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Medicine’s Maven: House, M.D. and Yiddish

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House, M.D. trivia question: Besides English, to what language does Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) gravitate most? Answer: Yiddish. 

Over the seasons, House has used Spanish, Latin, Greek, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, even Portuguese. It seems he’s quite the polyglot! However, he uses more Yiddish (and Hebrew) expressions than those of any other languages. He’s clearly not Jewish. Although fellow Taub (Peter Jacobson), best friend Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) and new love Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) are, they rarely (if ever) have uttered even a word of the colorful, yet nearly forgotten, language.  Perhaps he likes the fact that Yiddish is a very expressive language: very descriptive and occasionally lyrical. And lots of Yiddishisms have made their way into modern American speech: chutzpah, schlemiel (and its partner, shlamazel), schmuck, yenta, to name but a few. 

I once asked a couple of the show’s writer/executive producers (Russel Friend and Garrett Lerner) how House seems to know so much Yiddish. They laughed (at me or with me—I’m not sure which) and reminded me about how many of the House writers are Jewish! “Is it any wonder?” they asked. 

And now that House is involved with the Jewish Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein), his use of Yiddishisms may even increase (since he often uses Yiddish to tease—even mock). So, as a service to my loyal readers (and anyone else within the range of my writing), I present this little Yiddish-English House, M.D. glossary. Enjoy!

Mazel Tov (House pronounces it “mazel toff”). Technically this expression means “good luck” in Yiddish. But it is far more often employed as “congratulations,” and is a Yiddishism that long ago found its way into American speech. And the fact that House says “mazel tov” from time to time isn’t, itself, noteworthy. Even Foreman has said it. (Trivia question: when?) What’s noteworthy is that House uses it frequently (more trivia: which episodes?) and with relish—and much more frequently than either of two Jewish characters on the show. 

Kein ahora (pronounced: ken-ahora). In Histories (1×10), House is doing his invasive best to find out why Wilson is so interested in a homeless patient—and why Foreman is being so hard on her. Telling Wilson he’s learned that Foreman’s parents have been married 40 years, Wilson utters a sarcastic “mazel tov.” House comes back with “kein ahora.” It is the first time we hear House use Yiddish, and despite the ease (and correct way) he sayss it, I was surprised (and delighted). “Kein ahora,” unlike “mazel tov” would be a rather obscure expression to the uninitiated. It’s a variant on “kein einahora” (literally “without the evil eye). House uses the expression correctly; in Jewish culture, no word of congratulation or praise should go unmitigated by an additional word or two to ward off the evil eye. For example, if House said to Cuddy’s mother that granddaughter Rachel was gorgeous, Cuddy’s mom would likely respond “kein ahora.”  

Tush/tuches (pronounced tuh-kchas). House’s patient in “Control” (1×14) undergoes a series of tests to diagnose colon cancer. When they come back negative, House declares that patient Carly’s “tush” is perfect. Tush is Yiddish for “butt,” “derriere,” “bottom,” “ass,” or anything else that describes the part of the anatomy upon which we sit. Synonymous with “tuches,” it’s a word usually used lovingly, lightly or teasingly. House, might for instance declare that Cuddy (or virtually any other female, since he seems to be quite the ass-man) has a “cute tush.” That would be a compliment. 

Conversely (and maybe because of the guttural “ch” sound) tuches seems not as nice and is often used to make a point (i.e. “get off your tuches and do some work around here!”), although this term, too, is sometimes used endearingly.  In season two’s “Skin Deep,” House refers to his supermodel’s derriere as “tuches,” describing her and explaining why he thinks her father has sexually abused her. It seems a bit perverse, even for House, until he’s proven correct.

Kosher. Wilson first uses the word (used in both Yiddish and Hebrew), which refers to the Biblically-based Jewish laws of food preparation and eating. He explains that “not all Jews keep kosher” when Foreman suggests that their patient in the series pilot could not be the Jewish Wilson’s cousin since she eats ham (which is forbidden by those who keep kosher.) House uses the term in “Mob Rules” (1×16) when he orders his patient hooked up to a pig to filter his blood. “Don’t worry,” he explains, “it’s kosher.” (I assume he means the procedure—and not the pig.) 

