CHAP. VI PROVERBS AND SAYINGS

Rome wasn’t built in a day, where there’s a will there’s a way, vouloir c’est pouvoir, practice makes perfect, Not bricht Eisen, honesty is the best policy, traduttore traditore – proverbs are the memorable expression of the trite. Proverbs are of unknown authorship, or at least their authorship should be unknown to those who propound them. De vellt zookt sech u vehrtel “the world”, not a particular author, coins its proverbs. (For vehrtel “saying”, compare Upper German Wörtl, French mot and German Wort. Compare also the Aramaic amrei anashei “people’s sayings”.

A good proverb should embody as many as possible of the following characteristics:

i.    Brevity

ii.   Alliteration

iii.   Rhyme or assonance

iv.   Metaphor

The Yiddish melookhe meleekhe [i] combines all four. The nearest English equivalent I have been able to find is “Who hath a trade through all waters may wade”, but I cannot see any father urging his son to take up a five-year apprenticeship in these terms. Not these days; perhaps in the seventeenth century, when the Oxford Book of English Proverbs records its first appearance in print. The German Handwerk hat sinen goldenen Boden “(a) trade has a golden floor”, carries a little more conviction, but lacks the virtuosity of the Yiddish: melookhe, Hebrew melachah “a trade”, (is a) meleekhe, Hebrew meluchah “kingdom”.

“A trade is a kingdom”, but it does not follow that the more trades a man has, the bigger his kingdom will be. U sukh melookhes en veynik (German wenig) brookhes, “Many trades and few blessings”; a Jack of all trades will seldom make as good a living as the master of one. Again, the skilled craftsman need never be in want, but this is subject to the qualification that he is not discriminated against on the grounds of race or religion. Voohss toig mer maan poilish redden, uzz me lost mekh nisht in hoif eraan’? “What use is my Polish to me if I am not admitted to the courtyard (of the Polish squire)?” The story goes that in the thirties a persistent humming noise was heard coming from a building site in Tel Aviv. The susurration emanated from a chain of bespectacled men unloading bricks from a lorry, each catching and passing on his tale of bricks with a “…Danke Herr Doktor, Bitte Herr Doktor, Danke Herr Doktor…”

Some Yiddish proverbs may appear, prima facie, to derive from a Latin original, but it is not difficult to show that they came from the Hebrew or Aramaic. [ii] Thus, Voohss baa u nikhtern iz uffen leenk iz baa u shikkern uffen tseenk “What’s on a sober man’s lung is on a drunkard’s tongue”, “comes”, not from in vino veritas, but from the Nichnas yayin, yatsa sod of the Talmud (Sanhedrin, 38a), “Enter wine, exit secret”. (The numerical value of yayin “wine”, is the same as that of sod “secret”.) The rhymester who first coined what was to become a Yiddish proverb was, almost certainly, aware of the Hebrew apothegm, but this does not detract from the skill of his paraphrase.

A proverb is Yiddish, even though most of the words in it are Hebrew, provided that it contains at least one non-Hebrew Yiddish word. Kaass iz evoidde zoohrre “Anger is idolatry”, is a Yiddish proverb, though iz is the only non-Hebrew Yiddish word in it. (Hebrew ka’as “anger”, avodah zarah “idolatry”.) Vee toirre iz khokhme “Where there is Torah there is wisdom”, Hebrew chochmah, is Yiddish, though the only non-Hebrew words in it are vee, German wo “where”, and iz, German ist “is”. Conversely, however well-known a Hebrew saying is in Yiddish, it is not – with one exception, see infra – a Yiddish proverb. Thus, Eyn kemmekh eyn toirre, Hebrew Ein kemach ein torah “No flour, no Torah”, which my mother was fond of quoting, meaning that you can’t go in for any kind of thinking, let alone high thinking, unless you’re making at least a plain living, remains a quotation from Pirkei Avot (iii, 21), and Midde keneghed midde, Hebrew Middah keneged middah “Measure for measure”, remains a Rabbinical Hebrew saying.

On the other hand, although every word in Ukhrey moiss kedoishim, usually quoted with the addition of emoir, is Hebrew, the proverb is Yiddish since the saying does not occur in any of the Hebrew scriptures or standard rabbinical writings; it emerged in “Yiddish”.  The words achrei mot “after the death (of)” kedoshim “holy ones, saints”, emor “say”, are the titles of three consecutive pericopes (sedarot) in Leviticus (Chapters 16-18, 19-20, 21-24). The Yiddish proverb is used, not quite in the same sense as De mortuis nil nisi bonum, though at first blush the Latin tag suggests itself as an equivalent, but to assert the regrettable truth that it is not until the dear departed has left this world for the next that people extol his virtues. It is not so much that we ought to say nothing but what is good about the dead, as that not until they are dead do we find anything good to say about them.

