Showing posts with label Yiddish. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Yiddish. Show all posts

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?

Saturday, May 26, 2007



Quasi-Religious: Catholic or not?

I think David Brooks, he of the Bohos in Paradise thesis, has it part right in his column in the May 25, 2007 New York Times. He argues that the old Andrew Greeley thesis for the Irish Catholics, that by the 1980s the Micks had outpaced the Prods in social status and equalled their former betters in economic clout. Since I wrote in my April entry "A God Shaped Hole?" about Hitchens' new screed via my Irish thoughts and Jack Miles' LA Times review Brooks cites Lisa Keister's Duke study claiming this now has happened for "quasi-religious" Catholics in the US. Sure, and his claims that being a skeptical member of a tough faith is the best recipe for such advancement certainly ring true for this writer to an extent, but I think Brooks writes too far outside the situation to fully grasp the collapse of the pre-conciliar hegemony and the implosion of American Catholic culture. I doubt that the next generation will be any more Catholic.

Brooks's comparison to secular Jews is more on the money. Unlike Yiddishkeit, and without the media stereotypes for better and worse that Hollywood has continued to churn out about clergy from all sides of the altar, pulpit, and bimah in the days of Judd Apatow, Sarah Silverman, and Zach and the other Braff (my boy and his buddy tonight rushing out to yet another Jersey boy gone Tinseltown as Zach stars in "The Ex"; Jerome who knows all told us one day that Jennifer Aniston is an MOT), Catholicism lacks charm today. Gays and hipsters and the newly urban may all find klezmer and egg creams and rebbetzins novel. But that "hole in the sheet" tale's an old wife's one no less than that of my youth that if you press your nail into your mosquito bite in the shape of a cross that it will heal faster. But the teasing Jewish titillation, typically, trumps for appeal the practical Papist remedy. Dov Cherney he of American Apparel infamy put up a billboard, the Forward tells us, at Alvarado and Sunset as well as some gentrifying corner of NYC with in Yiddish a sign of Woody Allen in payes and Hasidic garb with in proper lettering "our esteemed rabbi" or mamaloshen to that effect. This sort of kitsch may work for clubgoers and the terminally trendy who find their culture dependent on Judaic irreverence. Perhaps this religious marketing will revive via sodalities, novenas, holy cards, and pagan babies for the generation of 2037 in some once-Catholic downtrodden and then loftladen district of Westlake if not Westchester, our coast.

With the sex scandals and the assimilation of ethnic enclaves (the same paper same day tells us that "Hispanics" tend more to soccer, laundry, or sleeping in than Mass attendance once they settle in El Norte), not to mention the closing of parishes and the decline of vocations, the Church as we knew it cannot continue. When I was a teen the clergy predicted this shrinkage already, and this in the days of being identified by your parish and not your suburb or neighborhood, the days of trustingly letting your little ones go off with Father to the movies, the days of fish Fridays (no penance for me there!) and framed Papal indulgences for the couples married fifty years and actually seeing your friends carry rosaries and wear those stringy shrunken scapulars to protect them from harm and after nine First Fridays at Mass a "happy death." A culture, as I squint back, that shimmered in its last haze before the secular sun's heat.
May 25, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist
The Catholic Boom

The pope and many others speak for the thoroughly religious. Christopher Hitchens has the latest best seller on behalf of the antireligious. But who speaks for the quasi-religious?

Quasi-religious people attend services, but they’re bored much of the time. They read the Bible, but find large parts of it odd and irrelevant. They find themselves inextricably bound to their faith, but think some of the people who define it are nuts.

Whatever the state of their ambivalent souls, quasi-religious people often drive history. Abraham Lincoln knew scripture line by line but never quite shared the faith that mesmerized him. Quasi-religious Protestants, drifting anxiously from the certainties of their old religion, built Victorian England. {My editorial note, not Brooks: I add that one of the images I use above is of an Anglican cathedral on Easter, an empty nave. Be careful what you wish for, voices of rational progress, unless, as many admittedly wish to see, churches only as museums. Strange to think that even Hitler foresaw in his Reich that such commemorations of a vanquished faith and its adherents would be necessary for the triumph of the Party to be all the more secured.} Quasi-religious Jews, climbing up from ancestral orthodoxy, helped shape 20th-century American culture.

And now we are in the midst of an economic boom among quasi-religious Catholics. A generation ago, Catholic incomes and economic prospects were well below the national average. They had much lower college completion rates than mainline Protestants. But the past few decades have seen enormous Catholic social mobility.

According to Lisa Keister, a sociologist at Duke, non-Hispanic white Catholics have watched their personal wealth shoot upward. They have erased the gap that used to separate them from mainline Protestants.

Or, as Keister writes in a journal article, “Preliminary evidence indicates that whites who were raised in Catholic families are no longer asset-poor and may even be among the wealthiest groups of adults in the United States today.”

How have they done it?

Well, they started from their traditional Catholic cultural base. That meant, in the 1950s and early ’60s, a strong emphasis on neighborhood cohesion and family, and a strong preference for obedience and solidarity over autonomy and rebellion.

