Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Kockleffels and the Bridges to Memory

I've often said Yiddish Eastern Europe is the Jewish Atlantis. Somehow, back in the mists of time, it was the wellspring of a good portion of global Jewish culture. Today, its traces are everywhere: in language, in food, in custom. And yet, like Atlantis, Yiddish Eastern Europe was subsumed by disaster (man made in this case.) Swallowed up by the waves, Yiddishland is gone and, we tell ourselves, all that's left is a giant history shaped hole. How can one possibly know such a lack?

These latest examples appear in a personal essay recently published in The American Scholar. That many of these words are mistranslated, mistransliterated, Yinglish, German, and/or not even Yiddish words appears to be wholly besides the point.

We've conceded the unknowability, and inaccessibility of Yiddish Eastern Europe, thus leaving its interpretation wide open to charlatans and fraudsters. It's a sad fact that many of the people who pretend to speak authoritatively about Yiddish would be more at home in the pages of Fate magazine, holding forth on the latest 'scientific' proof of Atlantis.

Paradoxically, the field of academic Yiddish is flourishing and a new generation of farbrente Yiddishists is making long needed quantum leaps in advancing Yiddish pedagogy.

But there are few points of contact between Yiddishists and the majority of American Jews. While among Yiddishists the narrative about Yiddish may be growing and changing in exciting ways, for most American Jews, the narrative hasn't changed one bit in decades. The path to Yiddish is a rickety, slightly disreputable footbridge across the vast historical chasm between then and now. And the best we can expect from non-specialized, non-academic publications is yet another list of Yiddish words the author thinks s/he knows, strung along the familiar domestic recollections. These are the phrases that connect me to my past, these were the words of my mother, aren't they juicy, aren't they just so delightfully untranslatable? 

These latest examples appear in a personal essay recently published in The American Scholar. That many of these words are mistranslated, mistransliterated, Yinglish, German, and/or not even Yiddish words appears to be wholly besides the point.

schlemiel, schnook, schmo, schmegeggie, schlub, pischer, nebbish, putz, schnorrer, gonif,  fresser,  chazer, schtarker,  faygeleh...

And my favorite: kockleffel (קאקלעפל). A kokhleffel (קאכלעפל) is a cooking spoon. Colloquially it refers to a person who sticks their nose where it does not belong and takes pleasure in stirring things up. Kockleffel is not a Yiddish word, though if it were, it would mean shitspoon, which, I'll admit, would come in handy reading this kind of drek.

Phyllis Rose, the author of the piece, holds a doctorate from Harvard in English literature. She most certainly has the education and the resources to find out that nebbish is not a Yiddish word, but nebekh is.

I found this part especially interesting:
She [Rose's mother] had many expressions for sentimental trash, because that’s the kind of book she liked to read—before casting it aside as too sentimental, just a bubbe meise. I misheard that as “bubble meise,” and thinking that meise meant masterwork, I invented the definition “soap opera,” when the actual meaning was “old wives’ tale.”
Actually, "bubbe meise" has nothing to do with bubbe/bobe (grandmother). It comes to us all the way from the middle ages and refers to a Yiddish version of a chivalric romance, The Bovo Bukh. As Michael Wex writes in Born To Kvetch, a bobe mayse came to mean a cock and bull story, or an "unbelievable tale of knights and their deeds."

Further, the Yiddish connotation of bobe mayse actually has little in common with its common translation as 'old wives' tales.' An old wives' tale is saying that rubbing a frog on your finger will get rid of a wart or going out with a wet head will give you a cold. In fact, Rose's mother's derision of her sentimental novels as bobe mayses is the authentic Yiddish usage of the term, taking us all the way back to the literary origins of the phrase!

What is maddening is that an incredibly accomplished academic like Rose would not show the slightest interest in actually finding out what any of these terms mean. It's one thing to have a personal, sentimental dialect; it's another to turn that idiosyncratic language into fodder for a magazine with the word 'Scholar' in the title.

In the popular imagination, among ordinary civilians and even the most elite academics, Yiddish remains a rigid list of misheard, misapprehended words and expressions, with an emphasis on the vulgar and the 'colorful' (oh how I shudder to hear that word.)  As I said/ranted earlier today on Twitter:
If I had a friend who thought human circulation was the work of lymph gnomes, I wouldn't think it was cute, I would think it was sad. Ignorance about the deepest parts of oneself, one's history, family, language, migration, is a sad thing. American Jews, though, have no shame. It's as if they assume there is no possible way one could learn that it's lymph node, not lymph gnome. Or that bubbe meise doesn't mean old wives's tale.
But there is some hope. There are Jewish culture workers - talented, educated, generous- who have been working tirelessly for decades. They entertain and educate widely, not just to the circles of dedicated Yiddish lovers. One of those culture workers is Michael (Meyshke) Alpert. Today we learned that he had been named by the NEA as a National Heritage Fellow, an honor he well deserves. So, mazl tov, Meysh, and thank you.

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