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The Jewish Mantra

The Jewish Mantra

“Oy” is a tiny word that goes a long way.


If you’ll allow me to generalize about my own peeps for a moment, we Jews, at least in my immediate family, tend to be astute conveyors of sticky situations. When it’s hot out, it’s not just “hot.” It’s “Oy.” Producing this word is, for us, no schvitz. Whereas “Hot” simply doesn’t cover the multiple ramifications of an over-oppressive sun. Nor does “global warming.” Oy, however, properly nails it. It’s the all-purpose description for just about anything under the sun, including the sun, that’s annOYing.

When it’s hot out, it’s not just “hot.” It’s “Oy.”

The economy? Oy. The scarcity of jobs? Oy. The partisan bickering in Washington, and the lowering of the bar in popular culture, and the sense that nothing will ever be as great as it used to be? Oy-oy-oy.

“Oy” is a tiny word that goes a long way. If words had mileage stickers, “oy’s” would mirror a Nissan Leaf’s. Call it Greene, or Greenberg, energy.

As for going the distance, when a Jew eventually calls the green lawns of the White House his home, the networks will probably jump for jOY, because his press conferences won’t run the risk of pre-empting their prime time lineups.

“Mr. President, what do you have to say to your opponents who claim it’s not a matter of raising revenue, but reducing entitlements?”


“Mr. President, I’d like to follow up. Does that mean you’re in favor of tax increases?”


“Thank you, Mr. President.”

Let us marvel at how so much was conveyed with so little. The first “oy” could be scoffing at the reporter’s question. It could also be a dig at the President’s opponents. It could also be signaling the President’s admission that he has a tough fight on his hands dealing with the thorny issue just raised. Or it could be signaling that the blintzes he had for lunch are starting to act up on him.

The second ‘oy” – Scoffing again at the reporter? Not in favor of tax increases? Favors tax increases, but anticipates the pain in perpetrating such a thing? More blintz blowback? The beauty is – his press secretary will be able to spin it anyway that works in the President’s favor. I’m guessing the anti-blintz vote wouldn’t be large enough for him to excoriate lunch.

Think of the reduced ink print expenditures in the nation’s newspapers (in the unlikely event newspapers exist by then) with headlines like, “Rabinowitz says Oy.” Okay, with a name like Rabinowitz, maybe it’s a wash.

“Oy” is an even more powerful mantra than “ahmmmm.” It calms. It commiserates. It acknowledges distress and releases stress. While lifting something heavy, it’s the protective red flag that kicks in before the hernia does.

If “oy” isn’t pronounced correctly, it can be “oy”-inducing in and of itself. Although I find it endearing, actually, when non-Jews co-opt it into “oy” as in “boy” minus the b. It may render it as flat as 3-D to a Cyclops, but I admire their chutzpah. As in Michele Bachmann’s mispronunciation of that word. (That was “chutzpah,” as in our pronunciation of it.)

I wonder when I heard my first “oy.” Before “It’s a boy,” it had to be my mom’s “Oy,” as I was busy pushing my way into the light like a miner excavated from a Chilean mishap. I’m an older twin by seven minutes, so she had another bundle of “oy” left in her, my second “oy,” the first one I was fully there to absorb in all its glory. That’s the one I think I’ve been channeling ever since. At that moment, I only knew how to cry. “Oy” is every bit as therapeutic. It’s crying for adults.

July 30, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 7

(6) Anonymous, August 18, 2014 3:02 PM

Love the oys. So much that several years ago I listed my
phone number in the local directory as Oy Gevalt. Now I can
readily distinguish between legitimate and junk calls.

(5) NORMAN, August 3, 2011 12:59 AM

forgot companion word veh ???


(4) myra shloimovitz, August 2, 2011 8:47 PM

Oy - you've completely overlooked "Nu". In Israel NOTHING begins without the prefix "nu". It means anything you want it to mean, e.g. this conversation: "Nu?" "" "Nu !!'

Sheila Novitz, December 23, 2014 3:37 PM

"Nu" is a separate subject.

No, Myra. This was an essay on "Oy", and hopefully next week we'll get "Nu." My cousin recently turned 70. Big day. At 0300 hrs a phone call to her from yet another cousin who said, "Nu, have you turned yet?" Some moments I love being Jewish even more than at other moments.

(3) Nachum, August 2, 2011 5:10 PM

Oy veh-ah-voy

This is my darling aunt's favorite expression. I just now realized that I can't translate the ah-voy portion. I always thought it meant double OY. I would appreciate your hand in translating it for me. By the way, she would usually accompany the expression by adding the reflexsive 'Li' . As if to say it could only happen to me (her). Thank you, Nachum Wiesenfeld

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