Born To Kvetch

Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods

Michael Wex

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One

 

Kvetch Que C'est?

 

The Origins of Yiddish

 

A man boards a Chicago-bound train in Grand Central Station and sits down across from an old man reading a Yiddish newspaper. Half an hour after the train has left the station, the old man puts down his paper and starts to whine like a frightened child. "Oy, am I t hirsty. . . . Oy ,am I thirsty. . . . Oy ,am I thirsty. . . ."

 

The other man is at the end of his rope inside of five minutes. He makes his way to the water cooler at the far end of the car, fills a cup with water, and starts walking back to his seat. He pauses after a few steps, goes back to the cooler, fills a second cup with water and walks gingerly down the aisle, trying to keep the cups from spilling. He steps in front the old man and clears his throat. The old man looks up in midoy, his eyes beam with gratitude as he drains the first cup in a single gulp. Before he can say or do anything else, the man hands him the second cup, then sits back down and closes his eyes, hoping to catch a bit of a nap. As he sits back, the old man allows himself a sigh of thanks. He leans into his own seat, tilts his forehead toward the ceiling, and says, just as loudly as before, "Oy, was I thirsty. . . ."

 

If you can understand this joke, you'll have no trouble learning Yiddish. It contains virtually every important element of the Yiddish-speaking mind-set in easily accessible form: the constant tension between the Jewish and the non-Jewish; the faux naïveté that allows the old man to pretend that he isn't disturbing anyone; the deflation of the other passenger's hopes, the disappointment of all his expectations after he has watered the Jew; and most importantly of all, the underlying assumption, the fundamental idea that kvetching—complaining—is not only a pastime, not only a response to adverse or imperfect circumstance, but a way of life that has nothing to do with the fulfillment or frustration of desire. Kvetching can be applied indifferently to hunger or satiety, satisfaction or disappointment: it is a way of knowing, a means of apprehension that sees the world through cataract-colored glasses.

 

The old man's initial kvetches are a means to an end. He's thirsty, he's lazy, he figures that if he yells loudly enough he's going to get what he wants. But these first few oys are only the setup; the quintessentially Yiddish aspect—what Yiddish would call dos pintele yidish, the essence of Yiddish—appears only in the joke's last line. The old man knows what's happening; he knows that he could have died of thirst for all that his seatmate cared, as long as he did so quietly. He knows that the water is a sign of contempt, not a gesture of mercy, and he also knows that in a world where indifference is the best that can be expected, the principle of aftselakhis (very literally, "in order to provoke anger"), the impulse to do things only because someone else doesn't want you to, is sometimes essential to the world's moral balance. And the old man understands how aftselakhis works: alone in the history of the world, Yiddish-speaking Jews long ago broke the satisfaction barrier and figured out how to express contentment by means of complaint: kvetching becomes a way of exercising some small measure of control over an otherwise hostile environment. If the Stones's "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" had been written in Yiddish, it would have been called "(I Love to Keep Telling You that I Can't Get No) Satisfaction (Because Telling You that I'm Not Satisfied Is All that Can Satisfy Me)."

 

Like so much of Jewish culture, kvetching has its roots in the Bible, which devotes a great deal of time to the nonstop grumbling of the Israelites, who find fault with everything under the sun. They kvetch about their problems and they kvetch about the solutions. They kvetch in Egypt and they kvetch in the desert. No matter what God does, it's wrong; whatever favors He bestows, they're never enough.

 

So, for example, the Israelites are on the edge of the Red Sea, with Pharaoh and his hosts closing fast behind them. God has been plaguing the Egyptians left and right and has just finished killing every one of their firstborn males. The Israelites are understandably nervous, but there's a big difference between being slightly apprehensive and insulting the agent of your deliverance: "And they said to Moses: 'What? There's no graves in Egypt, you had to take us into the desert to die. . . . What did we tell you in Egypt? Get off our backs and let us serve the Egyptians, because serving the Egyptians is better than dying in the desert' " (Exod. 14:11-12).

