Around the time I learned that my UChicago team won this year’s annual Scavenger Hunt, I happened to be on the phone with my mother. Knowing how much of my previous weekend had been devoted to “Scav,” how I had stayed up into odd hours of the night every night for three days completing bizarre, arbitrary, and objectively meaningless (though subjectively meaningful) projects, my mom casually asked how my team fared. When I told her the good news, she replied with a “Mazel tov” and an instruction to pass this sentiment to the rest of my team. Me, the dutiful daughter I am, complied, and told the rest of my team: “Guys, my mom says mazel tov!” Though it had happened several times before, I was still surprised in spite of myself by the chuckle that followed, as though “mazel tov” were the punch line to a joke I didn’t know I had told.
I never remember saying or being told “congratulations” as a child around my family or in Jewish pre-school. It was absolutely a sentiment I expressed and that others expressed to me, but we never used that word. “Mazel tov” rolled off the tongue more easily: “Dani, you were elected bracha leader of your Pre-K class? Mazel tov!” “Dani, you lost your first tooth—Mazel tov!” Even after I started school at my secular private school, I still used “mazel tov” with my family and neighbors in my predominantly Jewish neighborhood. A “mazel tov” from my mom accompanied the end of every school year and other “major life events” such as getting my braces removed. And I said it too, and still do. A few weeks ago, when a non-Jewish friend proudly informed me that she had gotten the job that she wanted, I responded: “Mazel To—oh sorry I mean congratulations!” “Mazel Tov” is my visceral reaction, and when I say “congratulations” to non-Jews to be polite, though I don’t mind, it feels like a translation of my native tongue.
One of my closest high school friends was the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and still spoke Chinese with her parents. It was always a somewhat strange experience to hear her answer her cell-phone mid-conversation and rapidly switch from the English she used with me to the Chinese she used with her parents. I often wonder if hearing my so-called “Judeo-English” presents a similar phenomenon to my non-Jewish friends. In the midst of a conversation that they do understand, I suddenly use a Hebraic-sounding word that they don’t. For instance, a lot of both non-Jewish friends and neighbors attended my high school graduation party, and several of the Jewish ones offered me a mazel tov on my graduation. Apparently a non-Jewish family friend was confused by this, and asked another, “What on Earth does ‘mazel tov’ mean? I keep hearing people say it to Dani!” Perhaps this single foreign word in the middle of familiar ones is what turns “mazel tov” into an unintended punch line. Perhaps, too, this is why the Black Eyed Peas randomly inserted it into their song “I Gotta Feeling.”
This linguistic concept emphasizes to me that, though many of us are assimilated into American life, even though many of our lives are indistinguishable in most ways to those of our non-Jewish neighbors’, we still have a culture uniquely our own. The fact that “mazel tov”, and phrases like it are distinct enough within so-called “normal English” to be humorous proves this, at least to me. We American Jews, have our own subculture, subtle at times, but always existent, in our greater American culture.
I don’t think this is something we should necessarily try to change. While we, like all cultures, should be proud of who we are, where we come from, and how these roots manifest themselves now, we still need to take care not to use this “in-speak” to constantly emphasize our difference. We need to acknowledge how rude rude this can seem, as if implying that we cannot have full relationships with non-Jews because we will never fully speak their language. By constantly emphasizing our dissimilarities, we risk trivializing our culture and ourselves and risk becoming unintentional punch lines, something we need to be careful to avoid.
Dani Plung is a student at the University of Chicago.