Tsee feel iz imgezinnt “Too much is unhealthy”, would not have been inspired by omne nimium nocet, but by the Talmudic kol hamosif gore’a (Sanhedrin, 29) “Whoever adds, detracts.” Moderation in all things – even in eating krepplekh, Polish krepa “crape”, the delectable “craped” little envelopes of dough filled with chopped meat which are de rigueur with chicken soup at any Jewish banquet (and which, filled with cream cheese, are traditional Shavuot fare). You can have too much of a good thing, Efille fin krepplekh vett ohkhit nimiss, “You get fed up, nimiss, Hebrew nimas, even with krepplekh“. Incidentally, the Hebrew verb ma’os “to despise”, has proved particularly fruitful for Yiddish. We have already come across meess “ugly” (Chapter II, Section 4); meess en moohss, the latter word from the past participle, ma’us of the Hebrew verb, form in conjunction a more intensive nimiss: Siz mer nimiss defin’ (German Davon “from it”) “I’m fed up with it”; Siz mer meess en moohss defin’ “I’m fed up to the back teeth with it.”

You can have too much of a good thing. On the other hand, if you are determined to have a bad thing, then you may as well go the whole hog, literally. Uzz men esst khuzzer zollen de piskiss ibb‘errinnen. “If you are going to eat bacon anyway, you may as well let your chops be smothered in it.”(Piskiss, plural, from Polish pysk “mouth”, see Chapter IV, Section 6)

Uffen gunnif brennt doohss hittel “If the cap fits, wear it.” Literally, “On the thief the cap burns.” Bernstein relates that once, when something had been stolen from a fair-booth, a wag called out: Uffen gunnif brennt doohss hittel, whereupon the thief immediately uncovered and was discovered. Se non è vero

You can’t really call Yankel rich. All right, he has an imposing house in the Suburb, a four-berth cabin-cruiser on permanent mooring at Hampton Court, he runs a Rover and a Triumph (his wife makes do with a Mini), his two boys go to public schools, the girl is being “finished” in Switzerland, the family spend every Pesach in Netanya, he’s always good for the odd thousand for the J.I.A. – but he’s not really rich. To which the answer is lengthy and marked by the irony characteristic of Yiddish humour: Peerim iz nisht ken yonntef en kedookhesiz nisht ken kreenk, norr veymen Gott hellft iz peerim u gitter yonntef, en kedookhes u gitter krennk “Purim is not a yom tov (one of the festivals enjoined in the Pentateuch), and fever is not a disease, but for him whom “God helps” Purim is a good festival (the one occasion on which a degree of inebriation was not merely tolerated, but encouraged, by the rabbis) and fever is a “good” disease.

Uzz me leypt, derleypt‘men. Everything – or nearly everything – comes to him who waits. It’s true that biz men derleypt, until you live to see (German erleben, Yiddish dehr/derleyben) some nukhes, kennen doighen erohsskreekhen (German können die Augen herauskriechen, “your eyes can crawl out.”) Hope deferred maketh the heart sick.

Old Mr Morrison had long given up hope of having a grandchild. Twenty-seven his daughter was before she found herself a khoossen, it looked as if she would end up kheleelle (Chapter II, Section 2); un ulte moit, an old maid (Middle High German meit, Archaic German Maild). But eventually sotsekh eer getroffen eymitsen (German Es hat sich ihr jemand getroffen “Someone turned up for her”). Mr Right came along, and not, as was feared, in the person of an “ancient buck”, un ulter bok, German Bock, but in the shape of a young man, younger, in fact, than the kulle, in a good way of business and from a good bulbuttishe (respectable middle-class, from bulboohss’) family. Faan, git, voil, German fein, gut, wohl “fine, good, well” – but… the years rolled by – no ey’nikel. Mrs Morrison had departed this world soon after the khu’ssene, Hebrew chatunah “wedding”, at least she had the zkhee’e, Hebrew zechiyyah “merit, privilege”, of seeing her daughter under the wedding canopy. Old Mr Morrison survived, a tough bird; but, two years, three, five, seven – and still no ey’nikel. Then, one day, he found himself a zeydde at last. True, his grandchild was a girl, but he was now emboldened to hope for a briss (Hebrew brit (milah) “covenant” (of circumcision). And indeed it seemed that his daughter had developed a kheyshik “liking” Hebrew cheshek “desire”, for kimpit, German Kindbett “childbed.” She enjoyed being a kimpitoohr’in (German Wöchnerin “woman in childbed”) so much, that at the time of going to press she has presented old Mr Morrison – and her husband of course – with three male offspring. Uzz me leypt, derleypt’men.

