Tuesday , April 16 2024
Of all the languages Dr. Greg House uses, he seems to like Yiddish best of all

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

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. 





About Barbara Barnett

A Jewish mother and (young 🙃) grandmother, Barbara Barnett is an author and professional Hazzan (Cantor). A member of the Conservative Movement's Cantors Assembly and the Jewish Renewal movement's clergy association OHALAH, the clergy association of the Jewish Renewal movement. In her other life, she is a critically acclaimed fantasy/science fiction author as well as the author of a non-fiction exploration of the TV series House, M.D. and contributor to the book Spiritual Pregnancy. She Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org).

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