The Potty Chair in Heaven

Back when I was still working as a manager, several of my employees who had Spanish surnames and identified with Hispanic culture explained to me that they don’t speak Spanish because their parents never taught them the language.  Wanting their children to succeed in school and in the Anglo culture, their parents abandoned their native tongue and spoke only English at home.  These children grew into adults and regretted having lost a part of their heritage.

One of my employees made an effort to learn Spanish once she began working, but admitted that she’ll never speak the language anywhere near as fluently as she would have had she learned it as a child.  I had other employees who married spouses whose first language was Spanish and learned to speak the mother tongue that way.  Still others were never able to pick up more than a few rudimentary Spanish phrases.  At least one conveyed to me that she feels cheated.

I’m starting to feel the same way about Yiddish.

Granted, I’m one generation removed from where my Hispanic employees were.  My mother’s parents, who emigrated to New York City from eastern Europe in the 1920s, spoke fluent Yiddish, along with German, Polish and some Russian.  They studied English in night school preliminary to taking and passing their citizenship exams.  Once my mom and her sister were born, they spoke only English at home for the same reason that my employees’ Mexican immigrant parents did so.  They wanted their children to become good, successful Americans.

Late at night, after the children went to bed, things were different, however.  My mother would hear her parents having lengthy conversations, even arguments, in Yiddish and Polish.  She remembers my grandmother waking up in the middle of the night and saying something in Polish that sounded like “jestche shitago” (“the baby is crying”) and wondering why she was talking about Chicago.

My father is even one more generation removed from the Old Country.  His parents were born in the Bronx, and he never heard his parents speak any language other than English.

Although my mother’s parents mostly stuck to English when the kids were around, their conversation was peppered with the Yiddish words for those things that they either did not know how to translate to English or that had no exact English equivalent.  I picked up a tiny fraction of these Yiddish words and phrases from my mother as I was growing up.  While I can’t speak Yiddish, I’m grateful that at a least a few of those phrases stuck with me over the years.

Here in northern California, Yiddish is probably more exotic than Afrikaans or Esperanto.  In my native New York City, however, a handful of Yiddish phrases (or English-Yiddish hybrid words sometimes called “yinglish”) have made their way into common parlance.  Some of these eventually became known throughout the country via TV shows such as Seinfeld.  For example, most people in New York (and many more elsewhere) know that tokhes is a Yiddish word for your rear end.

When I was a kid, I would sometimes ask my mother to teach me some Yiddish.  She would comply by explaining the meaning of a few phrases, most of which I would promptly forget.  So it makes no sense to me that I should still remember kick der finster (“look out the window”).  Then there was the time that the entire family broke out in paroxysms of laughter at my attempt to say the word “moon” in Yiddish.  From my religious school education, I was familiar with levana, the Hebrew word for moon, which is often used in Yiddish as well.  Most commonly, however, the phrase telereh in himmel (literally “the plate in the heavens”) is used for “moon” in Yiddish.  Unfortunately, whenever I tried to pronounce this, it came out as tepeleh in himmel, or “the potty chair in heaven.”  I still crack up at the thought of shitting in outer space.

Today, my speech is mostly free of Yiddishisms.  What I’ve noticed, however, is that when I’m under a lot of stress, and particularly when I am visiting with my parents, my flat California accent devolves into Brooklynese and the Yiddish phrases come to my tongue unbidden.  Then there are other times when, from somewhere deep in my subconscious, things that I don’t expect come out of my mouth.  My favorite example of this occurred years ago when I was attending law school and renting a room with kitchen privileges from a woman who had probably never seen a Jew before.  Being a poor student, I was attempting to learn to cook by trial and error, and one day I asked my poor landlord if she had a ribayzin.  She stared at me as if I had lost my mind, and it took me a couple of seconds to realize that I spoken the Yiddish word that I had always used to refer to a hand grater.

My wife, a native of northern California and a Christian, didn’t know a word of Yiddish when we were first married.  Over time, she picked up quite a bit from me, causing me to understand that I still use more than a few Yiddish words that somehow sneak into my vocabulary when I’m not paying attention.  Not only does she know what I mean when I mention a ribayzin, but she herself often refers to schmutz (dirt).

When I get on the phone with my mother, however, all bets are off.  I catch myself referring to situations as fafaln (hopeless) or bashert (fated to be) and garments as being oesgevoxen (outgrown) or oesgekrokhen (the colorful Yiddish word for “threadbare” that literally means “crawled out,” as if the missing fibers had grown little legs and crawled away).  I may refer to a bad joke as schmaltz (the Yiddish idiom for “corny” that literally means “chicken fat”) or my grandniece as a shayna maydele (pretty girl).  If I’m having a pity party due to my current unsuccessful job search, I may intone oy vay is mir (“oh woe is me”).  If I’m upset with someone, I may suggest that he or she is in serious need of a zetz in kopf (smack upside the head).  I may refer to my unemployment check as a lokh foon a baygel (“nothing” — literally “the hole from a bagel”) or bupkes (“a hill of beans” — literally “tiny pieces of shit”).  And if I’m attempting to refer to someone as a senior citizen (not my parents, mind you), I’ll probably call him or her an alter kocker (“old fart”).

