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    What Does “May All Your Teeth Fall Out, Except One To Give You A Toothache" Mean?

    Ale tseyn zoln dir aroysfaln, nor eyner zol dir blaybn af tsonveytik.

    The average Yiddish curse is not what one might call succinct. In fact, our curses can be quite the mouthful. Consequently, they’re not for everybody nor every situation. They call for a distinctly determined degree of disdain, and a great commitment to the cursing cause. Anyone can blurt out an “F you!” in the heat of the moment, but a Yiddish curse requires conviction and some serious lung capacity (breathing being a luxury one cannot afford when reciting an interminable imprecation!).

    Just to put things in perspective for you: believe it or not, length-wise, this particular proverb comes in somewhere in the middle. There are many curses in our repertoire that require an even more thorough throat-clearing session and a captive (perhaps restrained) audience. Much of the reason behind the length of our curses comes from a desire to cover all the bases. Take the curse in question: a gentile and/or novice might feel that wishing for a person to lose all of his or her teeth is more than sufficient all on its own, but we Jews see nothing but insufficiencies and loopholes! Think about it! Once said toothless-Tom, -Tim, or -Tullulah gets over the shock of losing all his or her teeth, the suffering is essentially over. What good is that?

    I mean, when you get past the question of cosmetics, teeth just aren’t that crucial. Who needs to masticate a meal when the average Starbucks serving or Dairy Queen indulgence packs such a caloric punch? Speaking of fast food, thanks to the current, inexplicable smoothie sensation, there’s now a “King” (or one of his less-majestic counterparts) on every corner. Talk about uncomplicated consumption! Still not effortless enough? What about those powerhouse blenders, the Vitamixes and company?! Those suckers are commonplace in kitchens today and can turn a six-course meal into a slurpee in a matter of seconds. And what’s stopping this dentally-deficient dumkopf from springing for an artificial pair of pearly whites? Dentures have come a long way in modern times; heck, odds are your cursee will wind up with a better looking pair than he or she had pre-curse! Unacceptable! We just can’t allow for such possibilities! No, to us it’s worth the extra oxygen to affix the real zinger: “May all your teeth fall out, except one to give you a toothache.” There’s not a whole lot worse than an aching tooth, especially when it’s the only tooth you’ve got ... and especially for a people who sure as hell like to eat!

    Dear reader, may all your teeth remain healthy for 120 years! (Unless of course you were the driver of the dingy Dodge who callously cut me off yesterday. …)

    Appropriate usage?

    Zeyde Pinsky is pumping an imaginary passenger-side brake pedal while his permit-wielding grandson, Adam, fails to signal yet again. …

    Adam: “You doin’ alright over there, Zeyde?”

    Zeyde: “Vos zol ikh makhen? Adam, my boy, you’re going to give me a heart attack, G-d forbid! Stop with the tape deck already! Ten-and-two! Ten-and-two!”

    Adam: “Chill out, Zeyde. I got this, I promise. Don’t you have anything other than Theodore Bikel and Linda Kazan?”

    Zeyde: “It’s Lainie Kazan, and enough with the music! You need to be able to hear for honking! Not to mention the ambulance when they come for me, G-d forbid!” [muttering to himself, shaking his head] “Di mamma oysn oyg.

    Adam: “Huh? Zeyde, I can’t hear you over the music—you know, this Linda chick’s not bad.”

    Zeyde: [reaching for volume knob] “Oy gevalt! I said, You’re just like your mother! I still can’t ride in the car with her without getting indigestion! Just—just do your poor old Zeyde a mitzvah and pull over a minute, will you? Ahh! Adam! Use your indicator!”

    Once the car is safely in park, Zeyde takes a minute to catch his breath before he and Adam switch places for the ride home. ...

    Zeyde: “Maybe better you just learn from observation for the rest of the lesson, good? Good. Now watch what I do, Adam. You have to pay attention and keep your focus on—”

    Zeyde is so busy lecturing that he fails to check his blind spot and narrowly misses a maroon Golf. Horns blare, and Zeyde, leaning out the window, fills his lungs to capacity and shouts ...

    Zeyde: “Ale tseyn zoln dir aroysfaln, nor eyner zol dir blaybn af tsonveytik!”

    Adam: “Zeyde! The guy’s long gone and I doubt he understands Yiddish anyway. Wouldn’t it be easier to just give him the finger?”

