Curses Show Language’s Creativity

By Sarah Kricheff

Published March 24, 2006, issue of March 24, 2006.
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Lita Epstein does not have a dirty mouth. Her pen, however, is filthy. Epstein’s forthcoming book, “If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Say It in Yiddish” (Citadel Press), offers page after page of Yiddish insults and curses, some of which would make even the bawdiest of sailors blush.

The book, due in stores next month, does not include the obvious, crude expletives that one might hear on an elementary school playground. The majority of the Yiddish expressions included are respectful of the rabbinic law that prohibits loshn hore (literally “evil tongue”), the act of making slanderous or derogatory remarks against another person. The result of this observance is a bountiful volume of phrases that demonstrate the humor, linguistic agility and creativity of Yiddish culture.

“Jews were in a constant struggle to survive in the world,” Epstein told the Forward. “This was a way of making fun of each other without hurting each other.”

The bulk of the book is devoted to translations of Yiddish insults. Some of them seem extreme: Got zol gebn, er zol hobn altsding vos zayn harts glist, nor er zol zayn geleymt oyf ale ayvers un nit kenen rirn mit der tsun (God should bestow him with everything his heart desires, but he should be a quadriplegic and not be able to use his tongue). Others are simply bizarre: Zoln dir vaksn burekes fun pupik, in zolst pishn mit borsht (May a red beet grow out of your belly button, and may you pee borscht). A few are even poetic: Dyn mazel zol dir laychtn vee dee levone in sof (May your luck light your way for you like the waning moon at the end of the month).

The insults are loosely categorized by type and usage, organized in two large glossary sections and 12 chapters with such titles as “How To Hold a Grudge — Yiddish-Style,” “The Perfect Phrase for the Perfect Putz” and “The Ultimate Yiddish Curse — Drop Dead!” Some chapters open with hypothetical scenarios that might inspire certain insults, such as what a person who has just been fired from a job might wish on his former boss, or how to tell off an ex-boyfriend.

Epstein, who understands Yiddish but doesn’t consider herself fluent, spent some six months researching Yiddish curses. “No one has ever pulled this material together before,” Epstein said. “It was fun but difficult.”

The book, which is an easy read for individuals who have no previous knowledge of Yiddish culture, is not full of insults alone. Epstein gives a brief historical overview beginning with the origins of the Yiddish language, which was largely developed by Jews who escaped the First Crusade and settled in the region of Europe that is modern-day Germany. She touches on the evolution of Yiddish from its first flourishing during the Middle Ages to its decline after the Holocaust and revitalization in current times.

“I wanted to do more than just write a funny book,” Epstein said. “I wanted to give a history of the Yiddish language.”

Epstein’s commentary is sometimes rudimentary to the point of tediousness, and her writing style sometimes resembles a children’s grammar book, but despite the author’s occasional missteps, “If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Say It in Yiddish” will certainly provide entertainment for novices and fluent speakers alike. Between the laughs, it also serves as a good resource for anyone interested in learning basic information about Yiddish culture. One chapter of the book, which is devoted to the modern-day revival of Yiddish, includes the names and descriptions of key organizations — such as the National Yiddish Book Center, the Forward and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research — that are working to preserve Yiddish language and culture.

“There is so much you can see and do in every major city. I hope this book will help Jews who are somewhat disconnected from their synagogues or Jewish communities,” Epstein said. “It might bring them back to an understanding and love of the culture they came from.”

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