For years now, the reference work I run to when confronted with an unfamiliar Yiddishism has been The New Joys of Yiddish, an update of Leo Rosten’s original informal dictionary. I run to it even when the Yiddishism is not unfamiliar — as familiar as “Oy veh!” — because you can count on Leo Rosten and Lawrence Bush (updater and reviser) to illustrate the word with a wry story. Part dictionary, part Book of Wisdom. Plus, funny wiggly illustrations by R.O. Blechman brighten many a page. There above is an actual photo of an actual page from an actual copy of the book.
Joys remains my first stop (and half-hour layover, typically) in a Yiddish query, but now I have a book for digging a little deeper into Yiddish words and phrases, their sources, their nuances, their applications, their good zingy fun. Michael Wex has done the English-speaking world a favor with his not-a-dull-page-in-it romp through Yiddish, mischeivously titled Born to Kvetch.
It was given to me as a gift, perhaps because of my proneness to make poignant observations on the sorrows of life.
An enthralling chapter on the Yiddish art of the klole — curse — elicited many a laugh, not that cursing is particularlly funny, but because most of the curses aren’t all that serious, are meant tp playfully express exasperation. For example: “My enemies should be as ugly as she is beautiful!”
But some burn a little hotter, and one in particular scorches the earth. I refer to yemakh shmoy. I’d never heard of it, and hope never to hear it, particularly aimed at me. Nothing playful here, it means, “May his name be blotted out!” Not even a wish for ill fortune to fall on some paskudnyak, not even a call for annihilation; it asks that there never be anything ever to be annihilated: utter non-being; never was, isn’t, never will be. The most complete curse possible, and not, Mr Wex tells us, used lightly.
The Amalekites of Biblical fame earned the curse in Deuteronomy. They attacked the Israelites from behind, where the women and kids were kept (or so they thought) out of harm’s way. “Timkhe es zeykher Amolek,” is the millenia old reward for the dirty deed. “Blot out the memory of the Amalek from under heavens,” goes the curse, though I guess writing it down for all these centuries kind of undoes the blotting out. Still, it’s no bouquet.
Wex adds this interesting bit:
…the association of yemakh shmoy with Amalek remains strong: the traditional way of testing a new pen is to write “Amelak” (in Hebrew letters, of course) and then scribble over it until it is “blotted out,”
The New Joys of Yiddish
by Leo Calvin Rosten; Lawrence Bush; R. O. Blechman
(Three Rivers Press (CA), Paperback, 496pp.)
Born to Kvetch
Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods
by Michael Wex
(Harper Perennial, Paperback, 303pp.)