Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Word of the Day: Kapuris

Speakers of any language tend to find certain words to be inexplicably colorful, and few Yiddish words are more evocative than kaporis, or as we Galicianers would say, kapuris.  Literally this word describes the ritual on Yom Kippur when a chicken is sacrificed for your sins; and I’ve never seen it myself, but I understand that done properly, the ceremony involves swinging the still-living chicken in the air over your head. Even in the old country, this must have seemed ridiculous, and so the word took on a sarcastic meaning which is illustrated by the following story:

A Jew is brought before a Russian judge charged with stealing a chicken. Since the Jew doesn’t speak Russian, he is accompanied by a translator. The Judge asks (in Russian): “Did you steal the chicken?” and the translator repeats the question in Yiddish.

The Jew answers with outrage: “Ich hâb geganvet a chicken?”

The translator in turn reports thusly: “I stole a chicken”.

The judge asks “Why did you steal the chicken?” which is duly translated. The Jew replies, with increasing irritation: “Ich hâb gedarft a chicken???”

Which is reported by the translator as: “I needed a chicken.”

The Judge wants to get to the bottom of this, so he asks, “Why did you need a chicken?”

The Jew loses his cool and shouts in anger “Ich hâb es gedarft auf kapuris!!!”. Which means that he needed it like a hole in the head.

But the translator reports to the judge the literal meaning: “I needed it for a religious ritual.”

Some younger readers might not fully appreciate just how outrageously funny this joke would have been in their grandparents day This is really a trilingual joke, with the judge’s questions being told in Russian and translator’s version being told in English, and the Jew’s mixing of the American “chicken” in his Yiddish responses being a humorous allusion to the way Yiddish was becoming Americanized in the New World.  “Only in America”, and only for a few brief decades, did we have an audience that could have fully appreciated theis marvellous interplay between all three languages. The punch line in its legal formalism is essentially English. It evokes incredibly sinister references of the blood libel accusations that were still fresh in our collective consciousness as a result of the Beyliss trial, which I wrote about last week. I heard my father tell this joke many years ago; he’s normally a very good joke-teller, but he broke down in uncontrollable laughter in when he tried to say “for a religious ritual”.

The word kapuris is funny to us, in my opinion, for one other reason: it is a ka- word. It seems to me that English speakers hear foreign words as being particularly colorful when they start with ka. From the Germans we have kaputt, which means….well, kaputt. From the Italian we have capisce, which is accompanied by all kinds of Mafia associations. The Japanese have it everywhere, with karate, karaoke, and kamikaze being words that are highly representative of certain aspects of their culture and which the English-speaking world has been quick to import.

I can’t leave off the story of ka-words without telling you about one that I learned from my Chinese wife, who belongs to an ethnic group from Southern China known variously as Teo-Chiu or Chiu-Chow. When two Chiu-Chow people meet abroad, they recognize each other as kakinang, which is a word essentially equivalent to our landsman, the Russian zemlyak, and the Italian paesano. The website of the Overseas Chiu-Chow Assoaciation is called It’s a very cool word.

But I digress. I’m going to close off with one more kapuris joke. This one takes place in a small town in Russia, where the governor had just died. Although he was a notorious anti-semite, the local officials came to the Jewish gravestone-maker who was known as the most skillful engraver in the gubernia. The commisioned him with the task of making the governor’s tombstone, and warned him that they expected his finest work.  The engraver was in a quandary: how was he to lavish his best efforts on an enemy of his people? After some thought, he set himself to work, and the tombstone was duly delivered and installed. At the unveiling, the crowd gasped with wonder at the moving inscription on the tombstone: 


But the engraver’s fellow Jews were dismayed. “We understand you had to do a good job, that you had no choice. But for such a soyneh-Yisroel did you have to create something so beautiful?”

The engraver smiled and waved them off while shaking his head. “Read it again in Yiddish”, he told them.

They looked again at the tombstone and one of them translated out loud: “A schöene, réine kapuris.” (A sheyne, reyne kapuris).

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