Saturday, February 21, 2009

Yiddish Curses, Irish Blessings

213 hits for "Yiddish curses," to date at The Forward. The Feb. 20 issue (we get it typically one Shabbat late out here three thousand miles away as if by Pony Express), has its customarily engaging mix of intellectual and social commentary on Members of the Tribe. Yesterday I wrote about Irish being placed in the "definitely endangered" category of languages by UNESCO; last evening I read in the Forward half a dozen articles about the revival of Yiddish. One of its leading advocates in New York theatre, moreover, is one Caraid O'Brien, an immigrant from The Old Sod.

Teddy Wayne reviews, in that rather smarmy trying to be witty tone that more than one journalist adopts for the paper-- perhaps they have a new editorial slant to match their jazzier website, which still gave me a dead link to last week's issue, thus my archive search-- a book of Yiddish insults. Not the first. Sounds strange to credit the author as "one of the first six female rabbis in the United States." After a point, this self-congratulatory "I got there in first, I meant sixth place" gets tedious. Anyway, I'm sure she shares her nachas and both her zaydes kvelled and fressed until they shvitzed reducing themselves utterly ferklempft.

That's practically half the Yiddish I know. I wish my late bubbe-in-law had taught me and my boys some more filthy phrases than these. My dear wife may well correct me; I did buy her "Born to Kvetch" as a present a couple of years back. I guess she knows about as much Gaeilge as I do her attenuated mamaloshen. Fits us, assimilated but still curious about our romanticized forebears in their ghettoes and bogs, grumbling as they must have about the weather, the neighbors, and their God. In my apparently if understandably nearly lone efforts to record whatever Internet Irish-Yiddish connections which I can excavate, I now glean from Wayne's musings.

If the classic Yiddish imprecation has an inverse, it is the Irish blessing. While the Gaelic bards gaily start benedictions with “May…” before politely wishing their recipient good fortune (“May the wind be always at your back; May the sun shine warm upon your face”), the Yiddish curse is a spell of invective, typically cast with the conditional “You should…” prior to the litany of ill tidings (“You should get windburn and a melanoma”).

As a compendium of these and other such Yiddishisms, “Talk Dirty Yiddish” by Ilene Schneider (Adams Media, 2008), who is one of the first six female rabbis in the United States, has a somewhat misleading title that may disappoint a gutter-minded Hebrew-school vonts (a bedbug; figuratively, a mischievous child). The series — there are “Talk Dirty” books for French and Spanish — is actually a primer on general slang. And except for one chapter in the Yiddish installment, there is very little schmutz (physical or metaphorical dirt).

Instead, the book surveys subjects integral to the Jewish experience: food, the body, public life, celebrations and tragedy (the last of which, not surprisingly, fills up one more page than celebrations). Additional chapters cover proverbs, names, ethnicity, insults, profanities and, perhaps most interestingly, words that have bled into English.
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The glossary of Yinglish words and other hybrid phrases is similarly enlightening. For example, “gunsel” in common usage is “an armed gangster,” but the original definition is “a young homosexual hobo who was partners with an old tramp.” I’ll be sure to bring up the latter connotation at the 2009 conference for Etymologists of Cross-Generational Gay Vagrant Lifestyles.
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A complete index for quick alphabetical access might also be helpful to take us from ayngefedemt (literally, to thread a needle; a euphemism for sexual intercourse) to zaftig (see: Knightley, Keira, opposite of). Then again, I’m sounding like a kvetching knaker (know-it-all). Such a breezy, engaging book, I should be so lucky to write. Ilene Schneider, mazel tov.


The photo I chose from this issue carries no Yiddishkeit. However, my past image searches have exhausted the few Irish-Yiddish comparisons (all one?) in previous posts. So, printed from the same issue, this 1931 photo by Martin Munkasci of dancers “Tibor von Halmay and Vera Mahlke” graces the page. But, I found it complete over here. The Forward's own shot of this cropped (I suspect) pre- or post-coital Vera, leaving only half her head. Maybe they had to cut out My Girl Lollipop chomping in her chemise on an illegal, immoral, or unhealthy if unidentifiable stash-- hashish? qat? chaw of tobacco? fudge? Alice B. Toklas brownie?-- but it did leave the composition, well, hanging. And what's that shadow of Tibor's portend? Is that his tongue or a cigar protruding? I wonder if Fred Astaire found inspiration from this Magyar's murally challenged feat?

3 comments:

Layne said...

Actually I know far less Irish than you do Yiddish, which my parents used to call "Jewish." They never attended temple so Hebrew was totally irrelevant. My Irish, taught me by my beloved is confined to Pogue Mahone, Torem Pogue, and Mo Grah Ho--all spelled phonetically and undoubtedly incorrectly. Nevertheless, Mo grah ho.

Fionnchú said...

Póg mo thóin. Tabhair dom póg. Mo ghrá thú. xxx me

Seonachan said...

Bu chòir a h-uile fiacail agad a chall, seach aon, gum bi e gort! My favorite Yiddish curse translated into the other Gaelic, just to keep the theme flowing in all directions. Nice post, buachik.