Bernstein lists 110 proverbs and sayings centering on the Deity. A typical saying is: Ehrz tse Gott en tse laat (German Leute) “He is approved by God and people”, that is to say he combines an exemplary religious life with social prestige. Compare “Grace after meals”, Venimtsa chen vesechel tov be’einei elokim ve’adam “May we find grace and discernment in the eyes of God and man.” Yeedish en negheedish – vehr tse Gott hofft, my mother used to say. “Consciously Jewish and affluent withal (Hebrew nagid “prince, leader, governor”, compare geveer, Chapter II, Section 4) – (may) whoever hopes in God (enjoy it).”

Of the proverbs proper, most proclaim, as would be expected, the divine omnipotence and goodness. One must not question God’s decrees; even when He seems to afflict His creatures He provides a remedy for their sufferings. Gott shikt de refee’e faar de mukke “God sends the remedy (Hebrew refuah “healing”) in advance of the illness” (Hebrew makkah “wound”), “He tempers the wind to the shorn lamb”. Yankel’s shmutte business fails – he should never have gone in for dresses, left that to the really big boys, should have stuck to skirts and slacks – but the three cars are in his name, he can set up a car hire business from which he can still make a living, thank God, and the boys can still be accountants, solicitors, even if they have to go to the local school. (And how wise Yankel’s dad had been to insist on his mekhitten (Chapter III, Section 2) providing the matrimonial home as part of his daughter’s nudden. Complications with mortgages, shmortgages (see below) – that’s all Yankel would have been short of.) Ubbee’ nisht ergher, German ärger, it could have been worse. Besser ot ken sheer (Hebrew shiur “measurement”) nisht, it’s true; there’s no limit to one’s possible betterment.

Occasionally a mildly rebellious note is struck: Gott leypt oiben, en meer mitchen zekh inten “God lives above, and we suffer below.” Dehr Mentch trukht, en Gott lukht “Man ponders, and God laughs” (compare “Man proposes, God disposes”, German Der Mensch denkt, und Gott lenkt). It’s no use kicking against the pricks: Gey ob taannes tsem/taanne zekh ohss mitten/ribboinne shel oilem, Hebrew ribbono shel olam, “Go have arguments with the Sovereign of the Universe.” Hebrew ta’an “complain, claim, contend,” from which the Yiddish verb ohsstaannen zekh (mit eymetsen) “to argue (with someone)”.

It is difficult to know which is the “best” age for children – from the parents’ point of view, that is. On the whole, I think I would plump for about eighteen months, after teething and nappies, but when they can still be confined to the play-pen; before they start tearing up your books, breaking your treasured 78’s, kicking footballs into neighbours’ flower beds, pinching your paper at breakfast, hogging your armchair, asking you to help them with projects and projections…Still, these are kleynne tsoohriss; “little worries”. Kleynne kinnder kleynne tsoohriss; groisse kinnder, groisse tsoohriss. “Little children, little worries; big children, big worries”: why do they stay out, freak out, drop out, marry out …

Lommer redden fin frey’lekhere zukhen, “let’s speak of more cheerful things”. Of shtroohdell, strudel, for example. As far as I remember, thus pronounced by my mother. Her shtroohdel was not the light, Viennese – admittedly toothsome – affair, but a pastry of nuts and raisins, chopped apple and cinnamon, with a thickish crust which curled round – the whole thing curled round, I mean – in the baking tin. I have just looked up Mrs Feinsilver’s excellent note (The Taste of Yiddish, pp.198-199) in which she says: “Most second-generation American Jews have sentimental memories of the dough being rolled and rolled until it was almost thin enough to be seen through.” Yes, one certainly has the memories of the dough being rolled and rolled and held up, a disc some two feet in diameter, to the light. Whether the thin-rolling is inconsistent with a “thickish” crust I am not enough of a bulboohsste to be able to say, but I stand by my description – and my mum’s shtroohdel was the tops, anyway!

There are two ways of offering your guests extra helpings: one, by putting some more on their plate; the other, by asking in a tone that discourages an affirmative reply: “Would you like some more strudel?” The counter to this ploy is: U krunken freykt men, u gezinnten git men “An invalid you ask, a healthy person you give to.” Incidentally, don’t ask the doctor how the patient is (“He’s doing nicely”, meaning that he’s still breathing, though with difficulty), ask the patient: Fast kluss, ef ulle maanne sonnim “First class, on all my enemies.” Yiddish Freyg nisht dem roiffe, Hebrew rofeh “physician”, freyg dem khoille, Hebrew choleh “ill” (person).

Sometimes, in business, one has to go into partnership, or, to make ends meet, one has to take in boarders or tenants (or share accommodation with a main tenant or house-owner) – but, ulleyn’iz de neshoomme reyn, if you are on your own, you are clear of trouble. The saying has been given a slight twist from its original meaning: only the soul, Hebrew neshamah, is pure (not the body).