Gemutlicht/shanda (pronounced “geh-moot-licht” and “shahndah”). Two separate bits of Yiddish from the same scene in “Autopsy” (2×02). House treats an uncircumcised clinic patient who took matters a bit too much into his own hands trying to please his lady. He explains to House that his uncircumcised male apparatus freaked her out and he tried to perform a DIY job with a set of box cutters. Understanding the young man’s predicament, House observes that he accommodated his girlfriend so she would become “all gemutlicht,” Yiddish for “warm and cozy.” To do otherwise, would of course be a “shanda” (scandalous or an embarrassment). Viewing the patient’s…er…handiwork, House observes that the clinic patient did it “just like Abraham,” a reference to the Bible in which Abraham circumcises himself as a sign of the covenant between him and God. 

Kvell/Kvelling (pronounced just like it’s spelled!) Kvell essentially means to gush with pride–parents (and especially grandparents) often “kvell” about the achievements of their kiddies. In “Failure to Communicate” (2×10), House kvells when Cameron exhibits an uncharacteristically cynical attitude. He explains to the team, “Our little girl is growing up!” House exclaims, feigning tears of joy—just like a proud parent (OK, a sarcastically proud parent). House also uses “kvelling” in “The Jerk” (3×22)

Bashert (pronounced “bah-shehrt”). Bashert means “destiny.” Often it refers to one’s romantic destiny—the one you’ve been awaiting your entire life. In “The Right Stuff” (4×02), House asks Wilson if Cameron has followed her “bashert” (meaning Chase) to Arizona. 

Shabbes/Shabbat (pronounced “shahbbiss” and “shahbaht,” respectively). The first is Yiddish (or Ashkenazic Hebrew) and the second, modern Hebrew. Shabbat is the Jewish day of rest—Sabbath, the seventh day of the week.  House uses both in “Don’t Ever Change” (4×12) along with “verklepmt” (also pronounced “ferklempt” and means “clenched”). House’s Chassidic patient has “verklempt” wiring in her kidney region, causing her bizarre symptoms. House also gets to trot out his Hebrew skills as well when he translates the Shabbat prayer traditionally chanted by a husband for his wife: Eishet Chayil. The prayer originates in the Bible’s Book of Proverbs, and House seems to know it quite well—even as Taub, House’s (very secular) Jewish fellow has no clue (and can’t pronounce even the title!). 

L’chayim (pronounced as it’s spelled). “To life, to life, l’chayim…” goes the showstopper from Fiddler on the Roof. The words are to Yiddish what “cheers” is in English: a toast. In “Help Me,” the season six finale, House says it to his patient Hanna after hooking her up to a saline drip IV.

Although they don’t technically involve Yiddishism, there are two additional episodes of note in which House reveals at least a passing knowledge of Jewish culture. In “Who’s Your Daddy” (2×23), House makes two distinct Jewish references. The first is when Cuddy (who is considering artificial inseminatin to have a baby) says she’s leaning toward donor #613. House chides that she “would go with a Jewish number.” The number refers to the number of commandments stated in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible by which Jews live their lives. It’s a fairly obscure reference, but then he tops that obscure reference later in the episode when the team is trying to identify the source of the patient’s fungal infection. Leaning toward a recording studio as the place where she picked up, House asks “Why is this building different than all other buildings?” It’s an obvious (but also very obscure) play on a pivotal question asked during the Passover Seder: “Why is this night different than all other nights?”

In “Unfaithful,” although House uses no Yiddish or Hebrew, he is very aware of naming ceremony Cuddy is planning for her new baby called a Simchat Bat (rejoicing of the daughter). He knows it’s a relatively new ceremony as far a Jewish tradition is concerned, and at the end of the episode, as Cuddy is enjoying the ceremony with friends and family, House sits, alone, at his piano playing an evocative musical composition replete with Eastern European Jewish musical motives. Although there are no lyrics, the piece could be House’s own version of a Yiddish lullaby. 

Am I missing any references? Probably. So, my dear readers, the challenge is yours. When else has spoken a bit of the “mamaloshen” (mother tongue)?

House returns with new episodes Monday, September 20. The season six House, M.D. DVD set will be released August 31, and Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D. is in stores September 1. 





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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • I think Foreman said Mazel Tov in season’s five Joy.

  • savtaof5

    Barbara – You did a great job with this piece and I really enjoyed reading it! Yashar Koach!

