We were seated, full from a sumptuous meal, around a dinner table: My wife and I, a retired professor of Russian literature and his wife, several other guests and our hosts. Two of the guests were having a political argument. “Koyl mir di genz,” one of them said.
“What does that mean?” I asked. That is, I knew that the Yiddish words meant “Kill me the geese.” I just didn’t know what they had to do with the argument.
“It means ‘You’re exaggerating,’” said the professor of Russian literature, himself a native speaker of Yiddish.
“But I wasn’t exaggerating!” the arguer said. “I was saying — “
“Never mind what you were saying,” I interrupted. “Why does ‘Koyl mir di genz’ mean that?”
Apart from our hostess and a friend, who were carrying on a private conversation at the far end of the table, everyone was quiet. No one knew why “Koyl mir di genz” meant “You’re exaggerating.”
“Perhaps,” the professor of Russian literature said after giving the matter some thought, “it comes from a story by Isaac Babel.”
“The one in ‘Red Cavalry’?” I knew the story he had in mind. Its narrator, a Jewish law school graduate, has just been posted to the staff of a mounted Cossack division fighting for the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. He joins the unit in a little town near the Polish border, and, being an intellectual type with thick glasses, he sticks out like a sore thumb among the battle-hardened veterans. Worse yet, when he is shown to his sleeping quarters in a commandeered Jewish home, one of his new roommates contemptuously throws his trunk on the ground, spilling all its contents.
The narrator is in danger of becoming a mocked pariah. No one invites him to share in the pot of pork that the men are cooking for supper. He is hungry and desperate. “Landlady,” he says to the penniless Jewish woman whose home it is, “I’ve got to eat.” And then he sees his opportunity:
“A severe-looking goose was waddling about the yard, inoffensively preening its feathers. I overtook it and pressed it to the ground. Its head cracked beneath my boot, cracked and emptied itself. The white neck lay stretched out in the dung, the wings twitched.”
“‘Christ!’ I said, digging into the goose with my sword. ‘Go cook it for me, landlady.’”
Not only does the narrator make the wretched landlady cook the goose, but now he is also invited to share the pork, having demonstrated by his manliness that he is deserving of riding with the Cossacks. The other soldiers accept him, and the story ends: “We slept, all six of us, beneath a wooden roof that let in the stars, warming one another, our legs intermingled. I dreamed: and in my dreams saw women. But my heart, stained with bloodshed, grated and brimmed over.”
“So you think our Yiddish expression comes from there?” I asked the professor.
“It could be,” he said. “Killing that poor woman’s goose the way he did was certainly an exaggerated reaction.”
“But Babel’s story was written in the 1920s and in Russian,” I pointed out. “How likely is it to have been the source of ‘Koyl mir di genz’?”
Our hostess broke off her private conversation to ask, “Did you say ‘Koyl mir di genz’?”
“I did,” I said. “We were wondering where the expression comes from.”
“It must come from the old joke,” she said.
“What joke is that?” my wife asked.
“You never heard it? A poor Jew with only one goose in his yard has a Russian guest, and it’s getting close to dinnertime. Wanting to impress the guest as being a lavish host, the Jew turns to his wife and says, ‘Koyl mir di genz un brot zey,’ ‘Kill me the geeseand roast them.’ ‘Di genz?’ asks his wife, taking him aside. ‘Vifl genz hostu? How many geese do you have?’ ‘What do you mean, how many?’ the man whispers, not wanting to admit he has exaggerated. ‘Ikh hob eyn genz’ — ‘I have one geese.’”
None of us had ever heard this joke before. “So now we have two explanations,” I said.
“Maybe they’re one and the same,” the professor said.
“How is that?”
“Well,” he said, “if the Babel story didn’t inspire the Yiddish expression, the Yiddish expression could have inspired the Babel story. Babel, after all, knew Yiddish perfectly. Perhaps he wanted to write a story about a Jew who has to prove to some Cossack that he’s every bit as macho as they are. The expression ‘Koyl mir di genz,’ deriving from a Jewish joke, comes to mind, and Babel decides to have his character kill a goose.”
“That sounds logical to me,” I said.
“More roast beef, anyone?” our hostess asked.
We were stuffed.
“Kill me the cows,” the professor of Russian literature said.
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