Friday, November 29, 2013

Stuff they left out of Fiddler on the Roof

More from my "Jewish Post" articles....

“Fiddler on the Roof” was on TV a couple of weeks ago. I suppose the last time I watched Fiddler all the way through was probably in 1975 when my sister played Hodel in the Gordon Bell High School musical production, and I was honestly surprised (!) at how good the Norman Jewison version was by comparison. Yes, Topol was actually a better Tevye than Gordon Bell’s Paul Bachin, whom I found so convincing at the time when he growled, “would it have been so terrible if I had been born with a SMALL FORTUNE?” 

Topol was great! As a died-in-the-wool Yiddishist, I thought I would be put off by the Israeli accent, but he totally made it work. Zero Mostel? Forgive me, but after Topol, I can’t even look at Mostel without seeing Bert Lahr in his place as the Cowardly Lion, standing up to the Russian Mob and mincing away: “Put em’ up, I dares ya! Put em up!”

More significantly, I thought I would be offended by Hollywood’s sanitized version of shtetl life, but instead I found a great deal of historical truth in the overall portrayal. I can quibble with the facts and details, but allowing for a reasonable amount of poetic license, almost nowhere did I find myself saying: “now that couldn’t have happened!” Quite the contrary.

And yet, through no fault of Hollywood, Fiddler leaves out one huge aspect of Jewish life that we ought to know something about. The problem is that Sholem Aleichem created a fictional character called Tevye the Milkman (Tuvia der Milchiger) who was “blessed” with five daughters and no sons. So Fiddler is written around the fascinating theme of how those daughters get married off; but it tells us nothing about what life was like for boys growing up. I know something of shtetl life from my extensive readings in the original Yiddish, especially thememoir of Falek Zolf which I translated into English some years ago. Zolf’s childhood was dominated by learning, first in the talmud-toyreh, then the kheder; eventually, at the ripe old age of eleven, when he had mastered everything the small-town melamed could teach him about Jewish Law, he was packed off to become a yeshiva-bokhur, first in Brisk and later in faraway Slobodka.

Zolf’s story is peppered with folkloric expressions that I could never have translated without extensive help from Rabbi Weizmann, who never turned me away when I showed up at his office in the Bnay Avraham with bundles of transcriptions that I was working through. The funny thing is that the questions I had were of a nature that any twelve-year old boy in Old Russia could have answered with ease. I thought maybe it would be fun if I listed some of them here for your enjoyment in the form of a little pop quiz on Jewish Law and Tradition. Here they are:

1.         What is the deal with the shor she-nagakh es ha-porah?

2.         What is the opposite of ha-yadayim yedey eysav?

3.         What is the controversy over the beytzah she-noldah be-yom tov?

4.         What is the difference between a shtut milguf  and a shtut milbar?

5.         What is the solution to the problem of shnayim ukhzin be-talis?

6.         Where would you apply the doctrine of kol dalim gavar?

And lastly, a bit of a trick question:

7.         Who was Baba Kama?

I’ll give you my answers (with commentary – it’s all about the commentary!) next week. If anyone wants to weigh in on these with their own perspective, you can email it to Bernie and he’ll forward it to me. Knock yourselves out…

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Jewish Lightning

They say the Eskimo has forty-three different words for “snow”. This may be an exaggeration, but it illustrates the point that a language will evolve to reflect the things that matter to a particular society. In this light, it is fitting that the Jews should have a special word to denote one who has lost his possessions in a fire: accordingly, from the Hebrew, we have in Yiddish the word nisraph.

A Nisraph is the title of a humorous piece by Sholom Aleichem. I have translated here a short excerpt:

 “I come from the village of Boslov. A nice little place. The kind of place where you show up with your pockets full and leave with your pockets empty. You know how they send people to Siberia when they want to punish them? Better they should save the trainfare and send them to us in Boslov instead. We'll know how to treat him. First we'll set him up in a little shop, then  we'll give him a line of credit so he can fill it up with merchandise, and then, when his shop burns down leaving him with nothing but the shirt on his back...we'll jump up and down and point our fingers at him, and shout: "Jewish Lightning! Jewish Lightning!"

Now, at some time in our lives, most of us have heard it said that Jews burn down their stores to collect the insurance money. We rightly consider this accusation to be just another vicious anti-Semitic slander. But if you’re like me, you probably thought that it was a New World invention; a sort of milder 20th-century adaptiation of the classic Blood Libel, a fable which might have played in Kiev or Odessa but would have been a little too medieval-sounding to attract much credibility in Chicago or New York. Nevertheless, it’s clear from the above passage that we carried this stigma with us even in the Old World.

So how does such an anti-semitic slur come to be the topic of  a satirical piece by Sholom Aleichem? To understand this, we must delve into the original Yiddish text. Now, "Jewish Lightning" is admittedly a very picturesque expression; but of course, that's not what Sholem Aleichem uses in the original. The expression he uses is so Jewish and so quintessentially Yiddish that it deserves a full explanation.

"Borei me-orei ha-eish" means, literally, "blessed be the kindling of the fire". It is from the prayer recited on Saturday night for the lighting of the Havdallah candles, marking the end of the Holy Sabbath and the return of the Gray Week. Now, the Bible is often praised for its poetry, but the fact is in the original Hebrew, the poetry consists almost entirely of the use of imagery and metaphor. Actual rhyming poetry, and especially rhymes combined with metrical rhythm, is so rare that one has to consider its occurence to be almost accidental. And yet those instances of accidental rhyme and rhythm are some of the most compelling lines from the Bible and from the prayer liturgy. "The mighty hand and outstretched arm: yad khazaka u-vizroa netuya." "Borei me-orei ha-eish" is certainly another such instance.

