On her podcast “Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown” this week, actress, filmmaker, neuroscientist and Kveller contributor Mayim Bialik asked actor and director Ben Stiller about his favorite Yiddish word, and she got way, way more than she bargained for.
“I like tumult,” Stiller told Bialik, “because it’s sort of been appropriated as a word in our language, as a lot of Yiddish words have.” While Stiller is right that a lot of Yiddish words have made it into the English lexicon, “tumult” is, unfortunately, not one of them. The word actually comes from the Old French tumulte, or from the Latin tumultus. (Some fun words that you might not have known were Yiddish include glitch, maven and the oft-used in baser comedy, schlong.)
There is however, a fairly similar Yiddish word, tummel, which may have been the one Stiller was referring to. Tummel is a verb which means to stir things up, to cause a commotion, and tummler was the title of a resident comedian and entertainer at Jewish resorts like those in the Borscht Belt, whose jobs it was to, well, be an EmCee and loosen up the crowds — be it during meals or by the pool. Famous tummlers include Jerry Lewis, Sid Ceasar and Mel Brooks, who defined his role as a tummler (pronounced TOOM-ler) thus:
“A tummler wakes up the Jews when they fall asleep around the pool after lunch. One of the things I had to do as the pool tummler was, I used to do an act. I wore a derby and an alpaca coat, and I would carry two rock-laden cardboard suitcases and go to the edge of the diving board and say, ‘Business is no good!’ and jump off.”
The “Severance” creator more than made up for his malapropism with the list of great Yiddish words he went on to share, starting with “mishpoche,” the word for family, because “it’s fun to say.” He loves the chagrined expression “oy gevalt” because “I grew up with that” — being raised by the incredible Jerry Stiller, of course. He also shared that he adored when his mom, actress Anne Meara, said that something was a “shonda,” a shame or disgrace. Stiller is currently working on a movie about his parents, so he’s probably thinking a lot about these little Yiddishisms that were part of his childhood.
Stiller wanted to keep kvelling over Yiddish, but then he blanked on the Yiddish word for pig. “Chazer,” Bialik helpfully reminded him, and the two shared their love for the excellent word “chazerai,” literally pig bits, which just means random junk.
To reward him for his wealth of Yiddish knowledge, Bialik shared a new pandemic Yiddish word with the Jewish dad of two: “oysgezoomt.” It’s that feeling you have after too many Zoom meetings, hopefully one that we feel less and less now. But Ben, if you’re looking for some more fun new Yiddish words for modern times, we’ve got you covered.
NEW this week!! 🧠💥 Ben Stiller (@benstiller) and Mayim break down his favorite Yiddish words during an impromptu Yiddish Word of the Day! Don't miss the full episode! Access it through ▶️ https://t.co/7sRXxxWi0c. 🧠💥 #BialikBreakdown #mayimbialik #BenStiller pic.twitter.com/FReDYOQFEn
— Mayim Bialik (@missmayim) September 27, 2023
Stiller, who said he didn’t grow up very religious, also talked about his parents Jewish identity on the podcast. “My dad was pretty spiritual and definitely connected to his Judaism; my mom knew more about religion since she had to learn about it [when she converted] and was committed to it all.” He also shared that his bar mitzvah was not a glamorous affair, perhaps alluding to recent portrayals of the rite-of-passage in movies like “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah.” “This was like 1978, so it was not a… it wasn’t that fancy, the party was in the basement of the synagogue. The biggest thing that happened was that my friends and I… I think we played ‘Hey Jude’ at the reception.”
We honestly love Stiller’s knowledge and appreciation for the Germanic Jewish tongue — and also his Yom Kippur parodies, including this SNL “Willy Wonka” one and a proposed Yom Kippur song, which he shared with us last year. Ben, you have us kvelling!