  • ruthinor

    Very nice article (and I say this as an agnostic Jew who remembers a lot of my very long ago family discussions, when they didn’t want us to understand!). But if he starts season 7 with the yiddish version of “you should grow like an onion”,,,,,I will begin to wonder!

    I saw an interview with Stephan Fry several months ago in which he stated that he has several strikes against him (or words to that effect) i.e. he’s Jewish, gay and bipolar. I wonder if HL could have picked up any yiddish or Hebrew from him.

    For NCIS fans (I believe it is, although extremely popular, very underrated by critics), I am constantly amazed at the linguistic ability of Cote de Pablo. To my ear, her Hebrew sounds very authentic, especially for a South American trained by nuns. She also has handled a number of other languages, just like House.

  • Ruthinor–I’m certainly no Yiddish maven myself! I do remember my parents and grandparents using the language as their sort of super-secret language us kids couldn’t understand. Maybe that’s how it got lost!

  • Thank you for this. I re-watched every episode you quoted (well parts of it) just to hear the words.
    Thanks to House I started saying “mazel tov” more frequently and it seems that it will not be the only yiddish I’ll be saying.

    While re-watching the Don’t Ever Change episode he also refers Mikvah: “You can tell all the ladies at the Mikvah about this.” while confirming his diagnosis.

    Once again thank you for doing these articles about House.

  • sherlockjr

    Loved this! Would have been a great chapter in your book!

  • Barbara barnett

    Thanks guys. Sherlock, I agree. It would have been a good chapter. I have a short chapter on house and language, but not Yiddish specifically. Hey, I had to leave some material for the blog 😉

  • savtaof5

    Cristiana – Good catch of Mikvah reference in Don’t Ever Change.
    To correct my own earlier posting, it should have read yashar kocheich which means good job in Hebrew.

  • RJW

    Didn’t Foreman tell Taub “Mazel Tov” when Taub announced that his wife was allowing him to see another woman in “Open and Shut’?
    BTW,I’m a first time poster,and a big fan of your column,Barbara!

  • Hey, RJW–I believe you are right! And he said it almost as a question 🙂
    So glad you posted. Welcome to the fray.

  • Susan

    I’ve always noticed when House used Yiddish or Jewish expressions and comments but now I’m really looking for them.
    Here are a few more:
    In the “Right Stuff” he says “shmoozing”.
    In “Knight Fall” he comes into the room with a big sword and says , “Filling in for Rabbi Shmuel at the Goldstein bris”.
    In “Ugly” he says to Taub, “You get a gold Star of David”.
    In the episode with LL Cool J he mentions “J-Date” to Cuddy.
    I hope the writers of the show will one day mention how House knows more Yiddish than the average Jew, plus obscure references to the number 613 (in the sperm donor episode) and how he knows the translation of “Eshet Chayil”.
    Besides the fact that many of the writers are Jewish, and the post
    by Ruthinor about Stephen Fry being Jewish, I have a feeling that Hugh Laurie’s wife could be Jewish – her name is Jo Green, and in their wedding picture she looked Jewish to me. (Unscientific I know, but ……..)Maybe he learned from her………

  • Susan

    Just remembered , in “Don’t Ever Change” he calls the woman “Mental Yentl”.

  • Susan, thanks for your contributions. I knew I’d forgotten some of those–I knew he’d used “bris” and forgotten where. Schmooze is such a common term, it almost doesn’t count:)

  • ruthinor

    I remember hearing, quite a while ago, that if an alien ever came to earth, the first language he/she/it would understand would be yiddish because so many of the words sound like what they mean! For some reason when I think of Stephan Fry or other Brit speaking yiddish, it just doesn’t seem “kosher”. I can’t imagine Hugh Laurie speaking yiddish, but with American House, it seems fine.

    Also, if you go back through the episodes, I’m not surprised that House knows so much about the Jewish religion. Even though he’s an atheist, he studies all religions…perhaps so he can argue with any religious person regardless of their faith!

  • Great article Barbara – just as a little side dish to this, I have a copy of the Three Stories script. David Shore gives this description of the 3 medical students that speak in the lecture:
    “In some ways these three represent younger versions of Cameron, Chase and Foreman…alternatively, given the season, they match up to the four sons asking questions on Passover (leaving out the ‘one who doesn’t know how to ask’),”

  • Jo, I knew that but didn’t mention it. (It’s more a Shore thing than a House thing). Thanks for sharing that!

