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A Broken Pot: kheres ha-nishbar
For as long as I can remember, there has been a hype over the revival of Yiddish. Yiddish programs are being touted in universities all over North America and as far away as Tokyo, Japan. Naturally, “conversational Yiddish” is all the rage, as though the goal is to be able ask a girl to a movie in Yiddish, or to take her to a nice restaurant and order a shrimp cocktail.
That’s not what Yiddish is to me. For me, it’s a window into our past: a means to learn about who we are and where we came from. I don’t think you can begin to appreciate these things until you know an awful lot about the Yiddish language. And you can’t begin to understand the true nature of Yiddish without first knowing German.
That’s right: German. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. But unless you appreciate its German yichus, then isn’t Yiddish just a bunch of funny words that are different from English? What makes Yiddish so special, so characteristically ours, is the way our people took the German language and adapted it to their unique civilization. By learning Yiddish, we remember and respect that civilization in a way that we can’t duplicate by building a hundred Holocaust museums. Conversely, by abandoning Yiddish…well, you know what I’m thinking.
But that’s not what I want to talk about today. I want to give you a little glimpse into that world, a form of time travel if you like, made possible via the miracle of the Yiddish Language. The short excerpt I’m going to give you is taken from the six-part collection Yiddische Neshumos (Jewish Souls), by noted folklorist A. Litwin. Compiled in the years leading up to the First World War, it is apparent that even then, people had the sense that the old world was slipping away, and there was a desperate need to preserve its memory while there was still time. Today’s reading is actually taken from the pinkas (communal records) of the village of Karlitch, from the late 18th century. It seems that a Jewish woman has been called before the community elders for the crime of riding in a coach with a Gentile. It’s a fascinating glimpse into our long-ago world that I’m not going to translate for you, because it’s obvious to me that anyone who’s taken a semester or two of College German (as I did when I was a student)…and who’s also had the benefit of a few years of Hebrew education, which is readily available within our community…should be able to catch the gist of it without much difficulty. And just because it was more convenient (and less work) for you to take a course in Intro Psych or Modern Film or what have you, instead of actually buckling down and learning something real like a major world language with a hundred million speakers…well, forgive me, but right now I don’t feel like catering to your willful ignorance. (Although you’ll see that I’ve drawn attention to and translated the Hebrew words, which are overly represented here because it’s a formal account of a legal proceeding…just like our judges like to toss in the Latin. And if you’re game to give it a try, I’m just going to give you one piece of advice…don’t stop every time you see a word you don’t know. Go a little farther and see if you can’t work it out backwards from context. It’s really not so hard, and almost as much fun as doing a cryptoquote or a crossword puzzle.)
Consorting With A Christian
“Asõ wie die isha (woman) Basiah Bas Reb Yitzkhok-Eisik” - wert derzählt in pinkas, auf der zweiter seit vun’m blat 137 - (here Litvin identifies the page number from which he is quoting) "hât getân a maysseh nevoleh (an abomination): sie is gefâhren MK”K (?) Novogrodok mit an orel (an uncircumsied one), yemakh shemo (may his name be obliterated), ohn a shomer (guardian); a khutz dem (what’s more), hât sie begangen noch a sünd: hât auf-geöffent ihr bréiten maul (opened her big mouth – ed. note: I’m giving you that one ;^) un gesüdelt die führer vun kohol (community) auf an asiphah (meeting) in kohol-stübel; is vun uns, die unter-geschriebene führer vun kohol, araus der psak (verdict), as die isha Basiah soll sein in grõssen kherem (excommunication): m’soll ihr nischt rufen auf kéin sach, auch, die böse shoh (hour) soll nischt sein, zu mis-eyssok sein (take part in) sich a meyss mitzvah (preparation of a corpse for burial), un kéiner soll sich nischt derwägen mit ihr zu handlen, bis sie wet nischt über-beten die führer vun kohol un wet nischt nehmen auf sich mehr nischt zu tuen asa verbrach."
“Unter-geschrieben: shabas-zu-nacht, dem 6-ten Tamuz TK”M (1780)”
(Vier unter-schriften vun die kohols-leut)
Weiter a bissel zu-geschrieben etliche shuros (lines): "B’asher (whereas) die eyshes HN”L (ha-nizkor l’maaleh, “the aforementioned”) hât mesaken gewe’en (redressed) ihr fehler un hât auf sich genummen, sie soll asõnes mehr nischt tuen, derüber hâben mir, die aluphei ha-kohol (leaders of the community), beschlossen, as der kherem soll sein botul (nullified) k’kheres ha-nishbar, wie a zebrochen töppel." (Note: the expression is a play on words: the Hebrew kheres, a clay pot, is almost indistinguishable in printed form from the word kherem.)