Yiddishe mazel — How haimish phrase wins a bubbe over

I have uncovered the secret weapon sure to win over the most critical of Jewish grandmothers.

No, no, you don't have to stop dating their perfect grandchildren and you need not know how to make gefilte fish from scratch (although it couldn't hurt). The key I have found is neat and genuine. And in my case, it was as much a surprise to me as to my boyfriend's protective grandma.

It happened at a family dinner where I was strategically seated to her right. She was describing her late husband when I happened to sneeze.

Ah, you sneeze on the truth, she wisely pointed out. Now I could have asked what exactly it means to sneeze on the truth and how I had unknowingly accomplished this seemingly fantastic feat. Or I could have simply nodded and smiled, nodded and smiled.

But instead, I spoke without thinking, which for once turned out better than the alternative.

"Guhnus uf an nanemiz"(my spelling, no apologies to scholars), I reiterated with a shrug. If you don't know, that's Yiddish for sneezing on the truth. It's a saying my own grandma has always favored, especially when I happen to let one out while she's telling me that I need to date only Jewish men or start saving more money. It's for those types of occasions that sneezing on the truth was created.

Well, you'd think I had parted the Red Sea. I mean, from a grandma's perspective, being Jewish is a must for somebody dating one of her precious kids. Good manners, a strong benefit. A nice family couldn't hurt. But a command of the Yiddish language, virtually unheard of!

My boyfriend's grandma was practically kvelling, right there, before a heaping mound of spaghetti, and all because of this thing I had innocently said. My whole life I have found frequent application for the rudimentary Yiddish picked up from my grandma. What could be a more natural or effective exclamation than oy vay iz mir!? Heck, my cousin once asked a babysitter to sing her the special song Grandma always used to sing us to sleep, called "Shana Klayna Maydalah." Thereafter, my aunt and uncle left sitters a vocabulary list of unusual words and phrases likely to arise, as well as a disclaimer that some songs sung in the house were not for general release.

So to think one of Grandma's sayings is responsible for pushing me over the edge from tolerance to approval by another sweet grandma, is astounding.

My boyfriend found another way to describe it. Slick. That's the word he used over and over in recounting my Yiddish-dropping for his grandma. Apparently, I managed to impress the whole family in that conversation, but for varying reasons. My boyfriend, his parents and sister ranked me up there with James Carville for my keen strategic move to win over the grandma. She, meanwhile, thought me firmly rooted and genuine.

I like her side best. Plus, it's true, I am a dream of a Jewish girlfriend.

Mostly, the whole exchange has really served as an enlightening experience for me personally. I never realized just how much "Jewish talk" I've truly absorbed through the years. Maybe I can't rattle off a whole story in Yiddish (a mighty convenient scheme, especially around unsuspecting young grandchildren), or even speak a full sentence. But I know more than I think. And what I know is as much a part of my cultural upbringing as was Hebrew school.

Now that I've bonded with his grandma culturally and Yiddishly, my boyfriend thinks that in the event we break up, she would keep me. I'm not so sure about that. But I do know that now when we visit, her standard grandma care package includes not only the strudel my boyfriend loves and I'm not so crazy about, but something chocolate, earmarked just for me. What mazel!