One person who was unlikely to be clear of trouble, although on her own, was the woman who was due to receive a gett, divorce. Some stigma, however unjustly, would attach to her. (“…woman, if virtuous, would only in the rarest circumstances actually desire a divorce.” – H. Simon, introduction to Soncino translation of the Talmud tractate Gittin.) But there was always the type who would brazen it out, hence ohss’gepitst vee khu’vvele tsem gett, “togged up (German ausgeputzt) like Evie for her divorce”. The picture of Evie trotting off in a mood of defiance and her best hat to receive her gett, decree, is not without its attraction. One hopes the shudkhen, Aramaic shadchan “marriage-broker”, will find a more successful shiddekh, Aramaic shidduch “match”, for her this time. And that she will not fall for a moishe-mukh-mekh-groiss type – literally “Moses, make me big” – an empty braggart.

“It’s a small world”. In Yiddish: U baarg mit u baarg trefft sekh nisht tsezummen, u mentch mit u mentch trefft sekh [iii] tsezummen “A mountain doesn’t meet a mountain, a person meets a person.” This is a straight translation from the Aramaic: Tura betura lo paga, enash be’enash paga.

“Small” is relative. Even the “Wandering Jew” usually wandered from no more than one or two countries in a lifetime, almost invariably as the result of persecution in the country from which he had migrated. It is doubtful whether the Jew is nomadic by temperament. The Yiddish proverb: Ohss’gevundert ulle lennder (Yiddish doohss lunt, German Das Land “country”, plural die Länder), tserik’gekimmen oohn hemmder (Yiddish doohss hemmt, German das Hemd, plural die Hemden, but in dialects Hemder), “Roamed the whole world over, returned without a shirt to his back”, suggests the contrary. “A rolling stone gathers no moss”.

What a contrast between Hymie – sorry, Harold – and his brother Syd, I mean Selwyn. Hymie, says his father, has this fantastic job as a designer with Newman’s the shirt people (“You’re a new man in a Newman shirt”). He goes to New York, Rome, Paris, Hong Kong, everywhere in the best hotels. Ehr leypt u khuzzérishen took “He lives a porcine day” (German lebt “lives”, Hebrew chazir “pig”, German Tag “day”, “like a pig in clover”, German Er lebt wie der Herrgott in Frankreich. Selwyn, im shteynss gezookt [iv], literally “about (German um) (a) stone (German Stein) it (German es) (should be) said (German gesagt)”,  is a schoolmaster who has to teach in cheder as well, and give private lessons when he can get them, but still can’t make a living. Hymie has offered to set him up in business, his dad has said he will help, but Selwyn is an ukshen, Hebrew akshen “obstinate, pig-headed.” He says he will get by as he is. There are the long holidays (“the schoolmaster’s revenge”) and, anyway, he says, he’s got no head for business. A Jewish boy with no head for business! Ost shoin gehehrt? (German Hast (du) schon gehört?) “Have you already heard?” “Did you ever hear anything like it?”

For Selwyn’s dad iz iss u veytik in haarts en u beeshe in poohnim “It’s a pain in the heart and a disgrace in the face” (Hebrew bushah, panim “shame”, “face”). This is not one of those private griefs that can be covered up from view. Selwyn’s mum has a go at him, too, but all the family’s entreaties, pleadings, cajolings are of no avail, se hellft uzzoi’ vee u toiten bunnkes, Polish bańka “cupping-glass”, it helps as much as cupping does a corpse; Selwyn will be a stick-in-the-mud schoolmaster to the end. Selwyn’s wife stands by her husband. In a few years’ time, she says, when the children are bigger, she will be able to get a part-time job and help out. Anyway, by then Selwyn will be a headmaster, or perhaps he will get a job in a College of Education teaching would-be teachers how to teach: lessons should be meaningful … the non-academic child should be regarded as a challenge (not as a baboon, merely because he beats a drum tattoo with his knuckles on his desk during the lesson and/or because he throws his apple-core at the teacher who is unwary enough to turn his back on the class, maxima debetur puero reverentia).

Selwyn doesn’t share his wife’s optimism, but he thinks it would be rather nice if it did happen and, after all, Gott kenn rutt‘even (Polish ratować, Chapter V) fin minkhe bis maarif, God can rescue in the interval between minchah, the afternoon service, and maariv, the evening service (the latter usually immediately follows the former). A saying that was frequently on his boobbe‘s lips occurs to him: Fin daan mohl in Gotts oiren! “From your mouth into God’s ears! And the recollection of mohl, German Maul (Chapter IV, Section 6) also brings to Selwyn’s mind how his boobbe would say, of someone with a reputation for coarse speech, In eer mohl erran’tsefullen (rhyming with English sullen, German hereinzufallen), with the stress on the eer “To fall into her mouth”, heaven help anyone who gets the rough edge of her tongue.

