Yiddish for Tottenham Hotspur Supporters

The claim that Tottenham fans’ embrace of their club’s Jewish connection causes expressions of Jew-hatred from the hooligan supporters of other clubs is a case of victim-blaming.
January 18, 2023
Tottenham Hotspur fans show their support outside the stadium prior to the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal FC at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on January 15, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

There are any number of disturbing things today that contribute to the spread of the virus of anti-Jewish racism or antisemitism. White supremacists, the BDS movement, and Kanye West are just a few inciters to Jew-hatred that come to mind.

The self-identification of Tottenham Hotspur fans as “Yids” or referring to themselves as members of the “Yid Army” is not one of them. Quite the opposite. For those who aren’t soccer fans, the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club of the English Premier League was founded in 1882. For more than half a century, Tottenham supporters have embraced the term “Yid,” a word that the supporters of rival clubs originally intended to be a slur.

As a proudly Jewish resident of Beverly Hills, one of the only Jewish-majority cities outside of Israel, a city in which we recently had another drop of flyers that accused Jews of being responsible for the COVID pandemic, I am acutely sensitive to the pathological nature of Jew-hatred and its stubborn resistance to reasonable forms of treatment.

If there are thinly veiled tropes about parts of North London, where Tottenham is located, because around 15% of its residents are Jewish, we have our own frequent dog whistles and stereotypes about Beverly Hills, often being gratuitously perpetuated by people who should know better.

I can’t claim to be a generational member of the Yid Army. My own fandom is fairly recent. As a member of a sports-mad family and a fan of different sports ranging from baseball, basketball, American football and hockey to, yes, Aussie rules footy (as a member of the mighty premiers, the Geelong Cats), it’s not surprising that English Premier League soccer would at some point be added to the fandom mix.

Fandom for me is not just a passing interest. Being a fan means participating in distinct, unique and varying communities. It often seems to engender an authentic, shared connection with individuals who otherwise might not have a whole lot in common. In the Los Angeles area, for example, the Dodgers manage to connect some of the most diverse groups and communities imaginable in a way unlike anything else.

My 15-year-old sports fan son became a fan of Liverpool, and so it became time for me to choose a team. Even if, as team songs go, I would probably tend more toward Rogers and Hammerstein than Barry Manilow (the exception being “Copacabana”), and even though Ringo Starr is a Beverly Hills resident, I was never going to choose Liverpool as my team.

On the other hand, as a famous maxim goes: “You don’t choose your football club; it chooses you.”

For me the choice was clear. As a proud Yid, it could only ever be Tottenham. I suspect it was the same—for a variety of diverse and sometimes personal reasons, most of which have nothing to do with ethnicity or religion—for a majority of Tottenham supporters. Most of them probably didn’t have a choice either. Perhaps the idea of the “Yid Army” is more appropriate than we know. Maybe we all really were chosen.

How could I support any team other than the one whose fans passionately chant: “Being a Yid. Being a Yid. The thing I love most is being a Yid”? How could they not be my peeps?

My fandom has given me occasion to read about how some, led by Jewish Chelsea fan David Baddiel, have attempted to suggest that Tottenham fans’ use of the term “Yid” is antisemitic or somehow stokes antisemitism.

Such narrishkayt (Yiddish for “foolishness”—in other words, “bollocks”).

“Yid” is the Yiddish word for “Jew.” Unlike the “N-word,” with which it has been sometimes incorrectly compared, the word “Yid” has been used for centuries by Jews to describe themselves. This has never been a matter of taking an inherently pejorative slur (like “kike”) and trying to flip it, as some suggest Black people have done with the N-word.

Vos macht a Yid?” is a friendly greeting that was common in Yiddish-speaking areas when there were still many native speakers of Yiddish. You could probably have heard it in East London toward the end of the 19th century. It literally translates to “What is a Jew doing/making?” with the meaning “How are you doing?” but thoroughly infused with Yiddish tam (flavor).