    Zeyde: “Easy is not always best, my boy. Besides, one doesn’t have to know he’s been cursed for it to work. I’d stay away from corn on the cob for a while if I were that behaymeh!”

    What Does “Witticisms Pour Out Of Him Like Turds From A Goat" Mean?

    Cartoon depicting the Yiddish quote, “Witticisms Pour Out Of Him Like Turds From A Goat"

    Es shit zikh fun im khokhmes vi fun a tsig bobkes.

    You might be asking yourself, “Why a people who value humor so highly would liken a skilled satirist to the back end of a goat?”

    The Boring Answer

    Because it’s funny.

    The Juicy Answer

    Well, naturally, that’s a little more involved. …

    You see, most comedians will tell you their humor is fueled predominantly by their pain and self-loathing. While they’re laughing along with us on the outside, their insides are doing the ugly-cry. Considering this advanced level of emotional dysfunction, it’s no wonder so many of the great comedians are members of the Tribe. Woody Allen, Larry David, Peter Sellers, and their countless comedic counterparts chose humor as a way to channel their neuroses. But it’s not just the pros that make this choice! Every Jew is raised in a culture whose primary outlet is humor, and as such it tends to be our first instinct when faced with suffering (something we’ve had to do a lot and have gotten quite good at). Right from the get-go, we’re welcomed into this world by a familial cast of characters straight out of the most recent edition of the DSM. As disturbing as this sounds, it’s actually a tremendous gift. This motley crew of crazies teaches us that when it comes to our own inescapable issues we have one of two choices:

    1. We can stay in bed—to dwell and kvetch while letting our troubles take the reins.
    2. We can get up out of bed! Grab those reins! ... and still dwell and kvetch and fret, of course, but this time we can be funny about it! We may as well put our suffering to good use; entertain some folks while we’re at it!

    Now don’t get me wrong! While humor serves as a marvelous outlet for our pain, it’s certainly no cure. (Jewish Penicillin it is not.) Yes, laughter is the best medicine, but not for the ones telling the jokes! So with Jewish self-hatred alive and well, it’s no wonder we don’t equate our witty selves with the more flattering likes of a jackpot-spewing slot machine or Willy Wonka and his countless confectionary creations! No, we Jews are much more comfortable when settled into a state of sustained self-scorn. After all, self-deprecation opens the door so nicely for the compulsory complementary counter statements. Observe!

    Self-effacing Saul: “Who am I? I’m nothing! I’m no better than a, a goat’s tuchus!”

    Saul’s Salutary Shnook: “Are you kidding, Saul?! You’re a certified mensch! A one in million guy!”

    Self-effacing Saul: “Who, me? ... really?

    See? Works like a charm! Feel free to try it out at your next dinner party.

    But what about a totally different interpretation? What if this proverb was born not of an inwardly-aimed hatred, but of one directed outward? After all, this proverb is written in the third person. But why? you ask. If said witticisms are truly witty, why would someone liken them to piles of pungent poop? Well, just think of the wittiest person you know. Got ‘em in mind? Now ask yourself this: how funny do you think their spouse thinks they are? Or better yet, ask the spouse! It’s no coincidence that the aforementioned Jewish comic geniuses all have at least one ex-wife—any of whom, I have no doubt, could have coined this proverb.

    And then there’s the matter of the goat. Why this particular pooper? The truth is, in the world of waste, goat turds are not only the most benign rendition of road apples, they are actually held in (relatively) high regard … at least in the gardening community.

    Fun Fact! Goat manure is seasonally sought after by green thumbs globally. Why? Because this ordure is ostensibly odorless, and its dry, compact, finely-formed and seemingly mass-produced pellets make the handling of it a dream! Plus, the nitrogen content of these noteworthy nuggets is substantially higher than horse and cow manure, and apparently that’s good a thing! This marvelous mishmash of matters makes one almost forget they’re playing with poop. Almost.

    So with this said, if we were really out to slander ourselves, certainly we could have chosen a source of more scurrilous scat! What about dinosaur dung or Caribou crap?! Did we even consider the contents of a bear’s bowel?! All worthy candidates until you consider this illuminating influence: what the goat has over all the other contenders is that its turds have actually played a role in the evolution of the Yiddish language. (No, I’m not joking!)

