Just Say 'Nu?': Old Age

A Monthly Column on Making Your Daily Life More Yiddish

By Michael Wex

Published April 16, 2008, issue of April 25, 2008.
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The idea that age alone is enough to make you important is fundamental to traditional Jewish life, and people are always wanting to know how old you are, especially if you’re unmarried.

VEE ALT ZENT EER?
How old are you?

is the standard “secular” way of asking a person’s age. If you’re dealing with much older people, you’ll usually say

VEE ALT IZ DER YEED, BIZ HINdert IN TSVONtsik?
How old is the Jew, may he live to be a hundred and twenty?

The yeed, of course, works only with men. You can use feter and meemeh, “uncle” and “aunt,” to get around this problem by asking, Vee alt zent eer, feter or Vee alt zent eer, meemeh? before you go on to add the bit about 120 years. Should you forget the age limit (which God sets as the maximum human lifespan in Genesis 6:3) or underestimate the traditionalism of the person to whom you’re talking, they’ll be sure to put it in for you:

IKH BIN ALT DRAY-IN-ZIbetsik, BIZ HINdert IN TSVONtsik YOOR
I’m seventy-three, may I live for a hundred and twenty years,

to which you respond with our old friend

KEneh HOreh/keNAIneh HOreh
No evil eye.

Alt can cover age in all its many meanings, from simple accumulation of years to utter decrepitude. In that sense, it isn’t much different from “old” in such English expressions as “six years old”—

ALter MAN
old man

ALteh FROY
old woman.

You can even use the adjective on its own:

MEIN ALter/ALteh
my old man/woman.

Mein alter/alteh is far warmer and more friendly than “ my old man” or “ my old lady” would be in English. It’s often used of relatively young people, and is really a way of blessing your spouse with a wish for long life.

Things are a little different with the diminutive, though. Without mein in front, ALtitshker and ALtitshkeh are closer to “little old man” and “little old lady” than to “senior citizen,” and are often used pejoratively to suggest feebleness, incapacity, or age-related shock.

NOKH HINderter HAYseh BLITSpostn,
After hundreds of hot e-mails,

HOBM MEER SOF-SOF OOPgeMAKHT ZAKH TSE TREFN
we finally arranged to meet

BEIM IKEA IN kefeTEERyeh.
in the Ikea cafeteria.

KIMT OYS AZ DER INterNETer CHARLES BOYER
It turns out that the Charles Boyer of the Internet

IZ GOOR AN ALtitshker IN VEIseh SHEEKH IN A haVAee HEMD.
is really a little old man in white shoes and a Hawaii shirt.

The Mishna classifies the degrees of old age slightly more systematically:

At sixty you’re ready for old age; at seventy for fullness of years; the tough ones get to eighty; at ninety you’re stooped over; a one-hundred-year-old is as dead as if he had passed away and ceased from the world (Ovos 5:21).

The connection of eighty with toughness is based on a statement in Psalm 90, which says in verse 10:

The years of our life are threescore and ten, or fourscore by reason of strength [GVEEres]; and their pride [i.e., all they have to boast about] is but toil and trouble; they soon pass and we fly away.

Note the built-in kvetch—what’s the point of staying alive if all the years bring is more TSOOres? It’s in biblical passages like this that we find the roots of the Yiddish outlook on life, and this verse has entered day-to-day Yiddish in the phrase EEber DEE GVEEres, “beyond the [boundary marked by] strength,” to refer to people in their eighties:

ER IZ SHOYN LANG EEber DEE GVEEres
He’s long past the gveeres

means that he won’t be seeing eighty again. A person who has passed the gveeres is what is known as a YOOshish, a very old person, one who’s reached a venerable old age, as in, “You’re how old?”

Yooshish is a highly respectable term, however. For all that Yiddish might be said to privilege age over youth, it’s still full of pejorative terms for the elderly that are often used by the elderly themselves:

BUbeh, VEE aZOY FEELstee ZAKH HEINT?
How are you feeling today, Granny?

Some likely answers:

ALT
Old

OY, IKH BIN AN ALter SHKRAB
I’m a worn-out old shoe.

Bubbies who wish that they felt well enough to call themselves worn-out shoes are likely to use a popular image borrowed from the High Holiday liturgy:

IKH BIN NISHT MER VEE A tseBRUKHener SHARBM
I’m nothing more than a piece of a broken old pot.

The best-known pejorative term for the aged, though, is used only about others. KAker (rhymes with “sucker”), literally someone who is making number two, is more commonly used to mean someone whose every activity turns to crap, the sort of person whom Yiddish also calls a loy-YOOTSlekh, “success-challenged” (sometimes punningly translated as “oy, useless”), because he can’t seem to bring anything to fruition. Alter kaker is often abbreviated to A.K. in English, as Ira Gershwin does in Of Thee I Sing:

They’re the A.K.’s who give the O.K.’s

One, two, three, four,

Five, six, seven, eight, nine,

Supreme Court judges—

The A.K. is an old man who sort of futzes along, dithering and doddering and always out of step. The kaker

DRAYT ZAKH VEE A FOORTS IN ROOSL
blunders around like a fart in the brine; has no idea where he’s going or what he’s doing there.

The phrase would be a staple of dramatic criticism, if such criticism were still being written in Yiddish. Roosl is broth, brine, or pickle (the liquid you use to turn a cucumber into a gherkin). Roosl-flaysh is Yiddish for “pot roast,” but more to the point here, lign in roosl means “to be in a pickle.”

Laurel: aVEE geFINen MEER ZAKH ITST, Ollie?
Where are we now, Ollie?

Hardy: MEER LIGN IN ROOSL, STANley, NUKH A MOOL IN ROOSL.
We’re in a pickle, Stanley, we’re in another pickle.

The fart doesn’t know what it’s doing in the brine, but its frantic activity is stirring up a lot of bubbles that the pickles don’t need.

Once an alter kaker is eeber dee gveeres, he is in serious danger of becoming OYver-BOOTL, senile. The term comes from the Mishnaic description of a one-hundred-year-old as being like someone who is dead, “passed away and ceased”—think of the English “past it” with a very similar meaning:

IKH ZAI VOOS DEE TIST DORTN—
I see what you’re doing over there—

‘KH BIN NOKH NISHT OYver-BOOTL
*I haven’t lost it yet *

Five Little Words That Will Get You Through Any Yiddish Conversation

Part II: TAKEH

TAkeh means “really, indeed,” and manages to find its way into all kinds of Yiddish sentences. Let’s imagine that Esther has just explained to her skeptical tattooist that she’d like to have kosher inked onto the knuckles of her right hand, traif onto those of her left.

Esther: DOOS VIL IKH TAkeh.
That’s really what I want.

Tattooist: TAkeh?
Really?

Esther: TAkeh.
Damn right.

Tattooist: EER ZENT TAkeh A KLIgeh.
You are really smart.

Takeh can be used as a question in response to almost any utterance, and can be answered in turn with another takeh, after which it’s best to revert to complete sentences (which can, however, include a takeh). Used judiciously by the beginner, takeh can help lull those around you into a belief that you’ve been following the conversation.

Adapted from “Just Say Nu,” by Michael Wex. Copyright (c) 2007 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.






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