The Backward is the Forward’s annual satirical Purim edition. Enjoy!
In Kohelet it says, “For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope; for a living dog is better than a dead lion.” Now quite why the writer of Kohelet wants to be joined to a living dog is a question for animal lovers and biblical exegetes, but maybe the author’s motivation has to do with the prophesied outcome of being chained to a mutt.
Here’s the payoff: “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God hath already accepted thy works.” Wine and goodwill sounds almost worth being leashed to Fido for life. But to explain the intertwined linguistic histories of grapes and friendship I must take you back to last summer, when I was sitting with a pal in the Rhine-Palatinate (literally the “palatial Rhineland”) region of Germany.
We were sipping a glass of sprightly Riesling near the ancient Jewish town of Worms, within spitting distance of the Rhine — a handy location, if, like me, you enjoy spitting in the Rhine. I was mulling a reference to a “bifid uvula” in Austin Ratner’s new novel. It’s a congenital disorder that is not life threatening, but it’s still a condition that’s hard to swallow.
It happens when the palatinate uvula (literally meaning the little grape that hangs from the “palate”), grows divided. The uvula, that pink appendage that dangles at the back of the soft palate above the back of the tongue, is — like a bagel in China — little understood and only occasionally seen. Some languages, including Hebrew and Judaeo-Spanish, but not Yiddish, use it to make the rolling “r” sound at the back of the throat. But for English-speakers it serves little purpose except as aesthetic counterpoint to the central groove of the tongue.
In his pronunciation there is none, but in the right mouth, Ratner’s own name might even be the recipient of a uvular trill. To trill or not to trill? No need to decide in advance, you can just play it by ear, or “shpiln loytn tsung” (to play it according to the tongue), as a medieval Worms dialect of Yiddish might have it. How the idiom slipped up to the ear, on its way into English, remains a mystery unless rumors of the mythical Moorish ear harp are substantiated.