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Blessings, Curses, and Other Expressions

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As psycho-ostensive expressions that are highly characteristic formulaic utterances in Yiddish, blessings and curses are typically inserted parenthetically into longer statements and purport to reflect the speaker’s emotional attitude to the topic of conversation. Yiddish psycho-ostensives, like those in other languages (e.g., Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Irish) fall into several categories according to the psychic stance of the speaker toward the good or evil that may befall either the person talking or others. The passive acceptance of good or evil may be called recognitive; the active attitude of seeking or desiring is petitive; while that of shunning or fearing is fugitive. This terminology, along with the Greek roots for “self” and “others” (auto- and allo-), and the Latin roots for “good” and “evil” (bono- and malo-), allows us to classify all the speech acts expressed by Yiddish psycho-ostensives.

Thanks and Congratulations: Bono-Recognition

To give thanks is to recognize that good has come to oneself (auto-bono-recognition). Yiddish expressions of this sort often take the form of blessing God’s name:

Ikh bin, borkhashem, gezunt, un di gesheftn geyen gut.

(I am, bless God, healthy, and business is good.)

To congratulate someone is to recognize that good has come to another (allo-bono-recognition):

Yankele, Got hot dir geholfn, zol zayn mit glik! Efsher voltst mir gekent layen a finef rubl?

(Yankele, God has been good to you, congratulations! [lit., May it be with luck.] Maybe you could lend me five rubles?)

Lamentation and Sympathy: Malo-Recognition

To lament one’s own fate is to recognize that evil has come to oneself (auto-malo-recognition):

Itst vet zi khasene hobn mit a frantsoyz, vey iz tsu mir!

(Now she’s going to marry a Frenchman. Woe is me!)

To express sympathy is to recognize that evil has come to another (allo-malo-recognition):

Er hot farlorn beyde hent in der milkhome, az okh un vey tsu im!

(He lost both his hands in the war, alas and alack to him!)

Often this sympathy is expressed by the Czech-derived malo-recognitive adverb nebekh:

Fregt der tate, nebekh a toyber, “A, vos iz gevorn?”

(Then the father asked—he was deaf, poor man—“Eh? What happened?”)

Bin ikh nebekh avek fun gvirs shtub on a nedove.

(So, unfortunate that I am, I left the rich man’s house without getting any charity.)

Fleeing Evil: Malo-Fugition

Yiddish malo-fugitive expressions reflect a variety of techniques for the avoiding of evil, either from oneself (auto-malo-fugition) or from others (allo-malo-fugition). Sometimes a formula is recited with the intention of banishing the evil from one’s consciousness (compare English, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”):

Zaynen oysgeshtorbn, nit far aykh gedakht, ale tsign in shtot.

(So every goat in town—may it be unthinkable in your case—died.)

Alternatively, protective magic words such as kholile (here translated conventionally as horrors!) may be pronounced:

Di mume hot ongehoybn moyre tsu hobn, tsi iz der bokher kholile nit baym zinen.

(The aunt began to be afraid that the young man might be—horrors!—out of his mind.)

God’s aid in avoiding evil may be invoked indirectly by a formula recited to reassure Him that we know that our fate is utterly in His hands:

Morgn, az me vet lebn, vel ikh geyn koyfn hinerfleysh oyf shabes.

(Tomorrow, if I live, I’ll go buy some chicken for the Sabbath.)

The general East European and Mediterranean preoccupation with the evil eye manifests itself in contexts in which one mentions someone’s good fortune. To say keyn aynore (no evil eye) is to protect oneself or others from the “demons of misfortune” who delight in turning human happiness into grief:

Hayntiks yor bin ikh gevorn, keyn eynore, akht un zibetsik yor alt.

(This year I became—no evil eye!—78 years old.)

Finally, the “scapegoat approach” may be resorted to, deflecting the evil intended for one person onto someone else. This sometimes takes a selfless, auto-malo-petitive turn:

Mir zol zayn far dayne beyndelekh!

(If only I could be the one to suffer instead of your little bones! [lit., may it be to me for your little bones!])

Blessings: Bono-Petition

Some Yiddish constructions express general attitudes of wishing, and are usable regardless of whether it is a good or evil that is desired. Other petititive psycho-ostensives are more specialized in function. One may wish for good things for oneself (auto-bono-petition):

Aza sheyne heym hot er, oyf mir gezogt gevorn!

(I wish I had such a beautiful home as he does! [lit., Such a beautiful home he has, of me it should be said!])

More altruistically, one may wish good things for others (allo-bono-petition). These locutions are more simply referred to as blessings. Blessing people is a fine art in Yiddish; infinite variations can be woven around the benefactive themes that are key desiderata in Jewish culture:

Zolstu derlebn tsu firn dayne kinder un kindskinder tsu der khupe!

(May you live to lead your children and children’s children to the wedding canopy!)

Zolstu hobn a sakh nakhes fun di eyniklekh!

(May you have a lot of satisfaction from your grandchildren!)

“Existential blessings” may be inserted parenthetically into sentences:

Shver, lebn zolt ir,haynt hobn mir yontev.

