish conversation. Jews were nebekhing all over Europe as early as the fifteenth century, and they haven’t stopped doing so here. Many Yiddish statements would be incomplete without a nebekh: If you’re the president’s press secretary you say, “The president is nebekh sick.” If you’re the kind of citizen who can separate the office from the man, you’ll also say nebekh, even if you voted for the other candidate. But if you’re a journalist with pretensions to disinterest, you say, “The president is sick.” Apply the same principles to your feelings for your relatives and you’ll see that the presence or absence of a nebekh can tell a listener all that need be known about your familial relations.

So when a Jew with beard and payes nebekh kisses the president of Iran, you know how we feel for the poor Jewish people.

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Week. Below are some items for sale from eBay for those of you with an interest in Yiddish.

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