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Yiddish fashioned for the ‘quip, rag and riposte’

May, 2010

Sigmund Freud believed that verbal wit serves as a safe outlet for repressed impulses and hence if your aggression is likely to cause retaliation, it is prudent that the slings and arrows be linguistic rather than physical.

Cursing has proved to be a useful outlet for op- pressed minorities. This is borne out by the colourful curses to be found among such chronically subjugated groups as gypsies, Afro-Americans, the Irish, and Eastern European Jews.

The Jews who lived in Eastern Europe before the Second World War had no problems cursing creatively. They had the advantage of speaking Yiddish, which according to Joe Singer in How To Curse In Yiddish was “a tongue seemingly fashioned exclusively for the quip, rag and riposte.”

Yiddish curses should not be confused with the Hebraic curses of the Bible. Hebrew curses were deadly serious, whereas there is a humorous thrust to almost all Yiddish curses.

Maurice Samuel in In Praise of Yiddish states: “The Jewish people, being physically defenseless, had two recourses short of suicide; it could contain itself in silent patience ... or it could vent its rage upon the world in impotent intramural rages until it recovered its balance. ... It had only faith and its wits to fall back on, the faith was deep, the wits – and the wit – were lively.”

One usually associates cursing with malevolence; Yiddish cursing, on the other hand, can be downright jocular. This is because the Yiddish curser usually does not believe in the power of his or her execrations. Yiddish cursing developed into a choreographed activity where satisfaction was gained by ejaculating an imaginative curse. Many of the curses were improvised and were designed to exhibit the verbal panache of the execrator.

Singer says that Yiddish curses “first lull you with their innocence, then flatten you with the punch line.” An example of this verbal feinting is: “May you lose all your teeth except one – so you can have a toothache.”

This is not to say that ill will was never directed toward others. Life was hard and interactions did not take place in laid-back bucolic settings with fiddlers prancing on roofs. But in cursing your neighbour or your competitor at the market, you could dream that the object of your scorn was the Tsar or some other oppressor.

Although verbal sparring in many communities is more the domain of men than women, in shtetl communities, Yiddish cursing was, by and large, the domain of women. So whereas Hebrew is referred to as loshen kodesh, “holy tongue,” Yiddish is referred to as mameloshen, “mother tongue.”

The men enjoyed sanctuary in holy studies, but this escape was not afforded to Jewish women. When a husband devoted most of his time to reli- gious study, the wife became the major family provider.

The only profession usually open to her was working as a vendor at the market. Here, she gleaned that an acerbic wit helped her survive in the market’s highly competitive environment.

One would also think that the ability to curse like a markyideneh, “a marketwoman” helped release the anxiety of not only working at the market but afterward going home to take care of a home replete with six to 10 children.

You wouldn’t glean this from listening to Henny Youngman quips, but mother-in-laws were not the bane of men, but of women. As mentioned earlier, a man had the means of escape either in synagogue or at the tavern, but the wife could be constantly besieged by her mother-in-law in the home or the market.

Some examples of this genre are: “May your mother-in-law treat you like her own daughter and move in with you,” “May you outlive every- one but your mother-in-law” and “May your husband’s father marry three times so that you have not one but three mothers-in-law!”

Happy Mother’s Day, and may you never know from the disrespect of a daughter-in-law. Howard Richler’s latest book, Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words, was recently published by Ronsdale Press.



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