Oy, gevalt!

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published December 31, 2004, issue of December 31, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • 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.