Furthermore, one can readily see how the magnificent roaring flame of the  triple-wicked Havdallah candle, so unlike the steady, modest glow of the ordinary Friday-night Sabbath candles, would have inspired in the imagination of the Jewish Merchant of Old Russia nothing so much as the image of a warehouse, chock full of merchandise and insured to the hilt, going up in flames. We are, after all, a poetic race if nothing else.

Which brings me to my final point: if we are allowed to think that as a race, we Jews are smarter than everyone else (don't deny it! you know we do!)...then aren't we ALSO allowed to admit the possibility of other, less praiseworthy tendencies? It's nothing to hide or be ashamed's just one more aspect of the complicated, intricate enigma that is who we are. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Here Lies Rover

One of my favorite Yiddish expressions deals with the elusive nature of truth. When you get past all the red herrings, dead end roads, excuses and denials, and finally get to the real reason, we say triumphantly: “Dâ liegt der hund begrâben”. This is where the dog lies buried. 

It’s a funny phrase if you think about it. And the strange thing is that you find the exact same expression in other languages. In Polish they say tu leży pies pogrzebany. The Russians also have it: вoт где сoбaкa зapыта! [vot gde sobaka zaryta!] In Hungarian, they say: Itt van a kutya elásva.And not surpringly the Germans say it too, with the exact same meaning as we have in Yiddish.

The interesting thing is how the expression seems to occur almost exclusively in countries where Jews lived and Yiddish was spoken. Even Israel has it: po kavur hakelev, an obvious calque from the Yiddish. Other that that, the phrase does not seem to travel far from the confines of Eastern and Central Europe. Oddly enough, there is a Swedish version, albeit with a different meaning: Det ligger en hund begraven här  is used when you think someone is trying to hide something but you can’t quite put your finger on it…like we would say in English, “I smell a rat”. The exact same thing is found in the Finnish siinä on koira haudattuna. But those are exceptions. No other nations seem to have latched onto this usage…not the Italians, not the Chinese, not even the French. For the most part, it seems to be an idiom co-territorial with the domain of Yiddish-speaking Jewry.

What is the source of this odd fascination with the burial location of dogs? One possible explanation comes from Middle High German, where we have the archaic word Hunde meaning “treasure”. Then the expression becomes “here is where the treasure lies buried”. Now that makes a little more sense. So why did treasure get replaced by dog

Here is where we can probably blame the Jews. The German language is replete with nouns ending with –e, almost all of which lose the final e  when taken into Yiddish: hause becomes haus (pr. hoyz), schule becomes shul, etc. In German, treasure and dog would have been different words, with only the former ending in e. In Yiddish, they would have been homonyms. 

A buried treasure might have made more sense, but a buried dog definitely made for a more colorful expression. It’s not hard to believe that the Poles, Russians and Hungarians would have adopted the Yiddish phrase into their own languages. What about the Germans? Undoubtedly the original phrase was theirs…what did our people know of pirates and buried treasures (Jewish pirate Jean Lafitte notwithstanding)? But if the word Hunde disappeared from the lexicon, most likely the expression lapsed as well, only to have been re-imported years later in its modified Jewish form.
And now you know where the dog lies buried.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Jewish Brainpower...Fact of Fiction?

CORRECTION: After the following article appeared in the Jewish Post last year, my father pointed out to me that it was Rabbi Hillel, not Akiva, who was asked to explain the Torah standing on one leg. Mea culpa.

*   *   *   *  *   *   *   * 

Why are the Jews so smart? I often hear people making the Darwinian argument these days: how centuries of persecution have forced us to live by our wits, putting a premium of brains over brawn. Furthermore, the force of natural selection is complemented in our culture by that of sexual selection: in the old country, the greatest yikhus which would recommend a bridegroom to a prospective bride was a history of rabbinical scholarship. Our people bred selectively for brains.

Those explanations ignore one important factor. Pride in Jewish brains has been part of our culture for thousands of years; in particular, it was in full flower even in the days of Alexander the Great. Since that era predates the codification of the Talmud and the consequent explosion of rabbinical scholarship following the destruction of the Second Temple, it is hard to explain why superior brainpower was already such a central fact of our self-image.

The Agoda is rife with tales of legendary Jewish genius, usually told at the expense of a prideful conqueror, whether Roman, Greek, or Babylonian. A small example is the legend of Rabbi Akiva who, when challenged by a Roman soldier to explain the entire Torah while standing on one foot, is said to have replied: “Do not unto others as you would not have them do unto you”.

Jews take conspicrous pride in this formulation of the Golden Rule for its logical superiority to the Christian version. For the sake of a more “positive” formulation, their “do unto others…” ends up being a rule that, if taken literally, no one could really follow in practise. Goyische köp.

But there is one more little-known aspect of this anecdote which truly illustrates the nature of Jewish Genius: the element of word play. “One leg” in Hebrew is regel akhas. (I’m using the Ashkenazi pronunciation here, which some argue is more authentic than the Modern Hebrew version. Rabbi Weizmann once told me that when Moyshe Rabbeynu came down off Mount Sinai carrying the tablets, he greeted his people with a broad, “Git Shabbes!” But I digress.)

Regel akhas means one leg in Hebrew. But regel is also Latin for “rule”. (Compare the word “regulation”.) So in explaining the entire Torah in regel akhas, Rabbi Akiva was actually doing it in one rule while simultaneously standing on one leg!

Now that’s pretty smart.