Then over the decades, the authority of the church weakened and young Catholics assimilated. Catholic values began to converge with Protestant values. Catholic adults were more likely to use contraceptives and fertility rates plummeted. They raised their children to value autonomy more and obedience less.

The process created a crisis for the church, as it struggled to maintain authority over its American flock. But the shift was an economic boon to Catholics themselves. They found themselves in a quasi-religious sweet spot.

On the one hand, modern Catholics have retained many of the traditional patterns of their ancestors — high marriage rates, high family stability rates, low divorce rates. Catholic investors save a lot and favor low-risk investment portfolios. On the other hand, they have also become more individualistic, more future-oriented and less bound by neighborhood and extended family. They are now much better educated than their parents or grandparents, and much better educated than their family histories would lead you to predict.

More or less successfully, the children of white, ethnic, blue-collar neighborhoods have managed to adapt the Catholic communal heritage to the dynamism of a global economy. If this country was entirely Catholic, we wouldn’t be having a big debate over stagnant wages and low social mobility. The problems would scarcely exist. Populists and various politicians can talk about the prosperity-destroying menace of immigration and foreign trade. But modern Catholics have created a hybrid culture that trumps it.

In fact, if you really wanted to supercharge the nation, you’d fill it with college students who constantly attend church, but who are skeptical of everything they hear there. For there are at least two things we know about flourishing in a modern society.

First, college students who attend religious services regularly do better than those that don’t. As Margarita Mooney, a Princeton sociologist, has demonstrated in her research, they work harder and are more engaged with campus life. Second, students who come from denominations that encourage dissent are more successful, on average, than students from denominations that don’t.

This embodies the social gospel annex to the quasi-religious creed: Always try to be the least believing member of one of the more observant sects. Participate in organized religion, but be a friendly dissident inside. Ensconce yourself in traditional moral practice, but champion piecemeal modernization. Submit to the wisdom of the ages, but with one eye open.

[...]

James M. Doyle of Nantucket in a letter responding to Brooks in today's NYT points out sagely that the same politicians Brooks and his neo-con cronies grovel before kicked in the structures that allowed Catholics to rise up through the lower and middle-level management positions. My Cal Grants and Pell Grants and work-study allowed me that Jesuit college education that perhaps inspired me to return what others had given me back to others by teaching. Today, I would be in debt perhaps $80,000 and some bankers would be the only ones benefitting from my labors. I was lucky that Reagan's wrecking ball did not start its heaviest swings until I had graduated, so intent was he on a second term before letting loose the demolition squads.

Now, as Layne told Niall last night, he will be paying for the debacle in Iraq long after we are gone. Housing locally, food, fuel, and the cost of living soar. The mayor only can see more "infill" to stem the flight of those neither too rich or too poor down the jammed freeways further into the dusty inlands. Our county grows by a million people a decade. Everyone wants to drive and who can blame them, but where are the jobs that allow us to live where we work? They tell us globalization grants bargains for we Angelenos, not to mention lots of new restaurants and street festivals and celebrations at school international days. But, how can our stretch of land crammed between ocean and hills and support newcomers equal to two Chicagos in the next few years? And, once here, everyone brings their proverbial brother and his family over too.

Outsourcing and offshoring destroyed the stability that once was present in corporate America, and who can say that Catholics, Jews, or Protestants, quasi, non, totally, or skeptically religious can hope for such a future for their children's upward mobility?

Doyle: You don’t have to be a committed Marxist to recognize that the family cohesion Mr. Brooks attributes to the influence of the Catholic Church was supported on a foundation of decent hourly-wage industrial jobs and low-to-middle level managerial positions, which the political powers he so consistently supports have systematically stripped out of the economy.

Family cohesion is a lot easier when every adult in the family is not working two jobs. If new generations of Catholics have outstripped their parents in terms of education, perhaps it is because the G.I. Bill and other government policies in the 1950s and 1960s made that possible.

Friday, May 4, 2007


Mazel Tov, Forverts, May you live to be at least 120!


Reading the 110th anniversary edition of the Forward, I was moved by its wonderful contents. The struggles of socialists, the horrors of the Shoah, the desperation of greenhorns, and the nachas for those who made it to West Palm Beach: these all find their place in the commemorative issue. The paper seems to have shrunken its margins lately about a half-inch; not much, sure, but a markedly more tabloid, old-fashioned feel that complements its center-spread of a rotagravure of the staff that in turn recalls the early Yiddish paper's layout. I wish the editors had reproduced some of the formerly well-known "educational pages" in this style, say, on Roman and Greek art. I'm a sucker for mass-produced erudition in friendly fashion-- thus the appeal of blogs, nu?