Make no mistake, Yiddish contains many earthy, raw, base, even obscene phrases, just as every language does.  Unfortunately, more than a few of these have become fairly well-known.  And let me tell you, some of these are fighting words.  For example, I hear that my mother and my sister recently had a screaming argument over the phone regarding the names of their respective cats.  (Sadly, I’m not kidding.)  My sister claims that my mother’s cat’s name is actually the Yiddish idiom for a certain male body part while my mother claims that my sister’s cat’s name is actually an anti-Semitic ethnic slur for “Jews.”

I try to stay as far away as possible from this kind of stuff.  If I need to get off the phone because it’s late, I might suggest that my mother gay schlufen (“go to sleep”).  But I won’t cast aspersions on anyone’s punim (face), nor will I refer to anyone as a meeskite (ugly) or a mamzer (bastard). 

And I most certainly will not tell anyone to gay in dred (“go to hell”).  I still remember the time, over thirty years ago, when my parents had a three-day fight after my father used that one on my mother.

10 thoughts on “The Potty Chair in Heaven

  1. My husband had the same thing happen to him about speaking French. In Canada we have two official languages. It turns out his knowledge of French came in handy anyway.

    • What part of Canada are you located in? I know that although Quebec is the only French-speaking province, there are many francophones throughout the country. I even hear that there are new French-speaking settlements in the north of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. I wish I lived and worked in Canada parce que je parle francais! 🙂

      • Tres bien! We are in Mississauga, near Toronto, Ontario. My husband comes from Cape Briton, Nova Scotia and he is part Acadian. The French he speaks is more old French French, unlike the Quebecois.

  2. This post was awesome! I live in new york, so I hear a lot of random people throwing yiddish words around. When I was a kid i always thought these were just silly words my father made up. I was shocked to discover there was a whole language involved.

    • Thanks so much for your kind comment, Rachel! I love reading about Cricket and Butterfly, by the way. Yiddish is so much more than a language; it rises to the level of a culture. I still remember being six years old and sitting in the park in the Bronx with my grandfather while he read The Daily Forwards in Yiddish and I tried to pick out words based on the Hebrew I was learning in yeshiva. Yiddishisms were peppered throughout the conversations of everyone I knew back then. I do miss the cadence of New York speech. I wish I could get back there but I’m afraid I’m stuck in California for good now.

      • I read through Yiddish for Dummies a few years ago, just to see whether the words I remembered were real (and they were!). But I also realized that I would have to put in a lot of work to actually learn the language, and all I really wanted to use were the swear words.

  3. Rachel, the interesting thing is that the swear words (and other put-downs) constitute most of the words that have been incorporated from Yiddish into English over the years. Case in point: Most non-Jews (and many Jews) don’t know the words mishpakha (meaning “family” and actually adopted from Hebrew) or makhatenisteh (“mother-in-law”). But who doesn’t know tokhes, schmuck, kishkes, schtup and putz? Moving from the anatomical to the fine art of the Yiddish put-down, most of us (at least in New York) are familiar with nudnik, dumkopf and meshugge. Among my personal favorites are bavan (a rude, coarse person — in current vernacular, the closest word is probably something like “dickhead”) and schpilkes or vantz in hoysen, both of which mean the same thing — he has ants in his pants! (Technically, a vantz is a bedbug, but I could go on about this all night…)

  4. I dated a man whose father had owned a number of Kosher restaurants in New York. This guy had quite a story (don’t they all?) – but if I’d wondered about the veracity of his past, I also worked with several ladies who were familiar with the restaurant and one of whom had even had her wedding reception there. But anyway, Bernard used to make it his mission to take this goyim (me) and try and teach me Yiddish, going so far as to call me every day at work with the Yiddish word of the day. I don’t think I can remember hardly any of them, but at one point he referred to himself as a “meshugganah mamzer” (sp?) which I understand to mean crazy bastard. Her certainly was. Of course I’d check with the ladies in accounting on his words and they’d laugh and let me know if he was pulling my leg or if it was a real word and what it really meant. There were often blushes all around. What I have always loved about Yiddish is the earthiness/bawdiness of the language. One of my other favorite words is pisher which I understand is a close translation to “pisser” but is used to describe someone who’s, as my mother-in-law would say, “full of beans” or full of mischief. But it’s a great word that sounds exactly what it means.

    Thanks for the fun post. Hope you’re doing better as you transition to retirement. If you have time, I’d love it if you took a look at my more personal blog,

    Thanks, Laura (The Two Who Wander)

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Laura! Your assessment of the word “pisher” is pretty much correct. Among my favorite derivative phrases is “call me pisher,” which is the ultimate demurrer, roughly equivalent to “So sue me!”

  5. Pingback: Code Switching | A Map of California

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