When it comes to describing baffling human behavior, Yiddish excels, and perhaps the same is true for describing baffling government behavior. As Brexit descends into no-one-knows-what’s-happening mode, and as March 29th — or Brexit day — gets perilously closer, Twitter is lighting up with Yiddish explanations for British politics.
“The Yiddish word for “Brexit” is “Broygez”. You’re welcome.” tweeted Hindl, or @PaulaPownd.
Broygez, meaning an unbridgeable anger, or more precisely, a pouting and irreconcilable anger, is the Yiddish take on the Hebrew beh’rogez, literally “ in anger” [beh = in and rogez= anger] or as it is generally pronounced — brogez. (In Hebrew, oy is not as prominent.)
The Jewish-English Lexicon, moderated by Sarah Bunin Benor, notes the various spellings — brogez,broges,broigez,broyges,broygez,brauches — and defines the Yiddish broyges as ‘angry; a broken relationship, a quarrel’. The term, the lexicon reports, is used in both North America and Great Britain.
But despite the anger in the Yiddish broygez or the Hebrew brogez, I was charmed, as both broygez and oy seem to be entirely appropriate reactions to Brexit. So charmed that I decided to search for “Yiddish” and “Brexit” and discovered that, well, there is a long relationship there, with Yiddish speakers on both sides of the pond partaking in the feast.
One leader in Yiddish-Brexit takes is Professor Sir Cary Cooper, a Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School, who has a history of tweeting Yiddish proverbs — in translation. Here is a sampling:
‘If you lie on the ground you can’t fall’ a Yiddish proverb for all politicians not brave enough to vote with their conscience on a PeoplesVote on Brexit.
Previously, Cooper tweeted the very pithy: “Half truth = whole lie” Yiddish proverb relevant to pro-Brexit claims.
And in July 2017, Cooper tweeted what now seems prophetic, for Brexit and for much else in global politics: the Yiddish proverb “If it doesn’t get better, it gets worse:
Try saying it, and you’ll feel better. “As es vert nit besser, vert memaileh erger.” To be fair, it might be better translated as “if it doesn’t get better, it will definitely get worse” or “if it doesn’t get better, depend on it, it will get worse.”
And then there was my favorite, a tweet that somehow got zero attention in January, which manages to get Brexit and tuchis or as it is officially spelled, tukhes, (meaning behind, or, if you are British, arse) into one tweet, complete with a fantastic video clip:
Thanks to Brexit, I decided to look up the origin of the phrase ‘to have your cake and eat it too’… I think I prefer the Yiddish ‘you can’t dance at two weddings with one tuchis’!
Behind that tweet is a wonderful Ben Zimmer column in The New York Times, on the origins of the phrase “have your cake and eat it too”. Zimmer hunts down the first examples in English and finds that:
“The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs quotes a 1546 compendium by John Heywood, “Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?” In his Yale Book of Quotations, Fred Shapiro supplies a more typical phrasing from John Davies in 1611: “A man cannot eat his cake and haue it stil.”
It turns out that there are Russian, German, and yes — Yiddish — equivalents, though Yiddish is probably the feistiest, considering the tuchis (okay, officially tukhes) element in the saying me ken nisht tantsn mit eyn tukhes oyf tsvey khasenes, meaning that you can’t dance at two weddings with one behind. There is also, strangely enough, a connection between that wedding-dance tweet and the word broygez. as the Jewish English Lexicon notes:
A broygez tantz (broyges tants / broiges tants / broygez tanz) is a klezmer song and a wedding dance (dance of anger and reconciliation) traditionally performed by the groom, his father, and his father-in-law. Among German-American Jews: “brauches.”
But maybe Americans shouldn’t laugh too hard at the British “cake” proverb coming to life — or at the fact that Yiddish offers a helpful phrase for a dance of anger and reconciliation. Looking at this week’s pictorial evidence of President Trump’s fast-food spread, under chandeliers at the White House, as the government shut-down dragged on, we might speculate that the contemporary American equivalent of the British “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” and the Yiddish wedding-and-*tukhes proverb is: “you can’t have your hamburger hot and eat it too.”
Sure, President Trump assured Americans that he paid for the burgers.
But we’re the ones really paying — and the price rises daily, with various economists warning that the Federal shutdown may tip the economy into recession. As Yiddish reminds us, if it doesn’t get better, it gets worse.
Perhaps the best we can hope for is a broyges tants in the months ahead.
Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of The Grammar of God (Spiegel & Grau). Follow her on Twitter @AviyaKushner
A Very Yiddish Way To Respond To Brexit