 

This sort of thing constitutes what might be called the basic kvetch, the initial declaration of unhappiness that identi.es the general area of complaint. Had Isaac Newton been struck by a potato kugel instead of an apple, the whole world would now know that for every basic kvetch there is also an equal and opposite counterkvetch, a retaliation in kind provoked by the original complaint. Such counterkvetching also appears in the Bible, most notably then God decides to answer the Israelites' complaints about the food in the desert by giving them something to kvetch about. The Jews want meat instead of the manna that they've been getting? Moses tells them:

 

God's going to give you meat and you're going to eat it.

 

Not one day

 

Or two days;

 

Not five days

 

Or ten days

 

Or twenty days.

 

But for a month you're going to eat it, until it's coming out of your noses (Num. 11:19-20).

 

They get meat, all right—quails, hundreds and hundreds of quails—and for dessert they get a plague. Thus ends the eleventh chapter of the Book of Numbers. In the first sentence of Chapter Twelve we are told that, "Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses"—kvetching is to the Jewish soul as breathing is to the Jewish body.

 

This sort of antiphonal grousing pervades the Old Testament—what is Hebrew prophecy but kvetching in the name of God?—and forms the basis of much of the Jewish worldview. Not only do Judaism in general and Yiddish in particular place an unusual emphasis on complaint, but Yiddish also allows considerable scope for complaining about the complaining of others, more often than not to the others who are doing the complaining. While answering one complaint with another is usually considered a little excessive in English, Yiddish tends to take a homeopathic approach to kvetching: like cures like and kvetch cures kvetch. The best response to a complaint is another complaint, an antiseptic counter-kvetch that makes further whining impossible for anybody but you.

 

Yet the entry for kvetshn (the verbal form) in Uriel Weinreich's Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary reads simply: "press, squeeze, pinch; strain." There is no mention of grumbling or complaint. You can kvetch an orange to get juice, kvetch a buzzer for service, or kvetsh mit di pleytses, shrug your shoulders, when no one responds to the buzzer that you kvetched. All perfectly good, perfectly common uses of the verb kvetshn, none of which appears to have the remotest connection with the idea of whining or complaining. The link is found in Weinreich's "strain," which he uses to define kvetshn zikh, to press or squeeze oneself, the reflexive form of the verb. Alexander Harkavy's 1928 Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary helps make Weinreich's meaning clearer. It isn't simply to strain, but "to strain," as Harkavy has it, "at stool," to have trouble doing what, if you'd eaten your prunes the way you were supposed to, you wouldn't have any trouble with at all. The connection with complaint lies, of course, in the tone of voice: someone who's kvetching sounds like someone who's paying the price for not having taken his castor oil—and he has just as eager an audience. A really good kvetch has a visceral quality, a sense that the kvetcher won't be completely comfortable, completely satisfied, until it's all come out. Go ahead and ask someone how they're feeling; if they tell you, "Don't ask," just remember that you already have. The twenty-minute litany of tsuris is nobody's fault but your own.

 

Along with cursing and deflating the expectations of others, which is just kvetching about things that have not been allowed to happen, complaining seems to be Yiddish's major claim to fame among Jews and non-Jews alike. Where, at least since Hegel, the standard Western view of the nature of things is one of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; the Jewish view is somewhat different. Look at the biblical quotations above. The thesis is that we're going to die in the desert. The antithesis is that we're going to eat ourselves to death in the desert. The synthesis—if it can be called that—is that we come out of the desert more or less intact and keep on complaining. Judaism has positioned itself as the eternal antithesis: "Whatever is," says Alexander Pope, "is right." "Whatever it is," we say, "it isn't good enough." Adam gave names to all created things; his Yiddish-speaking descendants offer critiques.

 

Now combine this institutionalized contrariness with the fundamental absurdity of Jewish existence in the world. We are God's chosen people; it says so over and over in the Bible, His favorites. And how does He show it? Just look at Jewish history: persecution and pariahhood are both tributaries of the one big river of goles—exile—the fundamental fact of Jewish life for the last couple of thousand years. Indeed, scholars question whether pre-exilic Judaean society can even be called Jewish, in the sense in which we understand the term. Judaism is defined by exile, and exile without complaint is tourism, not deportation: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion" (Ps. 137:1). If we stop kvetching, how will we know that life isn't supposed to be like this? If we don't keep kvetching we'll forget who we really are. Kvetching lets us remember that we've got nowhere to go because we're so special. Kvetching lets us know that we're in exile, that the Jew, and hence the "Jewish," is out of place everywhere, all the time.

