Smut comes wrapped in brown paper. Which explains why the cover of Ilene Schneider’s Talk Dirty Yiddish (Adams Media, $7.95) resembles the kind of mail you don’t want your neighbors to see. A smudged postal stamp warns: “Beyond Drek: The curses, slang, and street lingo you need to know when you speak Yiddish.”
Having grown up in a household where Yiddish was the language of secrets and raucous punch lines not meant for little ears, I grew up wondering what the hell my parents and grandparents were jabbering about. Sure, I knew the terms that were bantered about on TV sitcoms. Shmooze. Shlepper. Shmata. But I had no idea what my mother was actually saying when she cursed out some poor mumser who had cut her off in traffic or overcharged her at the deli. Now, thanks to Talk Dirty Yiddish, I know. My sweet, docile mother was wishing plagues, cholera, and venereal diseases, no less, on those who had wronged her. And on appropriate occasions, she was telling my sister and me to “gai in drerd arein.” In other words, Go to hell!
Now that all the Yiddish speakers in my family are gone, I find Schneider’s book to be an informative, entertaining and at times hilarious guide to the “dead” language that has seeped into our modern culture. Anyone who owns a television knows what a shmuck is, although they might not be able to identify the part of the male anatomy that it describes. In a chapter on body language, Talk Dirty Yiddish bares all. (If you don’t know your dorten from your bristen, this book is for you). While Saturday Night Live has made fahrklempt a household word, Schneider delivers the fine points between fahrmished, fahrmutshet and fahrpatshket. Which, quite frankly, is enough to make me fahrblonget. My favorite section is the one on curses, which displays the more colorful, imaginative aspects of Yiddish. Why tell people to merely drop dead when you can implore them to be transformed into a chandelier—hang by day and burn by night?
Although it contains adult language, this isn’t the kind of book to hide under your mattress. It belongs in plain sight, on a coffee table or maybe in the guest bathroom, where your friends will be intrigued to discover what their parents were really saying. In addition to chapters dedicated to curses, sex, and insults, Schneider devotes a section to words that have crossed over into everyday English, as well as to terms relating to the strongest of all Jewish desires: food. You may know what a shmear is, but how about forshpeis or geshmakt? Originally published in 2008, Talk Dirty Yiddish is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.
Who would write such a dirty book? A rabbi, of course. Ilene Schneider (left) was one of the first six women rabbis in the United States to be ordained in 1976. She currently serves as Coordinator of Jewish Hospice Services at Samaritan Hospice in Marlton, NJ. Schneider is also the author of Chanukah Guilt, the first in a series of humorous mysteries about the misadventures of Aviva Cohen, a female rabbi living in Jersey. Such chutzpah. The mysteries are worth a look, and so is Schneider’s blog, named after her wisecracking rabbi-sleuth.
The baby rabbi, a young man of 26 — fresh from seminary, the most junior of the four in our vast congregation — delivered the sermon on Rosh Hashanah morning. At first, he spoke of creation and destruction, judgment and mercy as the messages of the festival. This day, he said, we are created anew through an act of God’s mercy. I connected with none of it, and in a sanctuary filled with nearly 2,000 people, I wondered who was listening and who, like me, was waiting for lunch.
I suspect that, many Jews, like me, don’t spend a lot of time thinking about God except when we are in the proverbial foxhole. When I try to imagine God or to pray, I lose focus, and even get a little embarrassed over whether I am doing it right. I recite the incantatory words of prayer I have memorized, but I don’t understand them. It is hardly ever a moving experience.
But then, right there on the morning of the birthday of the world, the baby rabbi invited us to pray, really pray. This old soul, the age of my younger son, ignited the electrical system in my body with these words: “Prayer is the act of faith that opens us up to communication with a power we do not begin to understand. A stable belief in God is not a prerequisite for prayer; it is the result of prayer.” Or, as I took it to mean, one does not need to be certain that God exists in order to pray. It is fine not to understand. All one needs is the willingness to open up to the possibility. Belief might follow.
He went on to speak of prayer as a conversation with God — not through words, but through the tingle in your spine when you allow that the universe is bigger than you and that there might be an intangible force that bears on everyday life. The source is likely to remain a mystery, but being willing to engage with the mystery is a beginning.
I have been longing for such a conversation all my life, without believing it was possible. It is a tenet of faith for born-again Christians and religionists worldwide, but I have hardly experienced it. There have been moments: when my newborn grandson first folded his tiny fist over my finger; on a starry night that defies reason; and in that moment, just before sleep, when I feel a loosening of my body from my spirit as I descend into something I cannot name.
My life has been about holding tight to what is before my eyes, trying to get it all under control, banishing mystery and uncertainty. My lists grew their own lists, I alphabetized my spices, and I had emergency supplies in my car to last me a week. I knew what I weighed every day, and I ordered the bills in my wallet by denomination, I avoided chaos and mystery fiercely.
In recent years, however, I have made changes in my life: leaving a career, reaching deep in and pulling out the stalled writer inside me, paring down less-than-satisfactory ways of spending my time and choosing better ones, even if that means being alone. I am never bored when I have nothing to do.
Until I heard this sermon, it had not occurred to me that spirituality might be another way to practice letting go. Taking a leap across my lifelong resistance to such a notion could be a thrilling journey, perhaps the biggest risk-taking expedition of my life.
As this Yom Kippur approaches, I sense I am ready for surrender in a way I have never been before. I don’t want to control, I want to submit. Most mornings, these days, my first waking act is to sigh in gratitude to someone, to something, because my sleeping husband has lived to breathe another day. Maybe I have already begun to pray. To have a relationship with a greater power, to talk with God, is an aspiration for me this new year.
L’shanah tovah. May 5770 be a good and sweet year.
(Up top: The ritual blowing of the shofar for the New Year, on the Lower East Side. Photo: Jefferson Siegel)