Selwyn’s boobbe, had she still been alive, would have agreed that Selwyn ought to get out of teaching if he could, but she would have urged caution. Eraan’, she would have said, iz de teer groiss (German Tür, gross), erohss’isse (German ist sie) kleyn “Inwards the door is big, outwards it’s small”; it’s easy to sink money into a business, not so easy, if the business is unsuccessful, to get it out. In any case, she would have said, if Selwyn’s mind is made up, if he doesn’t want to be a business man, then iz nisht getfeedelt “(I) haven’t fiddled” – I’m not bothered, you do as you please. You can forget that I have fiddled, and need not pay me on the assumption that I have.

Nisht gefeedelt is one of a number of Yiddish sayings that have given the language its reputation for “quaintness”. In this category we can include the “hole in the head” locution: Ekh bedaarf iss oobben uzzoi’ vee u lokh in kipp “I need to have it like a hole in the head.” Perhaps also begrooben (German begraben) u khokhme (Hebrew chochmah), “to bury (a piece of) wisdom”, to come out with a wisecrack; and the engagingly short and vivid fitch nuss (German Fishh “fish”, nass “wet”) “soaked; wet as a fish”. (German patschnass, triefnass). Lukhen mit yush’tcherkes is “to laugh the wrong side of one’s face”. Polish jaszcaurka is “lizard.” “To laugh with lizards” is certainly quaint, but so, on reflection, is “to laugh the wrong side of one’s face”. Which is the right side of the face to laugh on?

If my wife objects to going to Cornwall for our holidays because “We’ve only got a week, and the journey takes the best part of a day”, I can retort, Defaar’ geyn de gennts boohrviss? (German (lit.) Dafür gehen die Gänse barfuss?) “Therefore the geese go barefoot?” Admittedly it’s a shlepp (Chapter IV, Section 6), but even five days are still five days, and my wife’s objection, in my view, has as little relevance to the question as the barefootedness of the geese.

Gehuk’tene tsoohriss we have mentioned previously (Preface) – Ehr zitst ef gehuk’tene tsoohriss “He’s sitting on chopped-up troubles”, he’s having a rough time. Not that tsoohriss, Hebrew tsarot “troubles”, are always gehukt (German gehackt). You can have gezinnte tsoohriss “healthy”, minor troubles. Gehuk’tene tsoohriss are when your creditors call a meeting; gezinnte tsoohriss, when you find the disco you wanted to get for the Parent’s Association dance has already been booked. And, of course, some people have a genius for looking for, and finding, trouble. Eynem git Gott tsoohriss, dehr undere neraat’ (German neuern “to renew?”) sekh ulleyn’ tsoohriss “To one God gives troubles, the other provides his own troubles for himself.”

“Chopping up” of, of all things, a teapot, is engaged in by the nidnik (Polish nudnik), the bore, the worryguts. He drools on and on about what he said to the Board and what he did when he was on the Board and why didn’t the Board set an example, on and on: oohn (German ohne “without”) u sheer (Hebrew shiur) en oohn u moohs (German Mass “measure”) “without a measurement and without a measure” – he goes on for ever, ehr huktoohn u tchainik; “He hacks (German anhacken) a teapot (Polish czajnik).” One can also say oohn’hukken u kop “to chop up a head”, for which compare French casser la tête à quelqu’un. Fehrdrey’ (from German verdrehen “to twist”) mer nisht u kop on the other hand, means “Don’t confuse me with arguments, my mind’s made up.”

An effective expression used by my mother for “cutting down to size” was Gullimutch’ke nisht uzzoi’ feel, “Don’t natter such a lot.” Gullimutch’ken is not in the dictionaries, but obviously comes from Polish galimatjas, French galimatias. Sometimes she would say Lozz shoin daanne sonnim redden faar dir, “Let your enemies speak for you” (so that any harm resulting from what you say, or might say, rebounds on them). And sometimes – not the sort of language one uses in the hoikhe fenntster, literally the “high windows”, the upper crust, top drawer, I know, but very effective – she would bring me to a halt with “Kuk nisht mitten mohl, “Don’t defecate (Latin cacare) with your mouth.” Not quite the same as “verbal diarrhoea”, which simply indicates a never-ending flow of talk – oohn u sheer en oohn u moohss en oohn u soff (Hebrew sof “end”), in fact; “oral defecation” is idiotic, foolish talk which, however – it is to be hoped – has a limit and a measure and an end.

Uzz me freykt, iz treyf “If you ask, it’s trefa”. Ask no questions if you don’t want to hear what may be an unpalatable truth. If a woman had doubts about the kashrut of a chicken she had bought there would obviously be a possiblity of its being trefa, otherwise the doubts would not have arisen in the first place. Hence, if she could ill afford the loss of the week-end chicken, she would smother her doubts and refrain from asking the rebbe whether it was, in fact, kosher. If I go into a theatre and see row upon row of expensive seats in the front stalls unoccupied by curtain-up, I betake myself with a rear-stall ticket to a front-stall seat. I don’t ask if I’m entitled to do so – uzz me freykt iz treyf.