 

Yiddish, the national language of nowhere, is the spoken and written version of this displacement, and its single best-known expression—found numerous times in the Bible—is hardly a word at all. Oy is the involuntary expression of shock and dismay produced when a medicine ball of tsuris—troubles, trials, and tribulations—slams into your gut without any warning. The air that's been exiled from your innards departs your body in the form of a krekhts, a moan or groan that begins in the kishke zone between navel and spine, then proceeds up your chest and throat, gathering momentum until it issues from your mouth.

 

This unwilled rush of breath, this kishke-driven release of disaffected air, is the primal phoneme, the embryonic unit of kvetch. The fact that the term krekhts is also used to denote the musical sob characteristic of so much klezmer music helps to underline the more significant fact that Yiddish has produced an aesthetic in which ideas of beauty and standards of artistic worth are inextricably linked to expressions of longing and pain. Rooted as it is in the long wait for a Messiah who's in no hurry to get here, Yiddish sometimes approaches fulfillment but never quite achieves it; until the Messiah comes and the Temple is rebuilt, there isn't much apart from pining and dissatisfaction. Disappointment—awareness of the difference between things as they are and things as they're supposed to be—is the basis of kvetching, and the krekhts, the involuntary physical reaction to the revelation of things as they are, is the dynamic force that powers it.

 

It took roughly 2,500 years, from the Exodus until about 1000 C.E., to shape the ideas upon which Yiddish is based into the forms that gave birth to the language. Without some understanding of these ideas, we can learn a lot of Yiddish, but we'll never know what we're really saying.

 

Like Jelly Roll Morton, Ashkenazic tradition holds that our folks "came directly from the shores of France;" they were Frenchmen who migrated to German-speaking territory in the tenth and eleventh centuries of the current era. Important as such a fact might be to the history of Yiddish, it is a matter of strictly academic interest from the traditional Jewish point of view. Countries come and countries go, and until the Messiah puts an end to our exile, a Jew's own brain is as close as he's going to come to a homeland. For centuries, the Jews' only real home was a way of thinking designed to make their exile meaningful, a way of thinking designed to arm them against the threats and attractions of the people around them and make them prefer the danger and instability of their own homelessness to being at home with anyone else.

 

It started with the Exodus from Egypt. Seven weeks after leaving the country, the Hebrew ex-slaves received the Torah on Mount Sinai. Most of the Torah—the Hebrew name for the first five books of the Bible—is made up of orders, orders that the ancient Israelites were so eager to receive that a well-known Talmudic tradition states that the Lord held the mountain over them like a bucket, threatening to crush them if they didn't say yes to His rules: "If you accept the Torah—good. And if not—this is where you'll be buried" (Shabbos 88a).

 

It was a Torah they couldn't refuse, and after 210 years of servitude, they must have felt that it was being given them aftselakhis, to make freedom as full of obligations as slavery. The orders or commandments that they received are known as mitsves (singular, mitsve), and tradition says that there are 613 of them: 248 "thou shalts" and 365 "thou shalt nots," one for every day of the year. The Jewish calendar follows the moon instead of the sun, though, and has only 354 days—a single Jewish year isn't long enough to hold all the things we're not supposed to do.

 

These mitsves are the foundations of every aspect of Jewish life; in a very real sense, they are Judaism. You can be as monotheistic as you like, without the mitsves you're still not Jewish. It's the mitsves that forbid pork, enjoin circumcision, and keep us out of the Knights of Columbus; they are the root of Jewish difference, of everything that makes Jews Jewish. According to Rashi, whose commentaries on the Bible and Talmud are an integral part of traditional methods of study, "The whole point of the Torah is its mitsves."What the chosen people have been chosen for is the obligation of fulfilling mitsves that are incumbent on nobody else. The Jews have been chosen not to: not to have that BLT; not to sit on Santa's knee; not to catch the Saturday matinee or blend in with the people around them. The election of Israel, as the theologians call it, is like the election of the kid who has to practice the violin while the rest of the neighborhood plays ball—what's normal for everyone else is a sin for the one who's been chosen.

