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Weird, wacky, wonderful (Hebrew) words: לְהִתגַעגֵעַ / To Miss


When you move to Israel, there’s inevitably going to be stuff you miss: people, places, things. So it’s important to be able to talk about missing stuff in Hebrew. On the oral part of the ulpan exam, that was one of the things they asked us about: how we’re getting used to life in Israel.

In English, we talk about missing stuff all the time. When I say “missing,” I mean the feeling of longing when you’re not around.

What do we mean when we talk about MISSING?

We do have other types of “miss” in English, more than one, in fact, like...

  • Missing a train, which is לְפַסְפֵּס / le’faspeis in Hebrew, lo aleinu (we should never know such sorrow).
  • Or missing out, לְהַחמִיץ / le’hachmitz, as in the FOMO (fear of missing out) when all your family back in Toronto is going to see The Book of Mormon while I’m stuck here in Israel going to see some two-bit circus (you may recognize the root of this word from the word chametz at the seder... it also means when something ferments, or goes sour, meaning you’ve missed the best-before date).
  • Or missing the mark, לְהַחטִיא / le’hachtiy, as in a blog post which promises to talk about one thing and then goes on and on about all kinds of irrelevant homonyms.
  • There’s even the kind of missing where you’re just about to make challah late, late, late on a Thursday night and discover that you’re missing flour – לַחסוֹר / la’chsor, meaning “to lack.” (You can also use it as in: חסר לי הקמח / chaser li hakemach / “I’m missing the flour”.) This is the kind of missing that is sometimes translated as “want,” as in, “for want of a point, this blog post was lost.”


But none of those is what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about missing your mother, your sisters, your son in Toronto—they don’t call, they don’t write (except when they do, but I’m practicing to be a bubby someday), and some weeks we are reduced to merely clicking Like on each others’ things to remember that we are all out in the world somewhere.

In English, the word “to miss” is nicely transitive, meaning you can’t just miss, in the same way you can’t say, “I love” or “I admire.” You have to miss something; you miss somebody.

Hebrew has that word too, fortunately. Unfortunately, it’s a silly word. A word you might not be able to say without giggling, and which in fact sounds a heck of a lot LIKE giggling when you say it. Here it is: לְהִתגַעגֵעַ / le’hitgageya.

(What? I put it in the headline so the surprise was ruined? Drat, drat, drat... my evil scheme to crash the Internet with humour was foiled again.)

The “miss”t thickens…

In English, “miss” doesn’t need a preposition. Just like you catch “the ball,” you miss “your mother,” period. Some verbs do need a preposition in English, little words-between-the-words like “for” (waiting for the bus, caring for your neglected blog) or “to” (she put in a call to the grammar police).

In Hebrew, not only is this verb transitive, meaning you have to miss something, it is also directional, meaning you do it TO something, using the Hebrew word el / אל. אני מתגעגעת למשפחתי. “I miss to you. I miss to my mother. I miss to the days when I didn’t have neighbours playing crazy-loud Middle Eastern music into the wee hours.”

To my ulpan teacher, when she was talking about directional verbs, this seemed the most obvious connection: you mail a letter, you tell, you bother, you explain, you miss. Like you’re standing there sending out little rays of missing-ness into the universe.

Which I kind of am, sometimes.

And weirder still…

And speaking of missing-ness, in case you’re wondering, there is a word you can use all by itself if there’s nothing in particular that you want to mention.

Imagine standing in a spotlight in the middle of a darkened stage, looking poignantly up to the powers that be and saying in your most bereft voice: “I miss.”

Miss what? Well, everything or nothing, the point being that you don’t have to say it if you don’t want to.

This feeling of missingness is translated as a word even more hilarious than le’hitgageya, and here it is.  Ready?

  • GA
  • GOO
  • EEM

Now say them all together.  Or, in Hebrew, גַעגוּעִים. That’s right: Gaguim.

(Forgive me.  I do know that because of the ayin, it’s actually Ga’aguim… GA-A-GOO-EEM, or gaaguim… or some other pronunciation.  But for all intents and purposes, you can barely here the extra “A” sound in there, so I’m leaving it out for the rest of this post.)

But what does it MEAN?

Google Translate would like to render this word as longing. Or yearning. Or nostalgia. Morfix concurs on longing or yearning. Reverso Context, another tool I use to help me understand this language, offers longing, sigh, or nostalgia, none of which are exactly... it.

Here’s the Wikipedia entry, translated by me:

A gagua is a feeling felt when there exists a sensation of nostalgia, yearning, or desire for a particular person, idea, or memory, which is not found in the feeler's surrounding area. Gagua can be expressed in a number of ways, including poetry and literature, and it accompanies feelings of sadness and a sensation of lacking or loss.

One reason gaguim can’t simply be longing is the “im” ending: this word is a PLURAL. Like popcorn, you can’t have just one. Well, I guess you technically can, but anyone over the age of, say, 12, is going to have at least two, and therefore, need to use the plural form.

And once there are two, they can gang up, as in the words of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai who once wrote a poem called “Attack of Gaguim”: התקף געגועים / Hetkef Gaguim. And yes, “hetkef” is the same word used to describe a heart attack. (It also reminds one of the word for fun, which is “kef” (spelled differently) but don’t read too much into that... remember that even in English, you can’t even have a funeral without some “fun” first.)

Here’s what Amichai had to say about When Gaguim Attack (his translator, Robert Alter, has used the word “longing” for gaguim):

Anywhere in the world an attack of longing

seizes you like a sudden fever

O, girl in the passing train and woman

on the lit and desolate platform...

I am on the street below, my toenails broken

from so much longing

as once the heart was broken.

בכל מקום בעולם תוקף אותך

התקף געגועים כקדחת פתאום.

הו, נערת הקרון החולף ואשת

הרציף המואר והשומם...

ואני ברחוב למטה, צפרני רגלי נשברו

מרב געגועים

כמו שפעם לב נשבר.

(From The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.)

I’ve left out a lot of the poem here, but I think you get the point. With all due respect to Mr. Alter, you don’t lose toenails from longing. Oh, sorry... you don’t break toenails on your longing. At least, I never have.

(yes, yes, yes, I know it’s poetic license and hyperbole and yes, I totally appreciate that... but humour me here)

But of course, poetry is only one way that Israelis express gaguim. Another way is in song.

I’ll finish up with one of countless Israeli songs that mention gaguim. Songwriters are literally obsessed with this mood, this feeling, this whatever-it-is that conveys the depth of sadness and longing. Indeed, I found a few that were simply called “Shir Gaguim,” or, maybe, “Missing Song.”

Several of these songs share a few common elements: distance, special people, time and I’ve basically picked one almost at random that I didn’t think I’d mind hearing again. Feel free to find your own if you don’t like this one, or recommend one in the comments that I might have missed!

This is Kobi Aflalo, singing שיר געגועים  / Shir Gaaguim (I know I said I was leaving out the second A, but he has it up on YouTube, so I’m including it here):

There is one thing I know about distance, special people, and time, and that is: these are things all olim feel most keenly. I’d love to wish you a life without gaguim... but the truth is, it seems like Israelis kind of savour them. And given that they seem pretty unavoidable, maybe consider adding a word or two about them to your Hebrew vocabulary.

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה

1 comment:

I'd love to hear what you have to say.