A Good Guy To Know

How To Know Who To Know

Training Men: Derazhnia train station, made famous by Sholom Aleichem in the story ‘The German,’ is where the yid vos kotory may have alighted.
WIKI COMMONS
Training Men: Derazhnia train station, made famous by Sholom Aleichem in the story ‘The German,’ is where the yid vos kotory may have alighted.

By Philologos

Published December 16, 2009, issue of December 25, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

What would you say about a lifeguard who took nearly two-and-a-half years to answer a cry for help? Well, that’s me. Rummaging through a drawer of my desk the other day, I found this letter from Carolyn Shapiro of Washington, D.C., dated July 2, 2007:

“Worthy Philologos,

“Help! Help! I am a member of a Yiddish reading circle at the Washington JCC. We were reading Sholom Aleichem’s ‘Kasrilevker Nisrofim’ [“The Kasrilevke Fire Victims”], a story about a great fire in a small shtetl. One chapter deals with a delegation of Kasrilevke notables who travel to a big city to solicit relief money. On the train is a local know-it-all who gives them detailed instructions about what to do, enumerating all the city’s rich Jews and the exact order in which to visit them. In introducing this Jew, the narrator tells us: ‘In a word, he was the sort of person whom we call a yid vos kotori.’ The English translator of the story did not translate these words and simply footnoted them as ‘an idiomatic expression in the original.’ Of all the Yiddish dictionaries we consulted, only Alexander Harkavy’s listed this expression, but also without a definition. Can you tell us what it means literally and to what it alludes?”

I hope Ms. Shapiro and her circle found someone to enlighten them long ago. Yet, even if they no longer need me to come to the rescue, their question, for which I did not immediately have an answer, made me curious. Here, after thinking it over, is my take on it.

Kotory is a protean Russian pronoun that can mean either “who,” “which” or “that,” as well as, in certain idioms, “what,” “some,” “many a” or “how many.” As such, it is not unlike the Yiddish pronouns vos and velkher, which have a similar range of meanings. (Harkavy’s version of the expression, a mentsh katory velkher, has velkher instead of vos.) Conversely, it is unlike “who” or “which” in English, where “who” can refer only to a person and “which” only to an animal, inanimate object or abstract concept.

But let’s get back to Sholom Aleichem’s big-city know-it-all. (The city in question is Kiev, called Yehupetz in “The Kasrilevke Fire Victims,” as it is elsewhere in Sholom Aleichem’s fiction.) Here are excerpts from the narrator’s description of him:

“He [is the type of man who] always knows, if you follow me, to whom and how to talk about what. And talk he will about anything you want, so that you might almost think there’s nothing in the world he doesn’t know and no one in the world he’s not acquainted with. It’s a pleasure to travel with such a person in the same train…. Although he may be meeting you for the first time, he’s ready to do anything for you. Do you need a ticket from the ticket booth? Help in repacking your bags? He’ll be only too pleased!

“For our Kasrilevke passengers, this yid vos katori was, one might say, an oasis in the desert…. ‘You’re traveling, my dear Jews,’ he told them like a true father, while smiling and stroking his beard, ‘you’re traveling on a most important matter — one might say, a holy matter. I wish you every success, and I’m sure that, God willing, you’ll have it. Why, I’m as sure of it as I’m sure that today is Tuesday all over the world! The main thing, you should know, is getting into and out of the right places.’”

In the end, the yid vos kotory gets the Kasrilevke Jews out of a place that is definitely not the right one. Arrested and put in jail for innocently walking past the doorman into the home of Yehupetz’s richest tycoon, whose name is on the list the yid vos kotory has given them, they are released and showered with gold coins when their acquaintance from the train makes a telephone call to the tycoon and sets matters straight. Not knowing of his intervention, the Kasrilevke Jews are convinced that they have been saved by a divine miracle, and with that — well, almost with that, but I don’t want to give away the ending completely — Sholom Aleichem’s story comes to a close.

So what, you ask, is a yid vos kotory, or alternately, a mentsh kotory velkher? If we were to attempt a literal translation, combining the two pronouns together, the Yiddish one and the Russian one (it doesn’t really matter which comes first), this would come out as “a Jew [or man] who-that-which-what-who-that-which-what.” A freer translation might be, “A Jew [or man] who knows the who, that, which and what of everything.”

The moral, for those of you who long ago despaired of getting answers from me to your letters or e-mails, is to take heart. You never know what desk drawer I may rummage through next.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.