    As you may be aware, our Yiddish version of “nothing, nada, zip, zero, jack, diddly squat” is “bubkes,” which is most likely derived from another Yiddish word, “kozebubkes,” which literally means … wait for it … dun dun dunnn: goat droppings! (How’s that for a Columbo-esque crescendo?!) So regardless of whether this proverb was inspired by self-directed disdain or marital malice, there’s no confusing its double-duty (no pun intended!) defamation. The question of whether number 2 is more offensive than nothing … well, I’ll leave that up to you.

    But wait! Let’s not waste all our time quibbling over this quip’s catalyst when there are far more important matters at hand; the elephant, or in this case the goat, in the room: how do these gastrointestinally-gifted goats stay so regular? Fiber, shmiber! There goes the prune industry!

    In my opinion, this expression simply makes a case for eating anything and everything in sight. (You don’t have to tell me twice!)

    Appropriate usage?

    As soon as she spotted Barbara’s unmistakable fuschia sunhat bobbing through the crowd roughly four-and-a-half feet above the ground, Louise rested her highball on the arm of her lawn chair so she could use both hands to wave her friend over. …

    Louise: [crying out] “Yoohoo! Over here!!!”

    To no avail. Poor Babs was as lost as a fart in a pickle barrel as usual. Even though Louise always set up in the same spot, signalling Babs was, without fail, a long and painful ritual that left her nearly hoarse and freshly self-conscious of her unsightly “wings” (her name for the excess flaps of underarm skin that seemed to be swinging lower by the day, which Babs calls “Hadassah ahrems”).

    Louise’s husband, Al, liked to arrive at least an hour early to the bi-monthly concerts in the park, which was fine with Louise because it meant she could secure a prime spot. Besides, as long as she had one of her Harlequins and a Thermos of cocktails, she would have been content to sit there all night. The cocktails were especially helpful once the music started (Was there such a thing as beermuffs?) so she went heavy on the whiskey in anticipation of tonight’s Big Band theme.

    Louise’s early arrival meant she was there to watch the band set up their equipment, and she always felt badly for the visiting musicians. As usual she fought the urge to warn them that they’d be playing to more backs than fronts and competing with the din of the crowd’s multitude of separate conversations. The truth was, no one came for the music (well, except for the Speilmans, who insisted on dancing, ballroom style, right up front, no matter the evening’s musical genre). Case in point, Louise never missed a show because these concerts were the perfect venue for one of her and Barbara’s favorite pastimes: people-watching (and -judging, of course). If Babs doesn’t get her tuchus over here already, she’s going to miss what looks like the newly-single Ida Herschel’s foray into thong underwear peeking out of the top of her Stein Mart capris.

    To keep her mind off her still waving (and now aching) arms, Louise does some more preliminary scanning of the crowd in preparation for Babs’ arrival. Her eyes fall on her husband and she reflexively shakes her head. Though she’s not nearly close enough to hear what he’s saying, 37 years of marriage has taught her all she needs to know. After all, Al’s own reason for attending these concerts has nothing to do with the music either. (Hell, he’s nearly all-the-way deaf ... not that he can be bothered to do anything about it.) If anything, the poor schmucks who play their hearts out on stage only get in the way of his focus—which is why Al insists on arriving so early. You see, if Al had his way he would be the headlining act at these events and, in a way—at least to the throngs of people who also arrive early to witness his antics—he kind of is.

    Watching her husband in his element—limbs flailing, reenacting what Louise has no doubt is last week’s incident when Hank Minzer’s Rascal scooter got stuck in reverse and sent him careening backward up the handicap ramp and into the crowd of people waiting for Early Bird seating at Red Lobster—she is filled with a discernible amount of envy. There was a time, years ago, when Louise would have been counted among that crowd, laughing and holding her (then much flatter) belly along with the rest of Al’s loyal fans. But what people don’t understand is that even Al’s antics get old. (Especially when it’s midnight, you’re balancing a checkbook with one hand and making school lunches with the other, and trying to get a straight answer out of him about the roof repairs, while he’s got the handle of your favorite wooden spoon up his nose and he’s spouting one-liners.) Oh, Louise! she’s often told, You must never stop laughing! If she hears that one again, she just might scream.