 

Mitsves are like any other rules, though; they have to be fleshed out, explained, applied. The Bible jumps from one commandment to the next without slowing down for details. It tells you what, but never how. Imagine a mitsve that reads, "Thou shalt not park illegally." First we need to define parking and specify the kinds of vehicles to which such a law applies: Can I leave my bicycle on the sidewalk? My motorcycle? What about my Maserati? We must define the terms legal and illegal with respect to parking: Why is parking on Main Street sinful at 8:59 a.m. but virtuous at 9:00? Why is parking on certain streets always evil, while notions of permitted and forbidden reverse themselves on certain others on the sixteenth of every month? Does this reversal of permitted and forbidden apply equally to ham sandwiches and gefilte fish, and if so, when?

 

Imagine between 2 and 3 million words of this, most of them in Aramaic, and you'll have some idea of what the thirty-seven tractates of the Babylonian Talmud look like. The Talmud was composed in two languages, Hebrew and Aramaic; comprises two essentially separate works, the Mishna and Gemara; took roughly seven centuries, from before the invention of Chanukah until after the Fall of Rome, to compile; was not supposed to have been compiled at all, and will never be considered complete. It is the sine qua non of what we think of as Judaism.

 

Much of the Talmud consists of attempts to work out the rules of day-to-day conduct from the rather bald imperatives of the Torah. Of course, much of it also consists of jokes, anecdotes, natural history, gossip, innuendo, and—above all—endless, almost literally endless, debate about virtually every topic raised between its covers. Of the 523 chapters of the Mishna, there is exactly one without an argument about halokhe (Jewish law)—they only disagree 99.8 percent of the time.

 

As the real basis of Judaism as we know it, the Talmud is indispensable to the worldview and development of Yiddish, and deserves to be looked at a little more closely. The Mishna, the earlier of its two main components, was compiled around the year 200 in the land of Israel and is written in Hebrew. It functions primarily as a direct investigation of the text of the Bible and is divided into sixty-three different tractates, spread over six "orders" or major divisions. A rabbi quoted in the Mishna is known as a Tanna.

 

The later component, the Gemara or Talmud, was compiled in Babylonia around the year 500 and has lent its name to the entire collection. It is mostly in Aramaic and takes the Mishna, rather than the Torah, as its point of departure; but to say that the Gemara is a commentary on the Mishna is like saying that the works of Shakespeare are a development of the blank verse pioneered by the earl of Surrey. It might be true, but it tells you nothing. The Gemara is a world all to itself, something to be experienced rather than described.

 

The first page of the first tractate can serve as an illustration of the sort of thing that goes on in the Talmud. It opens with a discussion of the biblical commandment (Deut. 6:8) that the Shma—"Hear, O Israel," the Jewish confession of faith—be recited "when you lie down and when you arise." The text opens with a brief Mishna, which is then followed by nearly sixteen folio-sized pages of Gemara before the next Mishna appears:

 

Mishna. From what time can the Shma be recited in the evening?

 

From the hour when the priests go in to eat their tithes until the end of the first watch—the words of Rabbi Eliezer.

 

And the Sages say: Until midnight.

 

Rabban Gamliel says: Until the break of day (Brokhos 2a).

 

Directer than this it doesn't get. The passage doesn't really say much about the matter at hand other than that night precedes day (see Genesis 1:5,1:8, etc.) and midnight means dawn. "From the hour when the priests go in" would have been a lot more definite if there had been a fixed time at which the priests went in to eat their tithes—but there wasn't. The reference is to priests who had become impure and were forbidden from eating the food tithed to them until they had immersed themselves in a ritual bath and a new day had begun at sundown.

 

The Shma, which consists of three nonconsecutive paragraphs from the Bible in addition to the verse quoted above, is not defined here. Rabbis Eliezer and Gamliel .ourished after the destruction of the Second Temple, and were hardly accustomed to being able to see priests eat their tithes. The Mishna itself was not compiled until almost a century and a half after the Temple had been destroyed, and thus defines evening in terms of a world that no longer existed, as distant from its original audience as the Civil War is from us. It's as if someone in the year 2250 were to say that evening begins when the cleaning crews enter the World Trade Center. Why doesn't the Mishna just say "sundown," then? Because "sundown" on its own fails to make the point that such cosmic events as sunrise and sunset exist primarily for the sake of the Jews and their rituals—the rest of the world merely enjoys the fringe benefits. "Sundown" wouldn't have helped much, anyway—look what happens when the Sages say "midnight," which is always at twelve o'clock.

