Earlier this month, in commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the first public performance of “God Bless America,” James Kaplan distilled a New York Times essay from his forthcoming biography of Irving Berlin, New York Genius.
The iconic song, he notes, was introduced to the world in 1938, one day after Kristallnacht and on the eve of Armistice Day, by the vocalist Kate Smith, colorfully described by author Sheryl Kaskowitz (who penned a history of the song) as “the Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey of her era.”
It wasn’t long, Kaplan writes, before the original “America Firsters,” staunch isolationists, shouted down efforts to sing Berlin’s paean to his adopted country at public gatherings. Though the songwriter donated all royalties from the song to the Boy and Girl Scouts, he was accused, in baldly anti-Semitic terms, of trying to personally profit from the emotions it engendered. Jew haters and reality have always had a fraught relationship.
And, of course, the song has been rendered into Yiddish, as “Gott Bentsch America.”
The meanings of the first and third words are obvious. What’s with the middle one, though? Has it anything to do with the English word “bench”?
“Bench,” the sitting kind, derives from the Old English benc and Old High German bank. And a “bench” in Yiddish, in fact, is to this day, a bahnk (plural, benk). And you can take that factoid to the benk.
Oddly, being relegated to a bench in team sports, or “being benched,” carries an obvious air of dishonor. Yet in a courtroom, “the bench” is a most honored place, where the judge sits. Go figure. (Why a judicial chair is called a bench isn’t entirely clear; perhaps it has to do with the size of judges in olden times.)
Back to Yiddish, though. Where, you ask, did bentsch, the Yiddish word for “bless,” come from? Hint: Think about Pope Francis’ predecessor.
“Benedict” comes from the Old Italian word for “bless,” benedicite (pronounced benehDEEchideh), a combination of bene (“good”) and dicere (“to speak”); it is, of course, the root of the English word “benediction.” Bentsch is thus an example of the rare Yiddish word with roots not in German or a Slavic language but in Latin. We Jews, of course, have gotten around.
Interestingly, there’s a connection between the Hebrew word for blessing, bracha, and a Latin-rooted English word: “genuflect.” That word means to kneel, in particular as part of worship. Its Latin roots are genū, “knee” and flectere, “to bend.” The Hebrew word for “knees” is birkayim, whose root consists of the same letters as the root of bracha.
In its technical halachic sense, a bracha is one of the prescribed recitations beginning with Baruch ata, or “Blessed are You …” that observant Jews pronounce before and after eating, as part of the Amidah (the silent prayer that is the central feature of every Jewish service), and on a number of other occasions, including after using the bathroom, as part of the wedding service, upon seeing a rainbow, lightning or shooting star, or on hearing thunder. A bracha needn’t entail bending ones knees, but it is interesting that in the blessings recited in the Amidah, the established custom is in fact to bend one’s knees at the word “baruch” in several places.
Colloquially, bentsch, when used by itself, as in the Yiddish Lomir bentschen, or, in Yinglish, “Let’s bentsch,” refers to reciting the Birchat Hamazon, or Grace After Meals, which contains several blessings.
The word is also part of a common salutation offered when taking leave of a friend: “Zai gebentsched,” or “be blessed.”
Had the state of Israel, as some had indeed wanted, adopted Yiddish and not Hebrew as its official language, Zai gebentsched might have had a very different meaning, at least when aimed at a player and coming from a coach.
Rabbi Shafran, whose latest book is “It’s All In The Angle” (Judaica Press), blogs at rabbiavishafran.com.