    Barbara: “There you are! I had the worst time finding you! Oy, my arms are breaking from these bags! Oy, I can’t—they’re tangled! Oh Lou, help me! I can’t feel my fingers. Look at them, they’re white! I don’t see why you have to sit so far from the parking lot. I must have schlepped this stuff two miles! And so close to the trash bins! Speaking of trash, I got a look at Merna Appleby’s granddaughter on my way in—she thinks she’s some hotsy-totsy, wearing a t-shirt for a dress! What a shonda! Where’s my drink?”

    Louise: “Hi Babs, where’s Ernie?”

    Barbara: “Oh, I lost him to Al again. He made a beeline from the car as soon as we parked and left me with everything, of course! He was Mr. Ferkrimpt all the way here because we were running late! You know he hates to miss a moment of your husband’s famos schtick. Given the chance, Ernie would leave me for your Al any day. It’s all I hear! ‘That Al is a laugh a minute! How does he come up with that stuff?! I can’t even catch my breath between gleichvertels!’ Blah, blah, on and on.”

    Louise: “Yep, a comic genius alright. Witticisms pour out of him like turds from a goat.

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    What Does “If You’re Going To Eat Pork, Get It All Over Your Beard" Mean?

    Cartoon depicting the Yiddish quote, “If You’re Going To Eat Pork, Get It All Over Your Beard"

    Ez men est khazer zol rinen ariber der bord.

    As spectacular as the Jewish people are, nobody said we were perfect (certainly not us!). When I was 8 and as neurotic as I was chubby, I was issued a particularly devastating report card; a manila tri-fold of tarnation riddled with Ds and N.S.s. (The latter was an abbreviation for “Non-Satisfactory.” Hey, it was the ’90s and the beginning of the everybody-gets-a-trophy-G-d-forbid-we-hurt-the-child’s-feelings era. They weren’t about to call an F an F.) I earned these grades not because I wasn’t smart enough, and not because I was too smart to be challenged by the curriculum, but because I was otherwise occupied. Basketball and ballet, perchance? Soccer and sleepovers? G-d no! I’d have burst into tears at the mere mention of such paralyzing prospects. No, my extracurricular activity of choice (or rather, inheritance) was worry, and I have to admit I was quite the prodigy. (I believe the psychological term is “deigeh savant.”) But here’s the thing: when a kid spends day and night fretting about every conceivable “what if” and obsessing over what she’s convinced will be her parents’ imminent deaths, there’s little time and energy left over for Social Studies—hence the aforementioned academic standing.

    On this particular day, the mail arrived as it always did right about the time I got home from school. As fate would have it, my mother spotted the oversized envelope before I did (how could I have been so careless?!), thus robbing me of the opportunity to privately process my failure and prepare myself before having to share my shame with others. It only took a momentary glimpse at the repugnant report to transform my baseline anxiety into full-on panic. As my mind performed its customary cartwheels of catastrophe, my body got busy sobbing to the point of hyperventilation. After all, not only would I be an orphan any day now, but I was about to fail Grade 3 on top of that! As usual, being the self-cleaning oven of a child that I was, the mere possibility of disappointing my parents was torturous punishment enough that in lieu of chastising me for my dismal grades my mother spent the better part of the afternoon trying to convince me that it really wasn’t a big deal.

    But what about when Daddy gets home?! What will he say? Oh the horror! The horror! (I’m paraphrasing of course, as I didn’t encounter Conrad until much later.) As utterly plagued as I was by these questions at the time, looking back it’s apparent that my concerns were just another figment of my irrational imagination. Among Jewish parents who asserted they would surely die if their child failed to grow up to be a doctor (or at the very least marry one), my dad was an anomaly. Worrying about my father throwing a fit was as absurd and unfounded as fretting about a flounder taking flight. In reality, the worst case scenario would have been a look in Daddy’s eye (most likely imagined) that I’d interpret to mean he’d ceased loving me forever and would disown me publicly at the very next opportunity. Needless to say, it was a long afternoon spent eating my weight in bagels and schmear. When my poor, unsuspecting father finally arrived home, he was met immediately with the pale, puffy-eyed puddle that was his pudgy daughter, palliatively pacing and preemptively apologizing through snot-soaked sleeves. My mother handed him the disgraceful document and, after what seemed like an eternity, that magnificent man of so few words, rarely eloquent but always wise, looked up and said something I will never forget:

    “Ahhhh! School-schmool, I failed Grade 4 and I run a company! Who you are on paper doesn’t matter, it’s who you are when you go out into the world, who you are to others, that matters. That, and just trying. Just do your best and for G-d’s sake stop worrying so much, would you? You’ll give yourself an ulcer!”

