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“To work like a Hebrew slave” would thus have been a perfectly natural expression for American blacks and one might have expected it to be found in their language already in the 19th century or earlier. And yet my friend Michal Sobel, a professor of history who specializes in 19th- and early 20th-century African-American culture, tells me that she has never run across it in her research.
The idiom, although certainly not Pollard’s invention, is apparently a recent one, and indeed, its only appearance that I have been able to find in a reference work is in the Internet’s A Dictionary of Prison Slang, which defines it as “a Black expression emphasizing forced labor in prison and the condition of captivity.”
Nevertheless, the origin of the expression in African-American religion, and most likely in church sermons, seems to me certain. The actual phrase “a Hebrew slave” occurs in the book of Exodus (it is there that the people of Israel is referred to for the last time as “Hebrews” rather than “Israelites”) and has undoubtedly been used by African-American preachers in our own times, too.
Whether, as an item in black American speech, it first started in prisons and spread to the outside world or vice versa, I can’t say; it will be interesting, in any case, to see if it now spreads still further to general American speech. Perhaps if it did, Larry Brown would have a point. While, as a Jew, I certainly don’t mind Bernard Pollard saying that he works like a Hebrew slave, I’m not sure I would have liked to hear the same thing from Steve Jobs.
And going from American football to American football, Dava Berkman sends me an article from the October 19 New York Times about the Scheck Hillel Community School Hurricanes, a Jewish high school football team in Miami Beach.
After describing at some length what it is like to play on a team that goes from davening to downfield passing in a morning, the article ends with the grandfather of the Hurricanes’ fullback declaring, after watching a game, “I was schlepping naches” (defined by the Times as “deriving pride or satisfaction”). And Ms. Berkman writes: “I always thought the term was ‘shepping nakhes.’”
Indeed, it is. The Times, which prides itself on its faultless English, should perhaps employ a part-time proofreader with some knowledge of Yiddish. One sheps nakhes and shleps the Sunday Times home from the newsstand. Vive la petite difference!
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