Playing Telephone

On Language

By Philologos

Published June 26, 2008, issue of July 04, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


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!
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • 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.