Why Don’t People Use Yiddish Curses Properly, in English?
As often happens when a popular Yiddish-related article is making the rounds, I received multiple Facebook messages asking what I thought of Gersh Kuntzman’s article in the New York Daily News declaring “farkakt” the best word to describe 2016.
I wasn’t impressed.
Kuntzman’s article is a pretty typical example of what I, for lack of a better term, call “fake Yiddish parody” articles. They typically look something like this: a Jewish writer who does not speak Yiddish or have any particular insight into Yiddish culture picks a few Yiddish words that sound funny to him, uses them (mostly incorrectly) in otherwise English sentences in an article nominally tied to current events that has no actual purpose other than to poke fun at the language of his ancestors.
It’s a tired genre that as far as I know is unique to American Jews. (After all when have you ever seen a Latino or a Chinese-American writer making fun of the language of his forebears? Someone should write a PhD on the particular cultural circumstances and psychological quirks that lead American Jews to repeatedly write these articles. But I digress).
Besides the completely incorrect definitions of “farkakt” that reflect American English rather than Yiddish usage and perhaps merely the author’s imagination (why is it that writers citing Yiddish words so rarely chose to consult Yiddish dictionaries?!) Kuntzman’s piece completely misses everything that is actually interesting about Yiddish curses. Although his article does correctly use some Yiddish obscenities whose English equivalents could not appear in a newspaper, it does not contain any of the more sociologically interesting Yiddish curses that make them worthy of comment in the first place.
While traditional curses—inverted blessings wishing that something bad should befall the curser’s victim—largely fell out of use in English at some point after Shakespeare’s death and before Hemingway’s birth, they remained widespread in Yiddish well into the 20th century. When I studied Yiddish in Vilnius, Lithuania, for instance, I took a tour of the city with Fania Branstovsky, a graduate of the city’s prewar, secular Yiddish school system.
Fania told us that when she was in fourth or fifth grade her class was sent to a fish market to collect the elaborate curses that the women fishmongers used to yell at each other. Among them were such particularly vile gems as “may an umbrella open in your belly.”
Although it may seem strange or quixotic to send children on field trips to learn curses it was actually a serious exercise in collecting folklore. Among many things, Yiddish curses reveal not only how Jews lived but also their knowledge of biblical legends, what type of illnesses they feared, what forms of social relations they felt were taboo and how tragedies were both understood and mocked.
There are books and even formal academic studies documenting thousands of such Yiddish curses and their evolution. Such maledictions run the gamut from cute and facetious to downright vicious and obscene. Here are some great ones that aren’t too dirty, lewd or disturbing to be published.
1) May your bones be broken as often as the ten commandments.
2) May you either have to use the toilet every three minutes or every three months.
3) May I have the pleasure of sowing your funeral shroud.
4) May your son vomit out his mother’s milk.
5) May all your teeth fall out but one and may that one give you a toothache.
6) God should help you like cupping helps the dead.
7) May you be as healthy and tough as iron, so much so that you can’t bend over.
8) May your enemies sprain their ankles dancing on your grave.
9) May the only thing blessed about you be your troubles.
10) May you have the joys of Job and the successes of Pharaoh.
Despite my criticisms, Gersh Kuntzman’s article did provide one great service to me: it led me to the realization that the tragic events of 2016 were in many ways like a series of particularly twisted Yiddish curses. For starters, there are actually dozens of Yiddish curses wishing “bad years” upon their victims. Among them are “may an evil year befall you,” “may your year be covered in darkness” and “may your year be like a dark pit.”
Jordan Kutzik is the staff writer and social media coordinator for the Yiddish Forward. Follow him on Twitter @thrownpeas