Michael Brown sends an interesting query from Toronto. “Can someone,” he asks, “have an epiphany in Yiddish? I have asked around, and no one has been able to provide a Yiddish word or even an expression that incorporates ‘epiphany’ and its social, spiritual and intellectual connotations.”
I should begin my answer to Brown’s question by pointing out that the English word “epiphany” goes back to two almost identical Greek nouns, epiphaneia and epiphania, both of which derive from the verb epiphaino, to shine forth or to appear. The first of these nouns, epiphaneia, had the general meaning in ancient Greek of “an appearance” and the more specific one of the appearance or manifestation of a god. We are familiar with it from Jewish history as the appellation of the Greek Seleucid king Anitiochus Epiphanes, “Antiochus the god made manifest,” who is, of course, none other than the wicked Antiochus of Chanukah against whom the Maccabees rebelled.
The second noun, epiphania, was a Christian form of epiphaneia that referred to the manifestation of the infant Jesus to the Magi or “kings” from the east, a story that is told in the Gospel of Matthew. “Epiphany” thus became the name of the festival, observed two weeks after Christmas, that commemorates this event.
In addition, in modern English “epiphany” has taken on a third, post-Christian meaning, given by the dictionary as, “A sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something; a comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization.” This is how the word is most commonly used today, as when William Safire, writing in the April 15 New York Times, spoke of the leaders of certain countries having had “an after-Saddam epiphany.”
And now, to return to Brown’s question. The dictionaries indeed do not give us a Yiddish word for “epiphany.” Can we think of one or more such words that would fit its three meanings?
The Christian holiday is the easiest. Although in Eastern Europe Yiddish speakers probably referred to Epiphany by one of its Slavic names, such as the Ukranian Vokhodreshchi, standard Yiddish could sensibly adopt the more easily decodable German name. This is Dreikoenigsfest or “Three Kings Feast,” easily Yiddishized as Draykenigskhage.
The pre- and post-Christian meanings of “epiphany” are a greater problem, even though Yiddish does have an expression that is similar to the Greek epiphaneia, namely, the Hebrew giluy shekhinah, literally, “a revealing of the Shekhinah.” The Shekhinah, in rabbinic and kabbalistic thought, is the indwelling Presence of God in the world, and a “revealing” of it is a glimpse of this Presence. The term occurs in the Haggada that we read last week — where, commenting on the Bible’s saying that God took Israel out of Egypt “with great awe,” the rabbis observe: “This means a revealing of the Shekhinah.”
And yet there is of course a significant difference between the monotheistic concept of giluy shekhinah and the polytheistic one of epiphaneia that keeps the two terms from being equivalent. Although it is an epiphaneia when the goddess Athena appears to Odysseus in a human form in Homer’s “Odysessy,” the rabbis of the Haggada would have been rightly shocked had anyone called it a giluy shekhinah. Neither, then, should we call it that. Ecumenicism has its limits.
Shall we look again to German for a solution? The English-German dictionaries tell us that an epiphany in the sense of a goettliche Erscheinung or “divine appearance” is an Epiphanie, which doesn’t seem very helpful. Still, there is no reason why
we can’t domesticate such an international word in Yiddish, too, and say epifanye. It’s no worse than perfectly good Yiddish words like televizye or demokratye.
I must admit, though, that there’s something unsatisfying about this. It’s always more rewarding to cope by using one’s own resources.
Let’s go back to giluy shekhinah. The Hebrew verb gilah, “to reveal,” gives us another noun, hitgalut, “a revelation,” which becomes the Yiddish hisgoles, with the stress on the middle syllable. This is not a common Yiddish word, since for “revelation” in its quotidian sense, as in a sentence like “The news of their getting married was a revelation,” Yiddish has the German-derived antplekung. Hisgoles, as is sometimes the case with Hebrew words in Yiddish, has traditionally been reserved for a religious context, as when chasidic legend speaks of the hisgoles of the Baal Shem Tov, the Baal Shem Tov’s revealing of the spiritual powers that were until then kept secret by him. For his disciples this was, in the modern sense of the word, a true epiphany.
Indeed hisgoles seems to have precisely the “social, spiritual, and intellectual connotations” of “epiphany” that Brown is looking for. It is not theologically or monotheistically restricted like giluy shekhinah, so that one can speak without qualms of the hisgoles of Athena to Odysseus, or, for that matter, of the hisgoles that one’s true vocation in life is to be a sculptor rather than a mechanical engineer, and it has just the right sense of sudden, wondrous insight. Can one have epiphanies in Yiddish? We’ve been having them as hisgoleses all along.