(And longtime appeal. Recalling my dear father-in-law's signed headshot of Jimmy Cagney in Yiddish, note Marlon Brando perusing the Forverts above. Which way do you read it, he seems to be wondering? Right to left? Top to bottom? Hedges bets, immerses himself in Stanislavksian technique, opts for diagonal diplomacy and a Method Actor's compromise while remaining totally in the Moment. I note duly that my dear father-in-law's dear daughter has written for the English-descendent, the weekly Forward. Even though they did not publish my letter on the Irish Jewish Museum. See earlier blog entry from March....)

There's printed a letter much earlier than my attempt, in the Bintel Brief section "a bundle of letters" that along with Abraham Cahan's fiery leftist politics and Isaac Bashevis Singer's serial stories that would become later bound fiction, made the Jewish Daily Forverts the NY Times-meets-Dear Abby (both Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers were sisters and good MOTs from the midwest) of the Yiddish-speaking world for most of the last century. At least its first half, for obvious reasons that remain no less heartbreaking in these excerpts here, by their pithy outrage and terse lament as powerful as a stanza from a psalm or a rendition of the Kaddish.

The letter is from a woman who was rescued by her bridegroom from the Triangle factory fire. He then rushed back to save other girls and the next his bride saw him was four days later in the morgue. She writes to the agony columnist. Is she unfaithful to her promise then made never to marry again for the sake of his dying love and selfless courage? No, the columnist assures her, she has suffered enough and deserves to live. L'chaim.

Synecdoche: rhetorical phrase where the part stands for the whole. One letter from the Bintel Brief sums up 3000 years. Is this the telegraphic nature of Jewish stoicism and Yiddish endurance? These pages of the 110th celebration are filled with such determination. Combining a sensitivity to moral rectitude and a practical acceptance of our frail limitations. How different is this realistic balance, I often have reflected, from the often smug or craven postures of many Christians who assume that their deity and themselves stay umbilically tied by a red telephone, a direct hotline to the divine will? By contrast, the Jewish push here between the lines if not always as the main text in the Forverts is for success. But not only material gain. Both detractors and supporters of the tribe tend too facilely towards this equivalence.

I mean living with the honorable choice. Layne & I when we first met early, somehow, found that both of us had an indirect tie to none other than the old rabblerouser William Jennings Bryan. The 1896 election, the supplement tells me, had resulted a month before the Forverts inaugural issue in McKinley's installment. What I did not know is that the GOP outspent the prairie populist 20-to-1. My father's father as a boy fixed Bryan's shoe while he campaigned on a whistle stop in some Ohio burg on that campaign; Layne was friends in college with the great-great whatever daughter of the man himself.

So distant this time only eleven decades ago seems. They say that 150 years is the nebula that circles us in terms of living memory of the past behind our birth and the future of those who will recall us after we die. In both cases we depend on others we never met or will never know to perpetuate, if for a bit longer, what we have learned or heard or passed down about one's recent ancestors or family. I was thinking of this today when defying similar odds of chronology or calculus the second time in two weeks out of my 5000-plus songs stacked into iPod shuffle my morning commute started off with Shane MacGowan's heartrending rendition of Eric Bogle's WWI song "And the Band Played 'Waltzing Matilda." The Pogues provide spare and riveting instrumentation, and Shane delivers this on record no less masterfully than when I saw him singing it to stare down and hush by the sheer conviction of his presence a crowd full of punks and teens and drunks at the Palladium on the band's Los Angeles debut back in 1986.

As with my encounters at the recent films "Letters from Iwo Jima" or "Pan's Labyrinth" the song is an amazing work of art that protests inhumanity and war but it is not a work I want to particularly return to often. But, hearing it again this morning, I thought of the old man, Roy Henre, across the street, the kennel owner who raised Corgis and Schipperkes when I was a kid in non-beautiful downtown Burbank. He was an MP in WWI. I read recently one of the last soldiers died from that war who had been fifteen when he fought. My older son is nearly that old.

I thought of old Mr. Henre, and how five decades would have passed between him telling me as a boy across the street about his wartime adventures from when he experienced them. Suitably censored I am sure. He was in France clearing out the bars and keeping the booze and the mademoiselles for himself after booting out his rowdier comrades in arms. What a different veteran from Bogle's Gallipoli amputee. "What are they marching for" remains a refrain that in these times of newspapers full of new casualties of twenty and even forty-five all too sadly applicable to another war where Allies die and natives skirmish and both sides blow each other up in a Mesopotamia lacking the celebrity of a T.E. Lawrence or the thrill of a flight to Aqaba.

When I took that now nearly fifteen-year-old son with me to the 613 Mitzvah store years ago, an elderly woman, perhaps one who could have not only read the Forverts but from her accent had many "bundles of letters" that she could have composed from another world war past, stopped me to bless the tyke and wish him "may he live to be a 120." I think of her too now, and wonder where her eternal rest finds her on this night of Shabbat and memory, "zakhor." Or, will she make it to the Mosaically complete span of 120 yet? That'd make her longer lived than the Forverts, an adult when WWI broke out, and theoretically a reader of Bryan's "cross of gold speech" in a Yiddish tabloid in some shetl now as vanished as the survivors of the Triangle fire.