Oy is the Yiddish equivalent of “oh” and gevalt means “violence” or “force.” Thus, oy gevalt (“oh violence”) would be a cry for help in an emergency.

It has further been expanded to be an expression of wonder at anything disastrous. It is perfectly normal to say, “Oy gevalt, my cake flopped again!” even though there is no violence and not much of an emergency. "Oy gevalt, my cake flopped again!"

Note: While most English-speakers are familiar with gevalt, the more common Yiddish form of this word is gevald. Pronounce it: OY Geh-VALD

Taking things one step further, just like gevalt is a response to something awful, it can also be used to marvel at something awesome. “Did you enjoy that Talmud class?” “Yes, it was gevaldig!” Pronounce it: Geh-VALD-ig or Geh-VALD-ik

Just for bragging rights, here are some other forms of this word to add oomph to your Yiddish:

Gevaldinkes: The added suffixes make this expression of alarm so much juicer, but the intent is pretty much the same. Pronounce it: Geh-VALD-in-kess

Gevaldeve: Gevaldeve is a verb. So when your roommate is crying bloody murderer over the Orioles' losing season, you can ask them not to gavaldeve so that you can get some sleep. Pronounce it: Geh-VALD-eh-veh

Gevald Geshrien: Means “shouted gevald” and is the rough Yiddish equivalent of “Oh, for crying out loud!” in which you shout about shouting. Pronounce it: Geh-VALD Geh-SHREE-in

The Gevald of the Chassidic Masters

Chassidic literature and lore is rife with gevalds accentuating and emphasizing the passionate words of the Chassidic masters. Here are some classic examples.

The Alter Rebbe: The final chapter of Tanya includes a letter penned by the Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, author of Tanya) exhorting Chassidic communities to pray in an orderly and unhurried fashion. Although the letter is written in Rabbinic Hebrew, the Alter Rebbe added the words “gevald, gevald” for emphasis,1 before writing, “How long will this be an obstacle for us? Haven’t enough reproofs and troubles overtaken us?”2

The Grandfather of Shpole: In a beautiful melody he composed with lyrics in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian, the Grandfather of Shpole (Shpoler Zayde in Yiddish) describes a father seeking his children who have wandered into the forest, a parable for G‑d and His beloved nation of Israel. The song begins with the words, “Ah geshray, ah gevald…” (“a scream, a gevald…”).

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov: Despite being plagued with ongoing troubles and tragedy, Rabbi Nachman was known for encouraging all to remain hopeful, faithful, and cheerful. Regarding those who may be inclined to see their Divine service as less than perfect, he shouted, “Gevald, don’t you give up!”3

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch: Our world is a world of action. The era of Moshiach will be one of spiritual delight, but we will no longer be able to accomplish as we can now. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak would say that in the era of Moshiach we will tell ourselves: “Gevald, back in the time of exile there was so much that we could have accomplished!”4