  • Meg

    I am very impressed Barbara!
    as an episcopalian, my knowledge of Judaism is a bit limited compared to Catholisism or Protestantism…but I’m working on it.
    and your article really helped figure out the meaning of some significant moments on House on a whole new level. I will pay even more attention to the Yiddish next time it comes up on the show now or when I rewatch those episodes.
    for some reason, Ive always been attracted to anything Jewish. I guess it goes back to the history lessons I got as a teen in European school and the need to understand what happened with WW2 and why since Im only 28. I find this culture and the old language and the traditions very strong and rich. every time I come to the US, Im amazed and pleased to find these element more present in the community.
    Ive always done some research when I felt the need to go further after watching an episode of House so I figured some meaning by myself but having your take on this is as always enlightening and very educational.
    thank you!

  • Eli

    What original article!
    You must add it to your book!

  • Eli–Too late for this book! It’s already at the printers. Maybe next time 🙂 Thanks!

  • ruthinor

    I recall at the end of an episode, House says “Shabat shalom” Wilson, and Wilson says it back to him. Sorry, can’t remember which episode!

  • That was Don’t Ever Change.

  • Jackie

    House says “Oh vey” when he sees June Quinn and Peter Graves (the elderly couple) near the end of season one’s “Love Hurts” episode.

  • DebbieJ.

    What an enjoyable, interesting and educational article, Barbara!

    Knowing no line or dialogue is a throw away line on House, it was very interesting to learn about the reference when leaning toward a recording studio as the place where the patient was, House asks “Why is this building different than all other buildings?” equates to the question asked during the Passover Seder: “Why is this night different than all other nights?”

    Thank you, Barbara! This was fun.

  • Kathy

    The use of Yiddish on House only half-registers with me, probably because I use so much of it myself (I’ll look at our Basset Hound and tell her that she’s ‘such a shana punim’). I’m an Irish Catholic, originally from northern NJ, where Yiddishisms are common (they’re also common on sports talk radio in the NYC metro area). So when House uses them, it just seems like a normal and natural part of a conversation.

  • ruthinor

    I thought this might fit nicely here. It’s one of the best interviews with LE I’ve read. Someone actually asked intelligent questions!

  • ruthinor

    Barbara, is there some reason why copy and paste seems to work for me everywhere but here?? A dybbuk??

  • Susan

    On “Not Cancer”, House says, “so, nu? and dreidels on a Christmas tree.

  • Must be a dybbuk, ruthinor 🙂 copy/paste has stopped working for me on TweetDeck!

    Good find Susan 🙂

  • lena yampolsky

    Barbara thank you so much for your articles and for this Yiddish research!
    This distinctive aspect of the show always draw my attention.
    I suppose the idea of House who flavor his speech with Yiddish is odd but obviously not accidental.
    Besides apparent fact he has been surrounding by a circle of influencing Jewish colleagues for years, he also confessed that “anomalies bugs me…”
    and I tend to think that he consider Jewish as one of those anomalies. Please don’t get me wrong! Being a Jewish and a resident of Israel myself I just think personaly that way too. We are existing in defiance of many cruel historical laws and sometimes inspite of common sense !
    One parallel just came to my mind in connection with these thoughts – the quote of I.B.Singer who answered the question ” why do you write in a dying language?” with these words: ” I like to write ghost
    stories and nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language! The deader the language the more alive is the ghost!”
    So, according to this analogy Yiddish is fits atypical mind of House better than any other language !

  • Adam

    Please note TUSH is not Yiddish but an anglicism of the Yiddish TUCHES. While it clearly comes from Yiddish it is only used in English. Dimiunitive in Yiddish would be TEICHESL. (little tuches)

    I really enjoyed the article. Thank you.

  • Susan

    Just watched “Help Me’ again. When House hangs up an I.V. bag for the patient facing leg amputation, he says “L’Chayim”.

  • Susan

    In keeping with the tone of this blog – may I inquire if we find out on “Now What” if House is circumcised?

  • Morgan

    Forman said Mazel Tov in Season 6 Episode 18, Open and Shut, when Taub stated that his wife had agreed to an open marriage.