Not that I advise you, dear reader, to follow my example. Dehr rebbe meyg, the rabbi may (do as he thinks fit), and for the purposes of this exercise I am the rabbi. Don’t do as I do, do as I tell you. Not, of course, that the rabbi does in fact do what is wrong, it is simply that what he does may appear to be wrong to the layman. Thus the rabbi knows (and I know because a rabbi has told me) that it is permissible to drink (black) coffee from a milkhik (“milky”, German milchig) cup after a fleyshik (“meaty”, German fleischig) meal; the rabbi may read a (religious) book during the repetition of the Amidah because the shliach tsibbur repeats the Amidah for the benefit of those who can’t read Hebrew, and all rabbanim can read Hebrew; the rabbi can justify the observance of yoohrtsaat (Chapter IV, Section 6) on the anniversary of the death, and not, as many people think it should be, on the anniversary of the burial of the deceased.

To express your dislike of, or indifference to, someone, you can “have” him in various places; in drehrt of course, German in der Erde “in the earth”, but also in vaarshe, Warsaw, or plotsk or simply ehrgits undersh “somewhere else” (Middle High German iergen, New High German irgendwo “somewhere”; Middle High German, New High German anders “else”). On the other hand you can express your liking for, say, chazan Tropp, by saying that chazan Klopp, whom your interlocutor prefers, is u hinnt keyghen eem “a dog against him” (German Hund, gegen). Or you can say that Tropp kenn im erran’shtekken in knuffel, (Middle High German knoufel “button, knob”?), that Tropp can put him in his shoe-heel. Incidentally, neither the dog nor the horse gets a good press in Yiddish: Tee u hinnt gits “Do good to a dog” (and you get no thanks – He/she/is/you’re an ungrateful something-or-other), while far from being associated with “horse-sense”, a fehrt, German Pferd “horse”, is synonymous with naar “fool”, German Narr.

Disagreement can also be indicated on the gellt shmellt pattern. A spendthrift would be denounced with gellt shmellt drekk in kesh’ene (German Geld “money”, Dreck “rubbish, filth” – not, here, “excrement”, which is usually kukkekhs, Latin cacare – Polish kieszeń “pocket”); he treats money as if it were rubbish in his pocket. The form has infiltrated into English. [v] Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yiddish, p.11 (Penguin), quotes “Revolution, Shmevolution”, from the Wall Street Journal, and informs us (p.xxvii) that the device is called “second-order reduplication”, and if that doesn’t make Yiddish respectable, I don’t know what does. “Second-order reduplication” is capable of wide application. Thus: “O” levels, shmoh levels, so long as he can make a living; decorum, shmorum, this is not a Reform synagogue; modesty, shmodesty, let her wear what she likes, etc. My mother had a variant of this speech-form. On the days when the takings from her fancy goods shop were git in drehrt, lousy, she would say: U shop ob ekh (German habe ich “have I”), u yop ob ekh!

A brief excursus on “anglicisms in Yiddish is here called for. Just as the Jews in Poland adopted Polish words in their predominantly German vernacular, so in England Jewish immigrants would use English words to denote objects or matters which they rubbed up against in everyday life. I cannot imagine even a Yiddish purist – if the term is not an oxymoron – saying, in any Anglo-Sxon country, anything other than Vehrz in shop for “Who’s in the shop”; Gib mer u metch for “Give me a match”; Ehrz gegunghen in piktchers for “He’s gone to the pictures”, etc. In Anglo-Saxon Yiddish these words displaced their Polish-Yiddish predecessors: laaden, shveybbele, keenoh, from Middle High German laden “shop”, swëbel “sulphur” (German Schwefelholz “sulphur wood” = “match”), and German Kino, Polish kino “cinema” – though the mass migration of Jews from Eastern Europe was well under way before the invention of moving pictures, so that many Jews in Anglo-Saxon countries whose mother-tongue was Yiddish would never have heard of kino, only of piktchers – just as shmutte, Polish szmata “rag”, would have displaced Middle High German lappe, and even, eventually, uzz, Polish az displaced Middle High German daz “that” (relative conjunction).

This linguistic process is perfectly normal, and less risible than it appears to the “quaint” school of Yiddish buffs. In a military organisation employing native German-speakers during the last war both English and German-speaking personnel would say without batting an eyelid: Checken Sie das up, bitte – Ich habe es schon upgecheckt, and I saw nothing unusual in my mother’s saying U yeet miz belunghen tsin u sheel “A Jew must belong to a synagogue” (English belong here being “contaminated” by Yiddish lunk “long”, German lang, and dehrlunghen “to reach”, German erlangen). The dislike of the German Talmudist Hermann L. Strack, expressed in the introduction to his Jiddisches Wörterbuch, 1916 to certain anglicisms in Yiddish, such as baby, boss, business, is understandable in a German patriot writing in the course of a war fought against England, but need not affect our understanding of a general linguistic phenomenon.