 

Note that none of the opinions offered is said to be right. This reluctance to make a definitive commitment to a particular position is one of the most striking features of the Talmud. Overtly negative statements—"Pay no attention to that man behind the prayer shawl"—are relatively rare and tend to be directed against extremist absurdities. More usually, you find an interrogative demikvetch similar to the one with which the accompanying Gemara begins:

 

Gemara. Where is the Mishnaic sage coming from that he starts off with "from what time"? And why does he start in the evening? He should deal with the morning first.

 

Centuries before there was any such thing as Yiddish, the Yiddish tone of voice, the Yiddish approach to external reality, was already being elaborated:

 

Mishna.Whenever the Sages say "until midnight," the obligation extends until the break of day. . . .

 

Then why did the Sages say "until midnight"?

 

In order to keep people from transgressing (Brokhos 2a).

 

When the Mishna explains, on the very first page of the Talmud, that the Sages sometimes say one thing but mean another, the ground is unwittingly being laid for a language characterized by irony, a language in which the term Tanna, when not directly associated with Talmudic study, generally means "male idiot." In kuk im on, dem tone—look at that Mishnaic sage—the Tanna in question is almost always a misbegotten hybrid of Homer Simpson and a woodchip, the kind of person also known as a khokhem belayle, a sage at night, when there are no witnesses around to convict him of intelligence.

 

Acceptance of Talmudic authority marks the real difference between Jews and the rest of the world, especially Christians, who don't even realize that when the Ten Commandments say "Thou shalt not steal," they aren't talking about money or property.Theft of money or goods is dealt with elsewhere in the Torah, so in looking at this commandment the Talmud bases its interpretation of "steal" on the word's context. The previous two commandments, both part of the same run-on sentence as "Thou shalt not steal," prohibit murder and adultery, capital sins involving the abuse of human beings.While theft of property is never punished by death, theft of people is a capital crime, just like murder and adultery. It is therefore obvious that the Ten Commandments forbids the theft of human beings and not of movable or even immovable property—like, who could miss it, unless they were unacquainted with folio 86a of Tractate Sanhedrin or didn't live in a society in which people who are acquainted with folio 86a, along with the four thousand or so other pages of the Talmud, can become bigger celebrities than Shakespeare, Confucius, and the Beatles put together.

 

Contrary to the usual "people of the book" shtik (the phrase, incidentally, comes from the Koran), Judaism is a Talmudic, not a biblical religion; without the interpretive guidance of the Talmud, the Hebrew Bible can lead to Jesus on the cross as easily as to me at my bar mitzvah. The Talmud is even called the Oral Torah and is considered to have been given to Moses along with the Written Torah. In the Jewish system of belief, you can't have one without the other: Judaism relates to the Bible only as it is refracted through the Talmud and Talmudic ways of thinking. Public-relations-minded anti-Semites who claim to dislike only "Talmudic" Jews are saying that they don't like any Jews: no Talmud, no Jews. It's like saying that they love everything about Christianity except for the skinny guy on the cross.

 

The Oral and Written Laws are both at considerable pains to emphasize the idea that it is the mitsves that make the Jews unique: "And gentiles are never exiled? Even in exile, though, they're gentiles and their exile is no exile: they will eat the bread and drink the wine of the people among whom they are exiled. But the Jews won't eat their bread and won't drink their wine—the Jews' exile is Exile" (Eykho Rabbo 1).

 

The mitsves act as hedges against this sort of assimilation, and in the medieval society in which Yiddish arose, assimilation without formal conversion to Christianity was a virtual impossibility. As such, the Jews sought as much independence from the surrounding society as was practicable for people who still needed to make a living and eat, and this independence reached a climax of sorts in precisely those regions in which Yiddish was developing. As historian I. A. Agus put it:

 

. . . the reliance of German and French Jewry on Talmudic law, as the foundation of all phases of organized life, was probably far greater than that of any other Jewry in historical times. . . . In Germany and France at this period [tenth century C.E.] all coercive powers were derived solely and exclusively from sovereign Jewish law. . . . In these countries Rabbinic law controlled all phases of life. The organization of communal agencies; the establishment of political contact with the secular authorities; the raising of funds, through taxation, to cover all expenses and financial obligations; the enforcement of individual cooperation; the regulation of business practices . . . all these were grounded, probably for the first time in history, exclusively on Jewish law. Rabbinic scholarship for the Jews of Northern Europe, therefore, was not a peripheral interest, not a mere luxury, but the mainspring of their being, the essence of life itself.1