    He went on to say that some of the most idiotic people he’d encountered in life—especially in business—had been straight-A students (an entertaining phenomenon that I’ve since discovered for myself).

    And so with that, it was done.

    Well, not actually. I went on to torture myself over bad grades for the remainder of my pre-university years, but Daddy’s words did stick with me and continued to challenge my perverse perfectionism.

    Perfectionism?!? Yes, that's right. Despite popular belief, it is possible and actually very common to be both a perfectionist and an outright failure. (As an aside, my husband would like to point out that only a perfectionist would consider themselves an “outright failure.” I see little truth in his argument but promised to include it nonetheless.) You see, I live my life on either end of the spectrum; it’s all or nothing. I either set out to do it better than anyone in the history of the world has ever done it, or I don’t even bother trying. As you can imagine, more often than not the former prospect is so paralyzingly daunting that I spend most of my time doing the latter. But as I’ve come to learn, if you don’t try anything for fear of failure, you fail at everything for lack of trying. (Easier said than done, of course, but it’s still an important truth.)

    Many a member of the Tribe struggles with similarly paralyzing pressures, whether self-imposed like mine or externally inflicted. But gems like my father—and a whole lot of Jewish wisdom and scripture that echoes his profound words—remind us perfectionists that the goal is not to be perfect but to get up every day and try; that getting mired in meticulous minutiae can lead to a life unlived. Our wise ones teach us not to worry about mistakes, because mistakes are what life’s about. And this proverb even goes so far as to say when you screw up, go all out. Be a perfectionist about it! Otherwise, the mistake wouldn’t be worth making.

    When you make mistakes, do you go whole hog?

    Appropriate usage?

    Despite the advanced cataracts in Joy’s left eye, she was driving at quite a clip on I-5 heading north to Los Angeles. Riding shotgun and singing show tunes at the top of her still-expansive lungs was her best friend and next-door neighbor, Golda. After 12 weeks of Weight Watchers and aquatics at the Senior Center, the two friends had turned heads at their development’s annual gala. Despite last meeting’s inspirational lectures from their Weight Watchers leaders about the exciting new frontier of “Maintenance” and their own vows to find fresh motivation and stick to the program, Golda and Joy were heading straight into relapse at a cool 85 mph. ...

    Golda: “I don’t understand why we have to go all the way into L.A. when they have cupcakes in Laguna Niguel! What a schlep!”

    Joy: “Go, you can’t be serious! We’ve been over this! These are not just any old cupcakes! We both read that article in the newspaper and I even TiVo’d that segment on the Today Show for you!! Everyone’s going wild for these cupcakes! I even saw a picture of that actress, that health-nut Gwendelyn Paltron, eating one! Even she can’t resist!”

    Golda: “Why trust her?! She’d probably think Pauline Feldman’s rugelach tasted good after all that parsley juice or whatever she lives on.”

    Joy: “It’s kale, Go, and you really should try it. Dr. Oz says—”

    Golda: “Save it, Joy! You’re driving us almost 60 miles so we can throw our diets down the crapper for some fakakta cupcake, and you’re lecturing me about health?! Please!”

    Joy: “(Very classy, Go.) How many times do I have to tell you, this isn’t just some cupcake! If we’re gonna jump off the wagon, we may as well go for it! You know what they say: If you’re going to eat pork, get it all over your beard.”

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    What Does “You Can't Dance At Two Weddings With One Behind" Mean?

    Cartoon depicting the Yiddish quote, “You Can't Dance At Two Weddings With One Behind"

    Mit eyn tokhes ken men nit tantsn af tsvey khasenes.

    A Yiddish proverb, like the Yiddish language itself, evolves and changes as a result of an array of factors: geographic location, time period, cultural imprinting, varying translations, and, among other influences, an endless, generational game of “telephone.” What’s more, for every published or widely-known incarnation of a particular proverb, there are innumerable family-specific variants born of each households’ individual tweaks, personalizations, and (some might say) butchery of the Old Standards. I mention these important facts because:

    • They apply to all the Yiddish proverbs I explore in this blog.
    • I happened to have had a dad who was notorious for modifying the expressions he inherited.

