Playing Telephone

On Language

By Philologos

Published June 26, 2008, issue of July 04, 2008.
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You all know the children’s party game of “Telephone,” in which everyone sits in a circle and one child thinks of a word or phrase and quickly whispers it to the next child, who whispers it to the next child, and so on all around the circle — the idea being to see how many changes take place in it as each child struggles to make sense of what he or she has heard and to pass it on. Two recent e-mails from readers of this column demonstrate how “Telephone” is also played in real life.

Thus, Stephanie Aaron of Manhattan’s Lower East Side writes:

“In reading your column ‘Kettle’s On!’ I realized that the mystery of my mother’s telling ‘Don’t hock me to China’ was that it was a corruption of hak mir nisht a tshaynik!

“Here’s another mystery. Whenever my father (ohev shalom) was going somewhere and did not want to tells us where, he would say he was ‘going kava drinking in the buderang.’ We were told this meant ‘coffee drinking in the baths.’ Do you have any idea where this comes from?”

It comes, just like “Don’t hock me to China,” from Yiddish. Kave (from Polish kawa and Ukrainian kava, from Turkish kahve, from Arabic qawa) is Eastern European Yiddish for “coffee,” and “in the boderang,” although it may sound like an Australian aborigine phrase, is Yiddish in bod arayn —that is, “in the bathhouse.” But since coffee was not served in shtetl bathhouses, I would assume that bod refers here to a Central European spa like Bad Godesberg or Bad Gastein, where rich Jews went to “take the waters” and have a ritzy vacation, just as one goes to an exclusive resort today. Whether this was Ms. Aaron’s father’s own expression or one that circulated more widely, I don’t know, but it was obviously meant humorously or sarcastically. “Where am I going? To London to meet the queen” would be the time-honored English equivalent.

I also don’t know whether “in the boderang” is Ms. Aaron’s father’s version of in bod arayn or her own. The ohev shalom after her father’s name, though, is almost certainly her own. The Yiddish expression she is thinking of is olev ha-sholom, “May he rest in peace,” but she has replaced it with Hebrew ohev shalom, “lover of peace” — which, as in “Temple Ohev Shalom,” is a common name for a synagogue in America. It’s a typical “telephone” interpretation in which the mind seizes on the nearest-sounding word or phrase that it knows of in an attempt to make sense of what it thinks it has heard.

Similarly, Virginia Gross Levin of Broomall, Pa., writes:

“My mother had an expression that she used when she wanted to say that something was old hat. It was ‘from malach habeskis shtoten.

“In reading a book of Polish history, I came across a King Sobieski and suggested that he might be the ‘malach’ of her expression. Of course, she insisted that she had it right because that’s what her own mother always said. What do you say?”

Ms. Levin has guessed right. The Yiddish expression her mother remembered incorrectly is fun melekh Sobieskis tsaytn, “from the time of King Sobieski.” (A shtot in Yiddish is a city.) Jan III Sobieski ruled Poland from 1674 to 1696, a period that was remembered as a golden age by subsequent generations. Under his command, the Polish army helped turn back the Turks at the gates of Vienna (in the literature of bagelology, one finds the claim that the bagel, originally shaped like a stirrup in recognition of Jan’s prowess as a horseman, was invented in his honor by a Viennese baker), and his reign represented Poland’s last great period of power and prosperity before its 18th-century loss of independence and partition by Prussia, Austria and Russia.

Poland’s Jews, too, remembered Jan Sobieski fondly. He dealt with them fairly, abolished various restrictions and discriminatory taxes imposed on them, honored their rabbinical institutions and employed many of them in his service, including his personal physician, Boruch Menachem, and his finance minister, Jacob Becal. So notorious was his partiality for Jews that once, at a masked carnival ball, his wife appeared in Jewish costume to twit him. Apparently, he took it in better spirits than Ahasuerus took the behavior of Vashti.

Fun melekh Sobieskis tsaytn, “from King Sobieski’s times,” thus had the sense in the Yiddish of later ages of “from the good old days,” although it eventually also came to mean — as it did in garbled form for Ms. Levin’s mother — “as old as the hills.” To the best of my knowledge, it was an expression used largely or entirely by Polish Jews. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe there were other, similar idioms. Russian Jews, for instance, used to say fun ven Katerina iz nokh geven a meydl, “from back when [the Tsarina] Catharine [the Great, 1729-1796] was still a little girl.” What would happen if you played “Telephone” with that, God only knows.

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


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