 

Talmudic ways of speech and thought are not so much the forerunners of Yiddish as its matrix, the womb and long-term gestational home of a language that was waiting to happen, a language that couldn't help but be born. From a linguistic point of view, the Talmud is nothing less than Yiddish in utero. The Jews who initiated the transmutation of German into Yiddish were those Jews most deeply connected to Jewish law, people for whom the categories and mental processes of halokhe, of Jewish law, were practically second nature.

 

The French and Italian Jews who began to settle in the German-speaking areas mentioned above were quick to replace the vernaculars they had brought with them with the German spoken by their new neighbors. Although certain affectively charged terms from the earlier Romance languages were absorbed into the Jews' new vernacular, these did not amount to much more than islands in a sea of German. Yet, as the Romance influence continued to shrink, the Semitic elements that had crept into those Romance vernaculars not only held their own on German soil, they increased and multiplied, in accordance with the very first commandment in the Torah. Although Hebrew and Aramaic had not been spoken languages for centuries, the Jews living in Germany had the same access to classical sources as their French and Italian forebears, and were producing large amounts of religious literature of every type, culminating in a virtual golden age of German-Jewish thought in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. German was able to efface almost any trace of the Romance languages spoken by the Jews, even as the other foreign component of Jewish speech, the far more exotic stew of Hebrew and Aramaic known as loshn-koydesh, the holy tongue, took root and flourished in German linguistic soil.

 

The German component is far and away the largest in Yiddish, and close resemblances between Yiddish and German are still to be found today. Du bist alt, you are old, is identical in both languages, but such one-to-one correspondence is the exception rather than the rule. There are usually differences in pronunciation or inflection, even when the words are fundamentally the same: the Yiddish ikh shrayb a briv, I'm writing a letter, would be understood by someone accustomed to the German Ich schreibe einen Brief (and vice versa). Some common Yiddish words of German origin have dropped out of German itself—haynt (today), for example—while modern Yiddish has no trace of others that have remained in German, such as heute, which is German for haynt. These, though, are the kinds of differences to be expected in such circumstances—Dutch, too, has diverged from German in similar ways, just as English did sometime in the sixth or seventh century.

 

The most important difference between Yiddish and German goes far beyond mere accidents of linguistic history. It's the difference between Jewish—which is what the word yidish means in Yiddish—and non-Jewish, and the way in which that difference made itself felt in the Middle Ages, when religion was the organizing principle ofWestern society. It's no coincidence that haynt, the word for "today" that has dropped out of German, actually meant "tonight" in Middle High German; the Yiddish meaning depends on the notion of evening preceding morning, on the lunar calendar implied on the first page of Genesis and explained on the first page of the Talmud. We're talking about a society in which both Judaism and Christianity were comprehensive ways of life, not lifestyle options, a society in which Jews and gentiles could live side by side without being able to agree on what day it was. A Jew who believed in nothing but had not converted to Christianity still ate, slept, walked, talked, and went to the toilet yidish—like a Jew—while Christians did all the same things goyish, like gentiles.

 

We're back to what we said before about the relationship between Judaism and the Talmud. It's no surprise that loshn-koydesh provides Yiddish with such words as shabbes, seyfer toyre (Torah scroll) or mikve (ritual bath), which simply don't exist in non- Jewish languages; what's important is that it also supplies the words for such super.cially neutral, "non-Jewish" concepts as "during," "almost," "face" and "dream." The whole point behind Yiddish, its whole raison d'être, is the need or desire to talk yidish, as distinct from goyish, Jewish instead of gentile. Rambunctious kids used to be told, "Fir zikh vi a yid, act like a Jew!" If the same kids answered in English instead of Yiddish, they'd be asked, "Vos reyd- stu goyish why are you talking goyish?" The opposition could not be more plain. Yiddish arose, at least in part, to give voice to a system of opposition and exclusion that we will be referring to throughout this book.

