A 5th Grade Hebrew-English Dictionary

Some 45 years ago, I attended an Orthodox (very strictly religious) Jewish elementary school called a yeshiva.  All boys, of course.  Up through fourth grade, we experienced relatively normal school hours, except that we had early release each Friday to allow us to assist our families in preparing for the Sabbath.  We had “Hebrew” (religious studies) in the morning and “English” (those pesky 3 Rs required by the state) after lunch.  Corporal punishment was the norm; in second grade, we had a rabbi who would “give you ruler” (pound you with a thick piece of wood) anytime you misbehaved, were caught daydreaming, didn’t know the answer to the rabbi’s question or sometimes, I thought, just on general principles.

Starting in fifth grade, however, things changed.  We were considered older and more mature.  We were expected to set an example for the younger kids.  We were certainly old enough to know better than to misbehave, and when we did, the rabbi thought nothing of putting us over his knee and spanking us mercilessly in front of our chastened classmates.

The other change was that we were required to attend school for an increased number of hours.  School would start about 7:30 in the morning and run until 6:10 in the evening (followed by prayers in the chapel).  We still were released early on Fridays, but in exchange, we had to attend school for half a day on Sundays.  We could get to school in the morning on the bus provided by the local public school district (except Sundays, of course), but the buses had long stopped running by the time we got out of school in the evening.  Parents had to pick us up, usually via carpools.  As for our studies, we had “Hebrew” in the morning, then lunch, then more religious studies followed by a break for “gym” at 3:00.  The school called it “gym” due to the state’s phys ed requirements, but what it really meant was an extended, largely unsupervised recess.  After “gym” came our “English” or secular studies, at the end of the day when we were already tired from being in school since morning.  That was okay, however, as whatever secular learning we did or didn’t pick up wasn’t important.  It was all about the religious studies.

Despite the regimentation, we found ways to blow off steam.  When we were at “gym” or in the boys’ room during lunch or in “study group,” we honed our skills in the fine art of goofing off.  Although we were still preadolescents, we pretended to be horny bastards whose chief interests were in learning as much as possible about the mysteries of the female body.  We also enjoyed saying profanity of every ilk and honing the fine art of inventing creative new insults to use on each other.  This was all strictly sub rosa, as any word that leaked out to the rabbi would certainly have yielded a beating for the guilty party, if not the ultimate punishment that was always held over our heads:  Expulsion. 

On the very rare occasion that the rabbi called out sick, there was no substitute rabbi.  We were given our assignments, a rabbi from a neighboring classroom would look in on us occasionally, and some of the big boys from eighth grade would be called upon to work with us for a little while.  On one such day in fifth grade, we were given the busywork assignment of creating a Hebrew-English dictionary.  The idea was to come up with a word that started with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, use it in a sentence and illustrate it with a little picture.

The problem with this assignment was that most of us knew very little modern Hebrew.  Many of my classmates spoke Yiddish at home, but none of them spoke the Holy Tongue.  Hebrew was reserved for prayers and for reading the Torah.  As a result, most of the words in our dictionary were Hebrew words found in the Bible or in the Hebrew liturgy.  As for Hebrew grammar, we were totally clueless.  For aleph, we would write abba (“father”) in Hebrew and try to draw a picture of Dad.  For bet, we would write bayit (“house”) and draw a picture of our dwelling place.  Gimmel was a tough one.  I settled on gamal and did my best to draw my idea of what a camel might look like.  As you can see, this was a great busywork assignment, as it took hours to complete.

When we were unsupervised for a few minutes, we would giggle about naughty words that we would like to include in the dictionary.  This occurred far too long ago for me to remember precisely what those words were, but I offer up what our fifth grade selves might have written had we no fear of being beaten and expelled.  Enjoy!

אבא (AH-bah) – father
My אבא likes to say the word fuck a lot, so he’s not going to heaven.

בית (BAH-yeet) – house
I got my sister in trouble when I caught her making out with her boyfriend in the basement of our בית.

גםל (gah-MAHL) – camel
I hope a גםל spits on you then sits on you.

דלת (DEH-let) – door
Don’t let the דלת hit you in the tokhes on the way out.

הגדה (ha-GAH-duh) – Passover prayer book
My favorite part of the Passover Seder is singing the songs at the end of the הגדה because everyone’s totally drunk by then.

ואכל (v’ah-KHAL) – and eat
Sit your tokhes down in that chair ואכל!

זבוב (zvoov) – fly
You let a זבוב in the house, you stupid idiot!

חלון (kha-LONE) – window
My dad says that the word defenestrate means to throw someone out of the חלון.  I want to do that to my sister.

טלית (tah-LEET) – prayer shawl
The strings of your טלית are as twisted as your stupid brain.

יד (yad) – hand
My mother walked in while I using my יד to jack off.

כסף (KEH-sef) – gold, money
When I grow up, I’ll make lots of כסף and everyone will have to follow my rules.

לבנה (l’VAH-nah) – moon
Go shit and bark at the  לבנה.

משפחה (MISH-pah-khah) – family
The members of my משפחה are my tattie, my mama, my brothers (Yitzhok, Yankel, Shlomie, Shraggie, Dov, Beryl and Shmeryl) and my sisters (Tziporah, Rivkie, Rokhel, Dvorah and Malkie) and my dog, Spot.

נס (nes) – miracle
My mother says it’ll be a נס if my father gets his tokhes home in time for Shabbos.

סביבון  (suh-vee-VONE) – dreidel, toy top
My סביבון is bigger than your  סביבון.  Hahaha!

עברה (ah-VAY-ruh) – sin
It’s an עברה if you kick your little brother in the nuts and shove his head in the toilet bowl.

פנים (PUH-nim) – face
Your ugly פנים looks like your mother had sex with a rhinoceros.

צפזרים (tzee-poo-REEM) – birds
My father says one day he’ll tell me all about the צפזרים and the bees so I’ll understand exactly  how I’ll be stung and shit on.

קטן (kah-THAN) – small, little
The other night, my mother cussed out my father and yelled that his putz is קטן.

רשה (RAH-shah) – wicked one, evil person
Mama told me that tattie is a damned רשה because he says the F-word so much.

שנים (shee-NAH-yeem) – teeth
My mother says she’ll knock my שנים out if I ever talk back to her again.

תרנגלת (tar-nuh-GO-let) – chicken
I dare you to pull down your pants in front of the rabbi, you big, fat תרנגלת!


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