The San Diego Union-Tribune
Sure, you can tell your enemies to "Drop dead!" But it's so much more delicious to use a Yiddish curse and say, "May your liver come out of your nostrils piece by piece," or "May you be like a lamp: hang by day, burn by night and be snuffed out in the morning."
Yiddish has a cornucopia of ways to wish your enemies stricken by the plague or hauled off by the Angel of Death, and hardly a one invokes unmentionable parts of the anatomy.
Nor are these colloquial imprecations -- the creations of Jews who lived in Eastern Europe -- meant to evoke horror in the person they're directed at. According to Guri, "In the same way as a (Yiddish) blessing does not create a new reality, neither does a curse; it has no magic power."
Instead, wit is the essence of the Yiddish curse, said Guri, author of the newly published Let's Hear Only Good News, a dictionary of Yiddish blessings and curses.
The great 19th-century Yiddish humorist Shalom Aleichem noted the passion for wit of the Jews of Kasrilevke, the fictitious Eastern European town that was the setting of his stories.
"They would walk a mile for a good joke," Guri said. "For a witticism, they'd give away their mother and father."
In fact, when Jews gathered, they would engage in one-upmanship in reciting colorful curses, Guri said. Small wonder, then, that they came up with a curse that sounds like a composite menu of several festive meals: "May you every day eat chopped liver with onions, herring, chicken soup with matzo balls, carp with horseradish, roast beef with tsimmes (a sweet side dish), pancakes, and tea with lemon -- and may you choke on every bite."
Aleichem was the first compiler of Yiddish curses, according to Guri.
At the age of one, he secretly wrote down the mutterings that poured from his stepmother's mouth and arranged them in a kind of catalog.
Thus, for example, under "writing" he listed "writing prescriptions," shorthand for: "May the only thing anyone ever writes you be a prescription."
Others have followed Aleichem in collecting Yiddish curses. Guri's book is one of a rapidly growing number of works on this theme and on a language many people believe is dead.
Guri, a professor emeritus of Slavic studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, acknowledges that he stands on the shoulders of earlier scholars, including the late Nahum Stutchkoff, compiler of the "Thesaurus of the Yiddish Language" and author of radio dramas that reflected life in New York tenements in the 1930s and 1940s.
But Guri's work is unique in alphabetizing the curses, organizing them by category and offering translations from the Yiddish to English, Russian and Hebrew. It is one of a series of dictionaries he has produced of Yiddish idiomatic expressions, the keys to a rich secular literature that includes translations of Balzac, Pushkin and Shakespeare.
Yiddish curses share some characteristics with curses in other languages. "Wishing illness and death on one's antagonist is common," but it is especially so in Yiddish and Dutch, said Reinhold Aman, a California-based philologist and longtime publisher of Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression.
But there are great differences, too. Some languages -- Japanese, for example -- pale in comparison to Yiddish when it comes to curses.
"People simply don't curse in Japanese," said Tsuguya Sasaki, a philologist in Kobe, Japan, who has studied and taught Yiddish.
"Ordinary native speakers of Japanese have less than a couple of fixed expressions at their disposal. ... I know only one, which I heard in my childhood," Sasaki said.
Curses in other languages differ from Yiddish in both content and style, according to Aman: Anglo-Saxon cultures prefer insults dealing with excrement and body parts, Catholic countries are partial to blasphemy, and cultures of the Middle and Far East go for ancestor insults, while Yiddish curses have a baroque splendor, as in, "May you own a hundred houses, and each house have 100 rooms, and each room have 100 beds -- and may cholera throw you from bed to bed to bed!"
Since Jews were steeped in the Old Testament and the Talmud, as well as other Jewish lore, these became ready sources for curses.
Guri's collection includes "May your bones be broken as often as the Ten Commandments" and "May you have Pharaoh's curses decorated with Job's boils."
But the Jewish society in which these curses developed was not as aggressive as it is now, said Guri, a soft-spoken, gentle soul who removed a mention of the Messiah from the cover of his book because he feared it would offend some people. "There are no proverbs about killing or guns, though these exist in other cultures," he said.
The Jews of Eastern Europe were aware of their physical weakness in relation to their generally hostile and threatening neighbors, and even joked about it, but they were certain of their intellectual superiority, Guri said. Perhaps that is what lies behind the clever curse, "May you be healthy and tough as iron, so much so that you cannot bend over."
Cursing violated Jewish ethics, especially when the malediction was directed at another Jew, Guri said. "But Jews had so many troubles, they needed catharsis, so they used euphemisms to get around the unwritten prohibition."
Thus, "May you have ritual-purification water (that is, for a corpse) poured over you" became a way of saying -- and not saying -- "Drop dead!"
Best of all, one could wish on one's enemy the greatest blessings -- and the total inability to enjoy them: "May you have the juiciest goose, but no teeth; the best wine, but no sense of taste; the most beautiful wife, but no virility."
Copyright © Esther Hecht 2004 / The San Diego Union-Tribune 2004
Esther Hecht is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem.
Ms. Hecht may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org