 

The opposition was made flesh in the person of Jesus. To the Jews, Jesus was, in the words of the early medieval Toldos Yeshu (Life of Jesus), a Jewish antigospel written in Hebrew, a mamzer ben ha-nidoh, the bastard son of an unclean woman. Official Jewish opinion has nothing in common with, say, the Muslim view of Jesus as a prophet. Jesus was considered so loathsome that Jewish legend views St. Peter, of all people, as a frumer yid, a pious and heroic Jew, who deliberately set out to effect a complete separation between "real" Jews and Judeo-Christian traitors by establishing the Catholic Church, which thus becomes good for the Jews because it saved us from having to pray with goyim.

 

Unless otherwise specified, a goy is usually assumed to be a Christian, the kind of goy with whom almost all Yiddish-speaking Jews were living. No one who ever described an argument or excuse that doesn't hold water as having a mamoshes vi der goyisher got, as much substance as the god of the gentiles, thought that the god might be Zeus. The only goyisher got who matters is Jesus, and an expression that means "It's as close to the real truth as the notion that the blood of Jesus has set us free," tells us a good deal about the oppositional nature of a language like Yiddish, and why it could not rest content with German as already spoken.

 

We have to start by asking why it's mamoshes—substance—rather than truth or power that Jesus is said to lack. Mamoshes, reality or substantiality, derives from the adverb mamesh, which means "really, truly, literally," but is used most often in a strictly figurative sense. Its Hebrew original, mamash (note the difference in pronunciation), developed from a verb meaning "to feel, to touch," and the basic meaning of mamesh is comparable to that of the English "palpable." While you can say that someone iz mamesh alt, really old—where mamesh really means "really"—you're just as likely to hear that the sweet table at a bar-mitzvah was mamesh, totally, groaning under t he weight of the goodies.

 

Mamesh in the sense of substantial or tangible has even influenced English literature. There's a well-known medresh, a rabbinic commentary, on the plague of darkness visited upon the Egyptians that speaks of khoyshekh mitsroyim she-yeysh boy mamesh, the darkness of Egypt, which was palpable. Not a simple absence of light, but a substance, a positive force all on its own, darkness with a backbone that not even the noonday sun could have made any lighter. Now, anyone who's ever suffered through freshman English is probably familiar with the beginning of Milton's Paradise Lost, where it says "No light, but rather darkness visible." Milton, who was interested enough in such things to have gone and studied Hebrew, either got the idea from the medresh itself or from someone else who shared his interests.

 

The mamoshes in a mamoshes vi der goyisher got is merely the noun that derives from mamesh, and in the phrase we're looking at, the idea of substantiality is closely connected with the person whose divinity is being denied. We've seen that goy in Yiddish refers primarily to Christians, but this qualification can be narrowed down even further. The overwhelming majority of the Christians among whom Yiddish-speaking Jews used to live were members of either the Orthodox or Roman Catholic Churches. Despite the many differences between them, both Churches believe that when the priest takes the host and wine and says, in one language or another, "Hoc est enim corpus meum, this is mamesh my body," the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ. They don't simply represent it, they don't stand in for it—they change substance and become it. This process, which is known as transubstantiation, is the basis of the Catholic Mass, and belief in its reality lies at the heart of Catholic Christianity.

 

Although it's unlikely that very many Eastern European Jews were experts in the minutiae of Catholic theology, the idea that Christians believed that a piece of ersatz matzoh could become Jesus's body was far from unknown among them. Whoever first described somebody else's excuse as having a mamoshes vi der goyisher got was intending a dig at Catholic doctrine as well, a denial of one of the fundamental tenets of the religion.

 

Something that has a mamoshes vi der goyisher got can also be said to be nisht geshtoygn un nisht ge.oygn, it didn't climb up and it didn't .y. Any Jew who grew up in a traditional Yiddish-speaking environment will interpret the phrase in pretty much the same way: what didn't climb or .y was Jesus, who didn't climb up into heaven and who sure didn't .y there. There's a variant interpretation, according to which it's the cross onto which Jesus didn't climb, but this has no effect on the meaning—the climax of all four gospels, the point of the whole New Testament, has just been reduced to a joke , the Yiddish equivalent of "and pigs can fly."

