Thursday, September 19, 2019

Cursing Our Way to Good

I don’t know very much Yiddish except a few words like shayna punim of which my unbiased grandmother believed I exhibited, chutzpah of which I have in apparent abundance and of course tuchus of which I have one. Recently, I learned a few more phrases and although I still have not achieved sufficient linguistic mastery, I have become enchanted with the language of my forebears. Yiddish is an extraordinarily colorful language filled with many creative ways to curse.

Here are but a few:
All problems I have in my heart, should go to his head.
God should visit upon him the best of the Ten Plagues.
He should have a large store, and whatever people ask for he shouldn’t have, and what he does have shouldn’t be requested.
His luck should be as bright as a new moon.
Your stomach will rumble so badly, you will think it was a Purim noisemaker.
And of course the well-known: “Go take a dump in the ocean.” The Yiddish is actually even more unseemly, but I will leave that to your imagination. Clearly this phrase is akin to the less colorful English curse, “Go jump in a lake” and means, “Get lost.”

Still, I never understood why jumping in a lake, or the ocean for that matter, is a curse. I love the water. Perhaps our Yiddish forebears were not very good swimmers and they could imagine nothing worse than being lost in the immense ocean. Then again, it could be because the vastness of lakes and oceans renders the person insignificant. It is as if to say, “Get away from me. You mean nothing to me. You are as insignificant as a small speck in the vast ocean.”

Curses reveal so much about a culture. Take note of the understanding of Jewish tradition found in these Yiddish phrases. The empty night sky of a new moon reminds us that our tradition marks the holidays by the moon. The boisterous sounds of Purim celebrations must be embedded in the Jewish heart. Cursing elucidates a culture.

It reveals hidden secrets. Women, who were relegated to traditional roles in shtetl life, perhaps gained the last word. They said in effect, “Let all the worries I carry, whether or not, for example, our children and friends will have food this coming Shabbat find their way into the mind of that guy who studies and prays all day and night.”

This week the Torah confronts us with a litany of curses. If the people obey God’s commands they are promised blessings. These are succinct and to the point. If not, they are cursed:
May the Lord strike you with consumption, fever, and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew; they shall hound you until you perish. The skies above your head shall be copper and the earth under you iron. The Lord will make the rain of your land dust, and sand shall drop on you from the sky, until you are wiped out. (Deuteronomy 28)
The curses continue in inordinate detail, promising boil-scars, itches and hemorrhoids. The intention is clear. If the people do not follow God’s commands then they will be struck with what they most fear. Their crops will not thrive. They will rot as soon as they are planted. Their bodies will be plagued by disease. They will find no relief from their most bothersome symptoms. It hearkens to “God should visit upon him the best of the Ten Plagues.” Again the cursing is colorful and vivid. Little is left to the imagination.

Usually when chanting these verses the Torah reader does so in a quiet voice so as to deemphasize the curses. We say in effect, “Let us not say out loud what can befall us.” I wish instead to think about what all this color, and imagination, reveals. The Torah’s curses serve to accentuate the blessings. They are the dark contrast that reveal the promise.

Without such a bold, and imaginative, list we might remain unaware of the possibility to achieve good. Likewise, Yiddish provides a plethora of terms for underachievers. “He is such a schlemiel” comes to mind. Why? So as to remind us that failing to do good is but one slip up away. The line between success and failure is but one small curse away—and this is always within our reach. Doing good is our most important goal.

And then I remember that I know at least one more Yiddish word. And it is the crowning goal of the Yiddish language. It is what all these curses, as well as the many terms for underachievers, point towards. And that word is mensch. I long to hear my grandmother say, “You’re such a mensch.”

The great Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer once joked, “What a strange power there is in clothing.” But he also added: “Kindness, I’ve discovered, is everything in life.”

Be a good person. Be a mensch. The rest is commentary—and of course a measure of imagination and humor can help lead us there.

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