To indicate dismissal of someone else’s hypothesis, as I propose, with great respect, doing with Mrs Lillian Mermin Feinsilver’s statement in her The Taste of Yiddish [vi] that “derma (= kishke, Polish kiszka “gut”) presumably comes from the Latin word for skin”, one can use the vehr meer, voohss meer formula, “who to me, what to me”. Vehr meer lattin, voohss meer lattin. Lattin, shmattin. Derma (which, incidentally, I have come across for the first time in Mrs Feinsilver’s book) is obviously the Middle High German derme (New High German Därme) “guts, intestines”.

I hope the rebbetsen (Mrs Feinsilver is the wife of a Reform rabbi) will forgive me if I point out that what she says, in this instance at any rate, is not toirres lokshen. Toirres moishe, the teaching of Moses, is of course truth; to indicate that a statement is not necessarily authoritative it can be characterised as not being toirres lokshen, the latter being another Yiddish word, meaning “noodles”, which has penetrated into (American) English, so much so that I am indebted to the invaluable Webster’s Third New English Dictionary (London, 1961 for its derivation: “from Russ. dial. loksha, of Turkic origin.”

“To make a fuss about something” is mukhen u tsimmiss fin eppess. Tsimmiss is Archaic German zumus/zumüs, a word used since the fifteenth century to denote food served with meat or bread (Grimm). In Yiddish it is “dessert”, which can be a stodgy affair of boiled carrots and dumpling as well as compôte. I suspect that H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N was the source of Mr Leo Rosten’s dictum (op.cit., p.421) that tsimmiss is derived “from zum ‘to the’; essen ‘eating'”,but I have no wish to make a tsimmiss about it.

Someone who gets a “ticking off” – not, of course, that I would have the khittspe, Hebrew chutzpah “impertinence, cheek, nerve”, to “tick off” Mrs Feinsilver or Mr Rosten – receives, or rather khups (Chapter V) a mishebeyrekh –  from the prayer beginning with the formula: Misheberach avotenu “May He who blessed our forefathers”. It is a prayer for the individual worshipper “called up” to the Reading of the Torah. Usually it was – and still is, it must be admitted – recited rapidly and mechanically during intervals in the Reading of the Torah, to the accompaniment of a hub of chatter from the congregation, so that it came to be applied euphemistically to any “telling off”. Oi ot her gekhupt’ fin meer u mishebey’rekh! “I tore him off a strip good and proper.”

The megillah (Hebrew), scroll of Esther, read on Purim, is certainly not rattled off mechanically. The congregation, particularly the younger elements, listen with ears pricked for each mention of Haman, so that the odious name can be “blotted out” with stamping of feet, banging of pew-ledges and rattling of greghers (wooden rattles; etymology? Influenced by Russian gremetj “to rattle”? Onomatopeic?). Nevertheless, meghille has come to be used in the sense of “rigmarole” (spoken and written), “screed.” Ehr ot mer dertseylt’ u meghille “He pitched me a yarn”. The word is well-established in Yiddenglish (Chapter IV, Section 6), e.g. a colleague at a Citizens’ Advice Bureau handing me one of the innumerable memoranda that pour into CABx with the words: “Here’s the meghille.”

In telling someone off good and proper you “give” him in tuttez tutten erran’ (Polish tata “dad, papa”), your scolding is so powerful that it reaches to his father’s father. Khob im geghibben in tuttez tutten eraan “I gave him what for”. Not, mind you, that there’s much chance that it will do any good. U gitter bedaarf nisht, in u shlekhten hellft nisht “A good (boy/man) doesn’t need (telling off), and a bad one isn’t helped by it”. All you’re likely to get for your pains from the recipient of your curtain lecture is an oohngebloohzen poohnim, a sulky face. (Yiddish oohn’gebloohzen “sulky”, is a semantic development of German angeblasen “blown up.” Voohss bist uzzoi’ oohn’gebloohzen “What have you got the rats for?”) In any case, there comes a time when one can no longer be bothered to give mishebeyrekhs – “I strove with none, for none was worth my strife.” Once, perhaps, had your cousin overlooked your boy’s barmitsvah you would have “given” him; now – Ekh much mer u feessbooht (German Fussbad) defin’ “I make myself a footbath of it”, I couldn’t care less.

