The Yiddish Word That Sums Up Jewish Anxiety

When I was a kid and I spilled something, my dad would react by saying, “Almost shpilkes!” He learned this phrase from Pittsburgh’s resident Jewish doctor in the 1950s, Lee Bass. To hear my dad tell it, Bass delivered all the Jewish babies in Pittsburgh for at least a decade. According to Bass (according to my dad), you can judge a family by how they react when their kid spills something. If they react by getting angry and yelling, that’s unhealthy. Kids just don’t have the best motor coordination — it’s not their fault if they spill, so they don’t deserve to be chastised.

So Bass would always respond to his children’s spills with, “Almost shpilkes!” to show that it was okay to spill sometimes, an honest mistake. My dad decided this was a good method, and one that I very much appreciate in retrospect. It was not employed the time I purposefully spilled milk over my younger brother’s head and was confined to a small, dark room one day during our summer vacation, but that’s a different story.

Turns out, Bass was liberal with his use of the word. Shpilkes actually refers to nervous energy. When you can’t stop bouncing your legs under the table or biting your nails or pacing back and forth (do people actually pace?), you’ve got the shpilkes. In Yiddish, the word translates to “pins and needles,” which evokes the feeling you get when your foot has fallen asleep. But imagine being poked repeatedly by tiny pins — the sharp, fidgety movements this would produce are the shpilkes.

My dad would also use the word correctly when calling out my leg-jiggling, nail biting habits. Many of the Jewish people I know possess a similar nervous energy. We tap our fingers, pick at our nails, play with our hair, bounce our heels. The shpilkes seems to come with the territory of being Jewish. It runs in our blood.

Or at least, that’s the Jewish caricature we’ve come to believe in. In popular culture, Jewish anxiety thrives. Woody Allen (you know, the alleged child molester) films celebrate neuroses, a tradition carried on by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, neither of who can shake an acquaintance’s hand without devolving into an existential crisis. Barbra Streisand stresses so much she ends up driving non-Jew Robert Redford away in The Way We Were (perhaps not strictly the plot, but that’s my recollection of it), and the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, keep introducing audiences to Jews facing dread (like in Barton Fink and A Serious Man).

In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Daniel Smith, author of Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, examines this stereotype. “We, the Jews, have encouraged the world to think of us as anxious,” he writes. “We’ve done this by propagating the figure of the Neurotic Jew — our hysterical clown.”

By the end of the column, Smith traces the root of the Jews celebrating this somewhat derogatory stereotype back to “two and a half” reasons. One: Jews are born into a history of persecution, which encourages remembering, retelling, and therefore dwelling in an anxiety-inducing cultural past. Two: The Jewish tradition is one of exegesis, which means constantly questioning life and the circumstances of our existence — a heady, worrisome task. And two point five: Spending so much time examining our existence means that Jews must be intelligent, so being anxious is a good thing.

The term shpilkes offers a distinctive breadcrumb to follow on the path back to this celebration’s origins. In a piece for Moment, author Eileen Lavine compares shpilkes to tsuris, a Yiddish word that indicates deeper troubles than what she calls the “ants in your pants” or “butterflies in your stomach” feeling of shpilkes. Other definitions connect the word to sexual excitement in addition to general agitation and an upset stomach. The Polish equivalent for shpilkes is szpilka, which means “pin,” too, but also several other sharp items, including “tent hook” and “stiletto heel.” You can then trace szpilka back to spina, which is Latin for thorny shrub. But none of this tells us anything new about how shpilkes came to indicate a specifically Jewish type of nervousness.

The way the word has been used in popular culture is more telling. Its most cited mainstream usage took place during a Saturday Night Live sketch in a segment from the early 1990s called “Coffee Talk” (pronounced “Cawfee Tawk”). The sketch stars Mike Myers as Linda Richman, a Jewish stereotype with massive black curls she continually pats at with claw-like fake nails and who was actually meant to resemble Myers’s mother-in-law. Myers as Richman opens the mock talk show by saying its former host had to leave because “he developed shpilkes in his genechtagazoink” — (a fake word) — so is now recovering in “Boca Raton, Florida… thank you very much.”

Another big moment for shpilkes came during the 2003 film, A Mighty Wind, brought to you by the same people who created comedic gold such as Best in Show, This Is Spinal Tap, and Waiting for Guffman. In A Mighty Wind, Ed Begley Jr.’s character, a Swede named Lars Olfen, fluently sprinkles Yiddish terms into a monologue about a mitzvah a Jewish character’s father did him. The father got Olfen front row theater tickets, “so we’ve got the shpilkes, ’cause we’re sittin’ right there,” Olfen says. It’s funny because he’s so clearly not a Jew.

Then there are the Howard Stern mentions and the Real Housewives of New York utterances, but those are just Jewish people saying Jewish things. The comedic mentions by non-Jews (though A Mighty Wind, at least, was written by two people of Jewish decent, Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy) show how ingrained the idea of shpilkes is in the Jewish stereotype. Jews like David and Seinfeld and Fiddler on the Roof author Joseph Stein before them propagated this nervous caricature in their work, and the world laughed, so others picked up on the joke.

Many mentions of Myers’s SNL usage don’t even bother to point out that he’s not Jewish. His hybrid Yiddish/nonsense phrase (“shpilkes in his genechtagazoink”) is just such a good satire of the language. Though his Linda Richman is the sort of “hysterical clown” Smith warns about, Myers plays her almost reverently, turning the Jewish nervous energy encapsulated in shpilkes into a jittery, excitable sort of energy, the kind that promotes laughing with as opposed to laughing at. Similarly, Begley Jr.’s Mighty Wind character uses Yiddish as if he’s writing the language a love note.

These uses ultimately bring me back to Bass, Pittsburgh’s Jewish doctor who coined the phrase of my childhood, “Almost shpilkes.” Like the comedic portrayals by non-Jews, his use of the word was meant to convey friendliness and make light of anxiety. When I spilled something and my dad responded with the phrase, my mess immediately became a joke. Shpilkes, the term that describes my worst habits, has become attached to good will. The shpilke-ridden, hysterical Jewish clown is really just having a good time.

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