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The Birth of Shtick

We all know the word, but do we use it correctly?

Avi Shafran
February 26, 2018
Wikimedia Commons
The Three Stooges, masters of shtickWikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
The Three Stooges, masters of shtickWikimedia Commons

An amusing phrase was recently coined in the seemingly never-ending “eruv wars,” wherein town councils in various New York and New Jersey communities have enacted laws that prevent Orthodox Jews from placing small pieces of plastic piping on utility poles to enable them to carry objects outside the home on the Sabbath.

This is not the place to explore how an eruv works, or the legality of either the construction of eruvs or legislation designed to prevent them.

It is a fine place, though, to note, and expound upon, the memorable phrase of an anonymous anti-eruv activist, as it includes a Yiddish word.

On his eponymously named website, the community crusader cites a speech made by an Orthodox rabbi, Shmuel Lefkowitz (full disclosure: he works, as I do, for Agudath Israel of America) to a small group of people at the organization’s 2015 national convention. Rabbi Lefkowitz chided his listeners for being bent on living in long-established Orthodox neighborhoods. And nefariously (at least in Mr. NoEruv’s mind), he suggested they consider becoming “shtickl pioneers” willing to settle in new neighborhoods.

That’s all it took for Mr. NoEruv, astute guy that he is, to catch on to the “Operation Shtickle Pioneer” Jewish plot. Those Elders are at it again.

Shtickl” is a form of the Yiddish “shtick,” whose primary meaning is “piece,” and derives from the Old High German stucki, meaning “slice.” Adding the Yiddish diminutive “l” to it makes it mean “a bit of.” After davening in the morning, for instance, if someone in shul is commemorating a yahrtzeit, it is common to “make a li’chaim” on some whiskey and have a kichel and shtickl herring. (In these less traditional times, an aged scotch and fancy cookies are more common, and the herring comes in multiple varieties.)

So the rabbi was simply recommending that each member of his audience consider becoming “a bit of a pioneer.” Some Jewish plot.

But my, how shtick has evolved, even invading English.

We often refer to a comedy trope as a “piece” or a “bit,” but more expressively as a “shtick.” Even when someone isn’t trying to be funny, he might be said to employ a shtick. Like, say, oh, I don’t know, a leader of the free world who compulsively pronounces “really, really great, unbelievable” about things he likes, or who gives derisive, childish nicknames to people he doesn’t. That’s his shtick.

Shtick can also mean a gimmick. Documentarian Jenn White recently used the word to describe Barack Obama’s penchant, back when he was an unknown, for introducing himself with “My name is Obama. They call me ‘Alabama’ or ‘Yo Mama,’ but it’s Obama. You’re wondering where I got this strange accent from. My mother’s from Kansas and my dad’s from Kenya.” While it’s surely a shtick, one of that elaborateness is more properly called a shpiel – from the German for “game” or “play.”

As in Purim Shpiels, the skits traditionally performed on the upcoming holiday. A good suggestion for one this year might be titled “Haman and Operation Shtickle Pioneer” and star a man with a bag over his head and two very thin actors dressed as plastic piping.

Rabbi Shafran, whose latest book is “It’s All In The Angle” (Judaica Press), blogs at