Has the word “Yid” (and variations including “Yiddo”) been used derogatorily, particularly in the UK, including by brownshirts and other antisemites in the 30s and beyond? Of course.

But the word “Jew” itself continues to be used derogatorily by Jew-haters, particularly when modified by various adjectives, including “dirty.” When used as a verb, the word “Jew” is extremely offensive, calling to mind stereotypes of Jews as self-interested, cheap and exploitative. The word “Jew” (in German) was written on the notorious yellow Stars of David that Jews living under the Nazi regime were forced to wear.

However, we would never ban the word “Jew.” Nor would we allow antisemites to take ownership of the word. We also would never abandon the Star of David as a proud symbol for the Jewish people just because the Nazis used it for their own evil purposes. The question is: Would we take offense if the word “Jew” was substituted for “Yid” in the Tottenham chant? “The thing I love most is being a Jew”?

It’s understandable that Baddiel as a Jewish Chelsea fan wouldn’t necessarily want a rival club to bask in Yiddishkeit. For me, as a Jew, it would be difficult if not impossible to cheer against a team whose supporters chant about how much they love “being a Yid,” who wave Israeli flags, and who so identify with their team’s Jewish connections. But Baddiel’s arguments, and those of people wanting Tottenham fans to redefine their community and fandom to exclude the Jewish connection, just don’t hold water.

For one, he argues that non-Jews don’t have a right to “reclaim” the word “Yid.” In other words, non-Jewish Spurs supporters can’t balance the derogatory usages of the word “Yid” with the positive associations and pride of their “Yid Army” chants and descriptions. And yet the purpose and intent of both Jewish and Gentile Tottenham fans in identifying as “Yids” isn’t an attempt to reclaim anything, despite however the usage may have originated half a century ago. It’s a symbol of pride and connection, important elements in the creation and perpetuation of community.

Some people have compared the “Yid Army” moniker to the insensitive use (mainly in America) of team names associated with Native Americans that are seen as offensive. The Tottenham Yid Army is nothing of the sort. “Yid Army” is not cultural appropriation, but ultimately comes from a sense of pride of people and place: the North London origins of the club, which came to be associated with the concentration of Jewish residents and Jewish club supporters. Never mind if there are Jews who support other clubs. The supporters of those other clubs did not come to define themselves, in part at least, by their Jewish connections.

But Tottenham did. And that is part of what makes the club so unique. On a personal level, I don’t only feel that being a part of the Yid Army is compatible with my own Jewish identity; but also I feel in some ways it complements and strengthens it—even if it means I need to prepare myself for a world of heartbreak. Maybe, in some way, Tottenham really is the Jewish team. As Sholem Aleichem once wrote, “Es iz schwer tzu sayn a yid” (“It’s tough to be a Jew”).

The claim that Tottenham fans’ embrace of their club’s Jewish connection causes expressions of Jew-hatred from the hooligan supporters of other clubs is a case of victim-blaming. It’s not dissimilar to the inverted “logic” that if Jews didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be Jew-hatred. But we know that antisemitism flourishes even in places where there are no (or very few) Jews. And the remedy for antisemitism is not for Jews to disappear. Jewish pride is a much better response. If critics like Baddiel think that non-Jewish Tottenham supporters have no claim to Jewish pride, at least the non-Jewish Yids have cause and reason to show solidarity.

A more apt comparison with sports team designations would be the American university Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish” (complete with its stereotypical leprechaun mascot) and the NBA’s Boston Celtics. Would anyone seriously admonish non-Hibernian Notre Dame fans not to wear green and not to identify themselves as proud Irish?

I’m a communitarian. And I love sports. And as much as I love my Dodgers, my Clippers, my Packers, my Kraken, my Firebirds, my Trojans, Djurgårdens IF and, yes, the mighty Cats, I’m proud to be a Jewish-Swedish-American Tottenham supporter and a member of the worldwide Yid Army.

I find myself more on shpilkes (nervous) about each Tottenham game than I have any right to be, exultant when we score a goal to win a game, and gutted when we don’t live up to our potential (which, sadly, happens all too often). It really doesn’t make sense. Soccer isn’t even my favorite sport.

