Sholem Aleichem: A Glossary of Terms

The terms that are defined on this page appear frequently within our guide to Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness.


Acculturation (n.): cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adapting to or borrowing traits from another culture; also: a merging of cultures as a result of prolonged contact. The term often implies the superiority of the culture to which a person or a group acculturates. Contemporary scholars of Jewish history prefer the term “acculturation” to “assimilation.”

Antisemitism (n.): hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group

Assimilation (n.): the state of being assimilated; adopting the ways of another culture; the process of becoming fully part of another society, culture, country, etc. The Hebrew term used in the period—היתבוללות—carries a significant negative connotation (implying a betrayal of sorts).

Emancipation (n.): the act or process of freeing from the restraint, control, or power of another; especially: to free from bondage. In the late nineteenth century, the term “auto-emancipation” was used by many Zionists who believed that Jews had to separate from their current society and liberate themselves by themselves. The term is often used in the context of Jewish history in Europe as a shorthand for the granting of political and social freedom to Jews as a result of processes of modernity.

Gentile (n.): a person who is not Jewish; (adj.): not Jewish

Haskalah (n.): Hebrew for “education” or “enlightenment” (also, “ne’orut”); the “Jewish Enlightenment,” which promoted Enlightenment values such as secular education and integration into European society (Hebrew)

Integration (n.): the process of incorporating an individual or group into a society, country, etc. (usually implies that the individual or group being integrated maintains at least some of the original sense of identity or culture)

Kasatsky (n.): a lively, Slavic folk dance (Russian)

Kosher (adj.): used to describe food that does conform to Jewish dietary laws (from the Hebrew "kashrut")

Mishigas (n.): craziness, madness (Yiddish)

Passover (n.): the Jewish holiday celebrating the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery (in Hebrew and Yiddish: Pesah or Pesach)

Pogrom (n.): a violent riot, usually with the specific aim of massacring or persecuting Jews (Yiddish)

Rabbi (n.): a person trained in Jewish law and ritual and who is ordained for leadership in a Jewish community (Hebrew)

Schnorrer (n.): someone who asks for things without giving anything in return; a freeloader (Yiddish)

Shalom aleichem/Sholem aleichem (interj.): common greeting, literally meaning “Peace be on you” and translated to “How do you do?” (Hebrew/Yiddish)

Sic transit gloria mundi: Literally "Thus passes the glory of world away." Interpreted to mean "Worldly things are fleeting." (Latin)

Shtetl (n.): small town, village (Yiddish)

Synagogue (n.): a building or place of worship in the Jewish faith (Greek). Also shul (Yiddish) or temple.

Treyf (adj.): used to describe food that does not conform to Jewish dietary laws; non-kosher (Yiddish)

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