Some Yiddish expressions breathe a violence out of all proportion to the setting in which they are used and, of course, are not to be taken literally. Khob nisht gekonnt’ dermunnen zaan noommen, khotch dershtekh’ zekh “I couldn’t remember his name, though I would have stabbed myself (to be able to do so)”; (Polish choć “although”, Chapter V; German sich erstechen “to stab oneself”,Chapter IV, Section 6). Compare English “for the life of me”. “I told him not to go out without a coat, but it was no use”, gey shloog kop en de vunt “go bang (your) head on the wall”. Siz geveyn’ mess’ershtekhenish “It was knife-stabbing (German stechen “to stab”)”, “they had the mother and father of a row”. Compare English “at daggers drawn”.

As a boy, I’m afraid I sometimes provoked my mother into saying: Khvell der ibb’erhukken rik en lent “I’ll break your back, German Rücken, and loins, German Lenden” (compare “to smite hip and thigh”, Hebrew shok al yarech); Khvell der gibben uzz flusk/trusk in poohnim, uzz de vesst nisht vissen voohss se teet sekh mit deer “I’ll fetch you such a swipe (flusk a Yiddish onomatopoeic lexical creation? Trusk from Russian tresnutj “to whop”, “contaminated” by Russian tresk “crash, crack”?) across the jaw (Yiddish poohnim, Hebrew panim “face”) that you won’t know what’s happening to you (Yiddish teen zekh “to happen”, semantically developed from German sich tun which, of course, does not have this meaning). I recall vividly, over the space of half a century, the words, but no physical follow-up, which I am sure I richly deserved.

Vee kimt de kuts ibbern vusser? How does the cat get over the water? Obviously, the difficulties imposed by geography were greater in the Poland and Russia of a century or more ago, when the saying first arose, than they are in the jet age. Even today, however, if I urgently want to see my son who is studying in Aberdeen, but can afford neither the time nor the money to travel all the way to the granite city (and he even less so) – vee kimt de kuts ibbern vusser? (Answer: we arrange to meet in Newcastle – provided it doesn’t involve travel on the Sabbath.)

Sabbath, to the observant Jew, is a day of “rest and holiness, a rest granted in generous love, a rest in peace and tranquillity, in quietude and safety, a rest wherein Thou delightest”. “To spoil someone’s Sabbath”, deym shubbes fehrshtehren (German verstören “to disturb”) is inexcusable. There will be plenty of time for bickering and squabbling and rowing in the weekdays. Mukhen shvaarts shubbes, literally “to make black Sabbath”, to make a scene, can also be left, if scene there must be, to a weekday. The ironical tosstem (Polish ot, plus German hast du den) tsveyten git shubbes, literally “There you have the other good Sabbath” = “Don’t you start” (I’ve had enough from your brother/sister/wife/husband).

Until my sons were barmitsvah it was my responsibility to see that they observed the Sabbath, and they did – at least as far as going to shool in the morning and “not riding or carrying” was concerned. Whether they, and my daughter, will always want or be able to observe the Sabbath I don’t know. I am fortunate in that in my job I don’t have to ride on shubbes, and I don’t, but it may well be that when my children are earning their living their jobs will be incompatible with Sabbath observance. Unless they settle in Israel, which, if they want to, gezinntereyt’. I’ve always maintained that only in Israel can the whole Jewish community, as opposed to individual kosher butchers, Jewish communal officials, schoolteachers in Jewish schools, solicitors and accountants with Jewish clienteles, etc., keep shubbes. In any case I don’t believe in forcing Sabbath observance on my kids. Geneyte zukhen trennen zekh, literally “Sewn-up things come apart, with a pun on geneyt, which is the past participle both of neyen, German nähen “to sew”, and neyten, Middle High German nœten, German nötigen, “to compel”. You can take a horse to the water, but you can’t make it drink.


[i] Quoted by Bernstein in the longer, and weaker, form: U melookhe iz u meleekhe. All proverbs and sayings are cited by me as I remember them in my mother’s version, which may differ from that of Ignac Bernstein in Yiddishe Shprikhvehrter en Reydensaarten, N.Y, n.d. (photo offset reproduction of 1908,Warsaw,ed.).

[ii] See H .S. Samet, Hashpaat Sifrutenu Haatikah al Pitgamei Haam,Warsaw, n.d

[iii] The voiceless s in sekh is due to progressive assimilation of the voiced z in zekh to the preceding voiceless – t. We do not consider it necessary to draw the reader’s attention to any further instances of this phenomenon.

[iv]   According to the Great Dictionary of the Yiddish Language, s.v., the saying im shteynss gezookt‘ arose in Yiddish-speaking regions influenced by: The Holy One blessed be He poured out His wrath on the trees and the stones, but did not pour out His wrath on Israel” – Echan Rabbah.

[v] But compare also indigenous English forms such as lovey-dovey, to which Yiddish looptch’kinyooh-pootch’kinyooh corresponds (Russ. liubitj “to love”).

[vi] Yoseloff, New York and London, 1970, p.190

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