(Father-in-law, may you live, today is a holiday.)

From one point of view, the ritual blessings of God’s name that intervene at specified points in the recitation of Hebrew prayers also belong in this category:

Borukh ato adoyshem, borukh hu u-vorukh shemoy, eloykeynu melekh ho-oylom, malbish arumim.

(Blessed art Thou, O Lord—blessed be He and blessed be His name—our God, King of the Universe, who clothest the naked.)

We may call these theo-bono-petitives.

Sometimes, however, parenthetical blessings are more palliative than benedictive in function, serving to soften a reproach, or to take the sting out of one’s contradiction of another’s words, or to apologize for something unpleasant that must be said:

Oy, yankele, zolstu gezunt zayn, vos far a patshkeray hostu do gemakht!

(Oh, Yankele, may you be healthy, what a mess you’ve made here!)

Curses: Malo-Petition

At its simplest level, Yiddish verbal abuse takes the form of cusswords or epithets (zidlverter). These are unlimited in number, since the speaker has the whole arsenal of Germanic, Hebrew, and Slavic insults at his or her disposal, along with many original Yiddish inventions. More interesting than individual lexical items are ritualized curses (kloles): petitive expressions that call down death, misfortune, or disease, often specifying a particular body part to be affected. Taken at face value, such curses often appear virulent indeed:

Zol zi geshvoln vern vi a barg!

(May she swell up like a mountain!)

A kholerye zol im khapn!

(May the cholera seize him!)

A kholerye dir in di beyner, a make dir in boykh, a ruekh in dayn tatns tatn arayn!

(A cholera to your bones, a plague to your belly, a demon into your father’s father!)

Yet, needless to say, the malo-petitioner would usually be appalled if the dire eventuality actually came to pass. A klole is merely an overt linguistic manifestation of a (possibly momentary) psychic state of hostility, a way of letting off emotional steam. Besides, Yiddish curses are often delivered in an elegant, eloquent, or humorous way, which greatly mitigates their harshness:

A ziser toyt zol er hobn—a trok mit tsuker zol im iberforn!

(May he have a sweet death—run over by a sugar-truck!)

Zol im vaksn burikes in pupik, un zol er pishn mit borsht!

(May beets grow in his belly button, so he’ll piss out borscht!)

Yiddish curses are paradoxically the most appealing sort of psycho-ostensive expressions in that language, due to the freedom that speakers give to their imagination in this area.

Psycho-Ostensives Relating to the Dead

Expressions of this type reflect a variety of emotions that the living may feel for the dead: love, fear, hatred. Usually the mention of a dead person’s name is accompanied by a blessing (mortuo-bono-petitive):

Mayn feter Khayim-Yankl, olevasholem, flegt dos ale mol zogn.

(My uncle Chaim-Yankl, upon him peace, used to say that all the time.)

Sometimes, however, the visceral fear that the living feel for the dead finds expression in vivo-bono-petitive or vivo-malo-fugitive formulas, designed to ensure that the speaker and hearer will not be enticed to die before their time by the blandishments of the dead:

Azoy flegt es kokhn mayn shviger, undz tsu lengere yor.

(That’s how my mother-in-law used to cook it—longer years to us.)

Occasionally a dead person’s name is accompanied by a curse (mortuo-malo-petitive):

Dos iz geven di arbet fun Hitlern, yimakh shemoy.

(That was the work of Hitler, may his name be erased.)

Swearing Oaths

Oaths are complicated speech acts that may reflect several different psycho-ostensive stances: bono-petitive, auto-malo-petitive, or malo-fugitive:

Zoln mir beyde azoy lebn, vi ikh bin nit shuldik! (Bono-petitive)

(May we both live so long, I’m not guilty!)

Zol ikh azoy visn fun beyz, vi ikh farshtey epes in maslines. (Auto-malo-petitive)

(So may I know of evil, the way I understand anything about olives.)

Zol ikh nit visn fun beyz, vi ikh veys, vos iz gevorn fun ayer gelt. (Malo-fugitive)

(So may I not know of evil, the way I know what happened to your money. [I swear I don’t know what happened to it.])

Yiddish psycho-ostensives are usable on many different levels. Often they are to be taken at face value, as faithful representations of the speaker’s state of mind at the moment. Yet they may also be used by pure reflex action, with little genuine feeling at all. In extreme cases, they may be used cynically or hypocritically, as a mask for one’s true feelings. Yiddish speakers are well aware of the humorous possibilities inherent in the manipulation of psycho-ostensives for special effects, proving that their normal functions are well understood by all.

Suggested Reading

James A. Matisoff, Blessings, Curses, Hopes and Fears: Psycho-ostensive Expressions in Yiddish, 2nd ed. (Stanford, Calif., 2000); Immanuel Olsvanger, ed. and comp., Röyte pomerantsen: Jewish Folk Humor (New York, 1965); Deborah F. Tannen and Piyale Cömert Öztek, “Health to Our Mouths: Formulaic Expressions in Turkish and Greek,” in Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, vol. 3, ed. K. Whistler et al., pp. 516–534 (Berkeley, 1977).