What Is “Halevai”? What Is “Davka”? What Is “Zhe”? Originally Published July 17-18, 2020.

Your correspondent’s great aunts were known to lob a “halevai” or three at the younger generation during family get-togethers, always with a sidelong glance.  Halevai (הַלְוַאי), an interjection sort of meaning “if only it should happen” or “I wish,” came to us along with related words “lu” (“if”), “lulei” (“if not for”), and “uli” (“perhaps”).  (Leads one to wonder whether the English words “lull” and “lullaby” came from it, especially in the sense of the Christian 16th century “Coventry Carol” which sings “bye-bye, lully, lullay” to calm the babies whom Herod is about to slaughter.  But we digress while humming.)  It also has found its way into Yiddish (הלוואי) sometimes pronounced without its initial “h.”

We use “halevai” in the sense of “Halevai you pass your classes this term despite the quarantine!” or to answer “Do you think he’ll marry the smart one?” “Halevai!”

Never a people to be entirely positive nor entirely negative, our word halevai puts us squarely on both sides – we say “if only” in the sense that, as Mel Brooks wrote in song, we “hope for the best, expect the worst.”

The word “davka” is just as push-me-pull-you as is “halevai.”  It is a Hebrew word (דַּוְקָא) or Yiddish word (דווקא), and is found in the Talmud meaning “precisely.”  Davka comes from דּוּק (“duk”) meaning to pulverize, to turn to dust, which came to mean to examine something microscopically (before a microscope had been invented, of course).  It is related to “דַּק” (“fine” or “slight”) and “לְדַיֵּק” (“to be precise”) and “דִּקְדּוּק” (“grammar”).

Davka, it does mean precisely “precisely” or “actually” or “specifically,” but it has an attitude.  It may take on the meaning “sure, so there!” and even “just to be annoying” or “whodathunkit?” or “this way and no other.”

Davka may serve as an interjection, an adjective, or an adverb.  “Davka, the hardest times can make us the happiest people.”  “He is so davka he makes me crazy!”  “We say the morning prayers davka always in order.”

Zhe” (זשע) is pure Yiddish, a Slavic contribution, and its closest translation is “already,” such as one’s grandparent might sing in a lullaby, “Shlof, zhe, yingele” (“Sleep already, little one”).  It is an adverb, modifying a verb.  Often the word implies that one may be forgetting to add speed to accomplishing that verb.  But there are more nuances.

Seen in the expression “zayt zhe moykhl” (“begging pardon”), it creates differentiation between that phrase and the more common “zayt mir moykhl” (“forgive me”):  it softens the apology while formalizing and emphasizing it. 

Davka we should listen, and learn zhe to use our unique words, they should last forever.  Halevai.