Oy, gevalt!


By Philologos

Published December 31, 2004, issue of December 31, 2004.
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William Lasser writes from the political science department of Clemson University to ask where the expression “Oy, gevalt!” comes from.

This is a reasonable question, because the literal meaning of the Yiddish word gevalt (or gevald, as it is sometimes spelled) does not explain the expression. “Oy, gevalt!” (or just plain “Gevalt!”) has the sense of “Oh, my God!” or “Good grief!” as uttered when something unfortunate has happened — when you have just discovered, say, that you have locked your car keys in the car, or when your dinner partner has spilled wine all over you. Yet the word gevalt in itself means “force” or “violence”; to do something mit gevalt is to do it violently. What does the one thing have to do with the other?

Another Yiddish expression with gevalt in it provides a clue. This is shrayen gevalt, “to scream gevalt,” which means to call for help, although it can also have the semi-humorous sense of English’s “to scream bloody murder.” (Gey shray gevalt, “Go scream gevalt,” is the Yiddish equivalent of “Tell it to the judge” or “Go do something about it.”) And indeed, just as “bloody murder” is a phrase that originally had nothing comic about it, so the exclamation “Gevalt!once had in Yiddish — and sometimes still has — a darker tonality. When uttered in a tone of genuine alarm, “Gevalt!” is, like “Help!” in English, a cry for rescue in serious situations, as when you are being attacked, your house is on fire, you are in danger of drowning, etc.

Gevalt!” in the sense of “Good grief!” derives, then, from “Gevalt!” in the sense of “Help, I’m in trouble!” But why should gevalt in the latter sense come from a word meaning force or violence?

The answer, I suspect, lies in the biblical phrase lits’ok (“to cry”) or likro (“to call”) h.amas, of which shrayen gevalt is the exact Yiddish translation. The Hebrew word h.amas (any resemblance to the terrorist organization of that name is purely serendipitous) means “violence,” just like gevalt, and it occurs many times in the Bible, as in the verse in Genesis describing the age before the Flood in which va-timalei ha-aretz h.amas, “the earth filled with violence.” Yet other biblical passages suggest that the word h.amas was also a call for help when confronted with violence or lawbreaking, as in Jeremiah’s Hamas ve-shod ekra (“I call out ‘Robbery!’ and ‘Violence!’”) or Job’s “Hen ets’ak h.amas ve-lo e’aneh (“Lo, I cry ‘Violence!’ and am not answered.”). The early 20th-century Yiddish Bible translation of Yehoash, the pen name of the poet Solomon Bloomgarten, rendered the latter verse as “Ot shray ikh gevalt un ver nit geentfert.”

Since Yehoash’s translation is a modern one, however, we can’t automatically assume that shrayen gevalt was traditionally the way European Jews translated the biblical lits’ok h.amas. Martin Luther’s 16th-century German translation of the same verse from Job doesn’t use the German word Gewald at all; rather, Luther uses Frevel, as in “Siehe, ob ich schon schreie ueber Frevel, so werde ich doch nicht erhoert.” In addition, what is noteworthy about this is that unlike Yehoash, Luther did not interpret “to cry h.amas” as meaning to shout the word “Violence!” but rather to complain about (ueber) the existence of violence — an understanding that is also reflected not only in the English King James Version, which translates the line as, “Behold, I cry out of wrong, but I am not heard,” but also in the second-century C.E. Aramaic translation of Onkelos that was studied by Jews regularly. How do we know, then, that this is not the way that East-European Jews, too, once understood Job’s words and that Yehoash was not applying a Yiddish idiom originally unconnected to the words?

We don’t for sure, but this does raise an interesting question. Although no complete Yiddish translation of the Bible ever was produced in Eastern Europe, there was both a printed Yiddish translation of the Five Books of Moses, known as the taytsh-khumesh, and an oral tradition of translating or “taytsh-ing” the entire Bible into Yiddish as an aid to studying its Hebrew text. Was this oral translation a standardized one used by rabbis and melamdim everywhere, or was it improvised by each teacher as he went along? I asked this question of David Roskies, a professor of Yiddish and Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and my answer was that standardization was indeed the rule. The oral tradition of taytsh-ing was “inviolate,” he wrote me, “and was passed down in Ashkenaz from time immemorial.” Moreover, Yehoash himself, Roskies observed, made much use of this tradition and “walked a fine line” between it and “modern Yiddish aesthetics.”

It is highly probable, then, that Yehoash chose shrayen gevalt because it was indeed the traditional taytsh-translation of lits’ok h.amas and that this old Yiddish expression originated as a calque of the biblical idiom. “H.amas!” shouted a biblical shepherd as he saw a thief make off with a sheep. “Gevalt!” cried a Jew in the shtetl when a stronger Jew grabbed him by the beard. “Oy, gevalt!” said William Lasser as his car door slammed shut with the keys inside. It’s all part of one long, nearly 3,000-year-old chain of meaning.

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

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