Where were we? Ah, yes, tomatoes. Last week, I put off writing a column about the Yiddish word for them, pomedorn, in order to write one about tfu, tfu, tfu instead. This week, I promised you that I’d get back to them. But man plans and God laughs, as we say in Yiddish. Checking my e-mail this morning before getting down to work, I found a message from the Forward. It was an illustrated announcement with a framed portrait of the old Yiddish Forward’s founder, Abraham Cahan (if any one of you has ever visited the Forward’s Manhattan offices, you’ll remember it hanging there), and the cartoon words “We’re moving!” coming from his mouth. Beside it was a notice informing me that the Forward was relocating on February 16 to a new address in lower Manhattan.
That set me to thinking: How would Abe Cahan have said “We’re moving” in Yiddish? The answer was obvious. Mir moofn!
You don’t believe me? Then take a look at the final chapter of Sholom Aleichem’s novel “Motl, Peisi the Cantor’s Son,” the last part of which takes place in New York. Specifically, take a look at the Yiddish edition of the book, because its last chapter was never finished and doesn’t appear in Hillel Halkin’s 2002 English translation. It’s titled “Mir Moofn,” and it begins, in Motl’s words:
“In America there’s a custom — m’mooft. That is, you get yourself from one apartment to another. From one business to another. Everyone has to moof. If you don’t feel like moofing, someone will make you moof. That is, when you can’t pay the ‘rent’ (that’s what it’s called here), someone gets hold of you and throws you out. That’s known as being aroysgemooft. It shouldn’t surprise you, then, if you’re always being asked: ‘When are you moofing?’ And when you’re asked, you’d better answer. Because he didn’t, my brother Eliyahu caught it from a kustomeh who comes to us for metchiz. That is, every week he gets a free box’l metchiz from our stend. In America, matches don’t cost money. You don’t even have to wait to be given them. You step right up and take them.”
You won’t, of course, find moofn in any Yiddish dictionary. Nor will you find kustomeh, metchiz or stend. (Although free matches are about as rare as free candy bars in the United States these days, those of you who are my age or older can vouch for their having continued to be widely available long after Sholom Aleichem’s day.) These are but a few of the thousands of English words that crept into the speech of Yiddish-speaking immigrants to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, engendering fierce arguments between the purists, who opposed the use of them, and the permissivists, who saw nothing wrong with them.
Cahan himself was a permissivist, and refused to bar such words from the Forward, so mir moofn would have been just fine with him. Sholom Aleichem, I’m sure, would never have used mir moofn in a serious context, in which he would have written mir trogn zikh ariber, but he delighted in the comic aspect of English
in immigrant Yiddish and took a socio-linguist’s interest in it — both as a first harbinger of American Jewish assimilation and as a tribute to Yiddish’s well-known knack for absorbing and nativizing foreign words, as in a past participle like aroysgemooft. He was well aware that the great majority of speakers in any language are interested primarily in communicating successfully, not in speaking “correctly,” as is the case with Motl’s mother, of whom Motl tells us:
“Half of what she says is in American by now. She just gets everything backwards. Instead of cooking a tshikn in the kitshn, she cooks the kitshn in a tshikn. But she laughs at herself along with everyone. ‘Abi ir veyst az bei mir a tshikn iz a kitshn un a kitshn iz a tshikn, vahts deh difrins?’ she asks.”
The reason that Mir Moofn was never finished is that on May 13, 1916, a few days after starting it, Sholom Aleichem died. Its first two sections (the second describes the kustomeh more fully) are the last words he ever put on paper. Although Sholom Aleichem wrote the incomplete chapter, according to his son-in-law Y.D. Berkovits, “in his characteristically fine and clear script, one could tell from his hand that his health was failing. The letters were a bit shaky and askew and not all the same, some being smaller and others larger, so that the writing was no longer in his usual fine, calligraphic style. Moreover, there are almost no signs in the manuscript of crossed out and overwritten lines, though it was Sholem Aleichem’s habit to rework and polish everything he wrote.”
Let us wish the Forward a good moof to its new office. And as for the tomatoes, there’s always another week.
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