 

While the denial of Jesus's divinity would be offensive enough to Christians, its use as the gold standard of unbelievability makes it dangerous for a non-Christian minority. The very existence of such a phrase tells us most of what we need to know about how and why Yiddish came into being and about why it was never really German. Each individual word of nisht geshtoygn un nisht ge.oygn would be comprehensible to a German-speaker, but it's unlikely that the German would ever guess what it really refers to, even if he or she caught the meaning of "bullshit." And that's the point: Yiddish started out as German for blasphemers, as a German in which you could deny Christ without getting yourself killed any more often than necessary. From day one, once they started to speak "German" to one another, the Jews were speaking German aftselakhis, German to spite the Germans, a German that Germans wouldn't understand—the argot of the unredeemed. Don't think of Yiddish as a union or melding of German and Semitic elements; think of it as a horror movie. Think of Hebrew as an aristocrat with a funny accent, a mysterious old language no longer used in conversation, the linguistic equivalent of the Undead. It needs body and blood to return to spoken life, the body and blood of a living language that can be taken over and put to use in the service of the Jewish brain. It wants to take over German and then say, Hoc est mamesh corpus meum, in a parody of transubstantiation.

 

William Burroughs was wrong: language is not a virus, it's a dybbuk, and as far as Yiddish is concerned, German is Linda Blair. Opponents of Yiddish who saw it as a stumbling block to Jewish "normalization" were absolutely right; Yiddish embodies the successful circumcision of every German cultural assumption. If, for instance, the goyim could have Christmas, then so could the Jews, some of whom still take a holiday from Torah study on Christmas Eve, or nitl nakht, as it is known in Yiddish. Since studying Torah in the name of a deceased person is a common way of praying for his or her soul, Jews were afraid that studying on Jesus's birthday might somehow work to Jesus's benefit, so they abstained from study on Christmas Eve. Instead of learning Torah, they tended either to play cards—something that pious Jews almost never did—or prepare toilet paper for the coming year. They did something insulting and they did it at home—Jews were afraid to go out on Christmas Eve.

 

This fondness for mocking other religions is another feature of Yiddish that goes all the way back to the Bible, where many familiar names are really nothing but schoolyard taunts. Jezebel, I-zevel in Hebrew, means "daughter of garbage"; her name was probably I-baal, Jebaal, daughter of Baal, one of the major pagan deities mentioned in the Bible. Beelzebub, Baal Zevuv, lord of the flies, was a takeoff of Baal Zevul, lord of heaven. Nabal, the first husband of King David's second wife (called Noval in Hebrew), has a name that means "vile scoundrel, godless unbeliever" and that is used as a common noun in Psalms 14 and 53: "The noval hath said in his heart, There is no God."

 

Deprecation of this sort isn't restricted to living beings. The Talmudic word for a pagan religious festival means "disaster" or "calamity." The standard Yiddish for a non-Jewish holiday, khoge, comes from a biblical word that means "trembling" or "terror." Khoge sounds just enough like the usual Hebrew word for holiday or festival, khag, that it began to be used as a dysphemism (that's the opposite of a euphemism) for non-Jewish religious festivals. To this day, when the Christian holiday of Pentecost is mentioned in Yiddish, it is called di grin-khoge, the green terror. In North American Yiddish slang, Christmas is commonly referred to as Krats-mikh, scratch me, and I've even heard Easter called Yeaster (from the English "yeast"), because "er hot zikh a heyb geton, he raised himself up."

 

The nature of this kind of dysphemism becomes clear when nisht geshtoygn un nisht ge.oygn is compared with an English colloquialism that also means "doesn't get off the ground"—a turkey. This was originally a showbiz term, as in Irving Berlin's, "Even with a turkey that you know will fold/You may be stranded out in the cold." A show that's a turkey flaps its wings but never flies.

 

And there you have one of the chief differences between English and Yiddish. What doesn't get off the ground in English is ultimately a TV dinner, with peas in the cherry cobbler and weird-tasting cranberry sauce. What doesn't get off the ground in Yiddish is . . . the single most important cultural figure in the history of the Western world, founder of its largest religion and . . . y our god. Only you don't know that that's what we're saying: Yiddish is the original jive, designed to keep Herr Charlie from knowing what we really think.

 

Excerpted from BORN TO KVETCH by Michael Wex
Copyright © 2005 by Michael Wex
Published in September 2005 by St Martin's Press

 

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