But when I see “Yid Army” and Israeli flags, when I hear members of the Yid Army cheering on the lilywhites, when I’m watching a Tottenham match at the Greyhound, the Los Angeles Spurs pub in Highland Park, surrounded by other Tottenham fans, I feel at home (even if I’m still often confused about the results of VAR reviews). The joy of a goal or victory and the despondency at a loss are all real. It doesn’t matter if I’m the only one wearing a Tottenham kippah. It doesn’t matter if I’m the only Jew there.

There are a multitude of ways in which people can come into a community. People can and often do belong to multiple communities, and often they define themselves by these various communities, however they managed to join them.

Maybe the overlap of communities here is an opportunity to combat antisemitism. When a non-Jewish Tottenham supporter is confronted with real instances of Jew-hatred, perhaps their identification as a “Yid” will cause them to recognize just how wrong anti-Jewish racism is. It needs to start somewhere. Why not start with a shared sense of community and a love of a football club with Jewish connections in a “Jewish” part of London? It’s not just Harry Kane who is “one of our own.” We are all “one of our own.” Perhaps, for a few Tottenham fans at least, the self-identification as Yids will encourage them to learn something more about Jewish culture, tradition and history. And maybe it might even inspire a few to learn a little Yiddish.

For Yid Army members who would actually like to learn a little Yiddish, here’s a brief glossary to kick things off (the ch in the transliteration below is not pronounced as in “charm,” but is a guttural sound as in “Bach”):

Shpilkes (see above)—Pins, as in “sitting on pins and needles.” What Tottenham supporters often feel during critical phases in a game.

A fargenigen—Enjoyment, as when Tottenham plays well throughout an entire game.

A geferleche zach—“A dangerous thing,” as when we play defensive soccer, but our midfield and backs leak.

Kvetch—To complain. Like after a questionable VAR ruling.

A shande—A scandal. A questionable VAR ruling.

Lomir reden fun freylicher zachen—Let us talk about happier things. A phrase used by Tottenham supporters after we lose in disappointing fashion.

Mishugge—Crazy. For some, perhaps, the decision to play purely defensive football.

Oy gevalt—Literally, “oh, violence.” Used to express shock, like a stupid, unforced turnover.

Oy oy oy—An expression Yiddish-speakers have in common with Swedes and Australians, with slightly different connotations. The Yiddish use comes closest to an emphatic American “Uh oh,” as when the opposing team starts a breakaway.

Chaver (plural chaverim)—From the Hebrew. Friend. Another Tottenham supporter.

Zay nit keyn fremder—Don’t be a stranger. A nice way to let fellow Yids know you look forward to seeing them again.

A mechaye—From the Hebrew, lit. a “life restorer.” A last-second Harry Kane goal to draw level, save a point, or, better yet, to win a match.

Neys—From the Hebrew. A miracle. For example, Tottenham’s winning hardware in a year without expectations.

Naches—Pleasure, delight, proud enjoyment, as when a child receives an honor or after a well-played sequence that ends with Kulusevski heading it in for a brace.

Gey kaken afn yam—An appropriately colorful response to antisemitic taunting from Tottenham-haters.

Heymish—Homey, cozy, like at home, but with almost untranslatable Yiddish overtones. White Hart Lane.

Simcha—From the Hebrew. A celebration. The phrase “nor af simchas” (“only at celebrations”) is often used when taking leave of someone, expressing the wish that the next reunion will be on a happy occasion, like a Spurs win over Arsenal (which after this weekend’s disappointment can’t be until next season).

Someday I hope to finally make the pilgrimage to heymishe White Hart Lane. And I would be thrilled to greet fellow Yid Army Community members, both Jewish and Gentile, with the words: “Vos macht a Yid?” May it be an occasion of great naches and simchas.

Nu-u-u ir yidn! (COYS!)

John Mirisch was elected to the Beverly Hills City Council in 2009, and has served as mayor three times. He is currently a garden-variety Councilmember.

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