Ada has been trying to give me politically correct Yiddish expressions. When I called her yesterday she was at Red Lobster with her 90+ year old posse of ladies who still lunch. Was it someone’s birthday? “No,” she told me, “just because.” But she didn’t want to put her ancestral heritage out there in the blog world in a bad light; “I know many more that are curses,” she said “but I don’t think they are nice for the iPad.” Sometimes Yiddish can be naughty. “Like what?” I had to ask.
Vaksn zolstu vi a tsibele mitn kop in dr’erd un dis fis aroyf!
May you grow like an onion with your head in the ground
and your feet in the air!
Cursing out other people has a long history from those three wise women visiting a princess at her birth to Shakespeare. Now he was a genius at it, and I imagine Queen Cleopatra was pretty savvy at downgrading her handmaidens. One of my favorites since moving South is, “Stick a fork in him, he’s done!” Usually this is said slyly from an older woman to a young girl who has been betrayed once too often. Likening one’s straying/playa/boyfriend to a turkey will always make me smile.
But Jewish history is such that cursing had to be done in a smart way. After all, you’d be hauled off to a gulag or worse if you said the wrong thing to the wrong Gentile. Maybe this is why Jewish comedians like John Stewart and Seinfeld are so popular. Centuries of practicing the elegant put-down has twisted their psyche into the rhetoric of rebellion. It’s almost like they can’t help but see the world through a funny lens. It’s a coping mechanism, we laugh so we don’t fall apart.
The hook to this particular saying is that at first, it sounds like a compliment. We start out like a soothsayer with “May you grow…,”and finish with a one-two punch. Much better than, “Go jump in a lake.” It’s prophecy of the malignant sort. If your native language wasn’t Yiddish in fact, you would probably not get it. You might even say, “Thanks.”
So next time that clerk is too busy talking to someone else to even look at you, or that red car with antlers on it almost pushes you off the road, or yet another political robocall arrives to your landline, just smile and think about the noble onion.
And if you’re baking holiday cookies today, may you have a glass of wine at your elbow next to the butter! From this little Jewish Leprechaun I could plotz!