Whether the president, by demeaning allies, calling NATO a foe and getting even chummier with his Russian counterpart is 1) brilliantly opening a new era in geopolitics, 2) oblivious to what NATO and Russia, respectively, are, or 3) a contemporary Manchurian candidate who actually got elected, a Yiddish-speaking observer would be forgiven for at least noting that epes schmeckt.
That is to say, “something smells.”
The German etwas has been suggested as epes’s source, but that theory, too, it must be said, schmeckt a bissel. Whatever the word’s origins–there are native Yiddish words, after all–it is a versatile one. It serves not only as “something,” but adds color and emphasis in a multitude of contexts.
“Hot ir epes a cellphone?” a communication-less Yiddish-speaker needing to call home might ask a linguistic compatriot. In that sentence, the epes serves as a sort of “some sort of.”
“Vos epes?” is an expression that translates literally as “What something?” but conveys the English query “What gives?”
Confusingly, the Hebrew word efes means “nothing” or “zero.” Language, like life itself, is complicated.
What of schmeckt, though?
It is a cognate of the German schmecken , which implies “tasting,” wherein the nose plays a prominent part. (Paste your own “prominent” joke about Jewish noses here.)
The tongue’s role in tasting, though, persists in Yiddish too, at least in the expression a lek un a schmeck, “a lick and a sniff”–used to refer to an insignificant amount of something, a mere whiff, as it were. As in Mr. Feinschmecker’s complaint: “They call this a restaurant? This is an appetizer? It’s a lek un a schmeck!”
And, yes, feinschmecker is a word, too, a German one, meaning “a fine taster,” or what we would call a gourmet.
Back to the olfactory, though. In certain Chassidic shuls on a Sabbath morning, a snuff box might be offered to regulars and visitors alike, with the encouragement, “Nem a schmeck tabak,” or “take a sniff of tobacco.” If you avail yourself of the service, please sneeze away from other congregants.
Another drug that receives a schmeck is heroin, whose slang synonym is “smack.” Yes, that is believed to have evolved from the Yiddish “whiff” word. Why Yiddish would be the source of the slang word likely has to do with the “Kosher Nostra,” the Jewish criminals who were prominent in organized crime in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Heroin (I’m told) has no smell but if impure, has vinegary notes. So a schmeck might have been a good way to gauge the drug’s purity.
A more pleasant outgrowth of schmeck is “geschmak,” meaning “delicious,” as in the Yiddish equivalent of greener grass growing on the other side: Geschmak iz der fish oyf yenems tish. Or “Delicious is the fish on the other guy’s table.” Who cares about grass anyway?
It isn’t only food that can be geschmak. A yeshiva boy or seasoned scholar might refer to a particularly ingenious commentary on a passage as a geschmakeh Toisfos or geschmakeh Rashba. And if he is very impressed with the personality of a new arrival at the yeshiva, he would call him a geschmakeh guy.
Were Mr. Trump a Yiddish speaker, after his Helsinki meeting with Vladimir Putin, he might have called the Russian that.
And the rest of world, were they Yiddish speakers, would have reacted to that compliment with “Gevalt!”
Rabbi Shafran, whose latest book is “It’s All In The Angle” (Judaica Press), blogs at rabbiavishafran.com.