    His version of this proverb (“You can’t dance at seven weddings!”) was the variant I grew up with, and is just one of many expressions unique to my dad’s lexicon. But I’ll be honest, as brilliant as Daddy was, his amendments were not born of a desire to improve upon the classics, or of any other intentional motives for that matter. You see, my fabulous father was dealt (and endured) a frighteningly flawed familial foundation (which, given the miracle of a man he grew up to be in spite of this, is one of the many reasons why he was so darn fabulous). Among other things, the passing on of his family’s Jewish mores, oral or otherwise, was not high on my grandparents’ list of priorities. The dysfunctionality of their family dynamic and the fact that they were typical of some immigrants (busy assimilating and downplaying the rich culture of their homelands) left them little energy or motivation to keep their shtetls’ traditions alive. To complicate matters, my dad was just fine with this radio silence. Born in 1950, he was far more concerned with catching the bus to Woodstock than teasing tidbits of Yiddish lore from his not-so-far-out folks. Furthermore, whatever damaging childhood details weren’t dulled by his and fellow hippies’ requisite hemp-haze were just plain blocked-out. (Amnesia: Daddy’s chosen coping mechanism.)

    What is highly telling, and the very crux of the argument I’ll make shortly, is that in spite of everything these aphorisms (regularly retooled as they may be) have actually survived. Considering that my dad’s experience was not altogether uncommon, and with so many of the aforementioned potentially tradition-eroding variables—not to mention the repetitive persecution of our ancestors and attempts to wipe us out entirely—how the heck have our seeming highly vulnerable traditions survived against such overwhelming odds?

    First and foremost, on a very rare serious note, I must acknowledge the generations of courageous Jews who, for thousands of years, in the face of bleak conditions, unspeakable deprivation, loss of religious artifacts, and other seemingly impassable obstacles, have fought to maintain their cultural and spiritual identities. Who, in living memory, risked certain death by reciting prayers while in hiding, and buried copies of holy books only to bravely unearth them every evening to ensure the youth of the ghetto could be taught the Torah. Still to this day, we remain in awe of Jews who wear kippahs and Stars of David in societies where it would be much safer to stay under the radar. This is a heavy yet beautiful legacy that we Jews have the privilege of preserving. But what happens when, as in the case of my father, Jewish elders fail to purposefully perpetuate our practices? This leads us to the argument I mentioned earlier. …

    Perhaps it’s the case that Judaism has weathered storm after raging storm and is still going strong after millenia because of one fascinating phenomenon (not the whole G-d’s-Chosen-People thing, although there is that too). The particular miracle to which I’m referring is this: even the most secular and unplugged Jewish family—say one living in the middle of rural Texas, going their entire lives without stepping foot inside a synagogue, reciting a word of Kaddish, or lighting a single Chanukah candle—are still, whether they like it or not, unmistakably Jewish. How? Because true Jewishness has little to do with what you do and everything to do with who you are. While Jewish piety is a choice, Jewish culture is a gift that is delightfully and marvelously inescapable. You can seal off a young Jewish family in a tidy time capsule for decades, but when you open the vault you would find that their grown offspring’s Jewishness would no doubt rival that of any Brooklynite or Hebrew camp counselor.

    Even if Jewish parents never formally educate their offspring in the ways of Judaism, their own Jewishness is so palpable—alive in each and every mannerism, intonation, use of syntax, random Yiddish-laden road rage-rant, and, ultimately, their relationship to life itself—that it is inevitably passed down. We know there is no greater influence on children than the behavior of their parents, so whether they’re aware of it or not, a Jew’s Jewishness oozes forth and is absorbed, as if through osmosis, by the child. Generation after generation of Jews teach their children how to be Jewish (whether intentionally or unintentionally or a mishmash of both). I personally am eternally grateful for the enduring and tenacious nature of Jewish culture because, without it, given my dad’s upbringing, I’m afraid to think about what I would have missed out on.

    In the end, you may say “2” and I may say “7” (and another Jew may take it to an altogether different level by asserting “You can’t ride two horses with one ass!”), but instead of calling the whole thing off, let’s focus on the wisdom these expressions share: No matter how hard we try, we just can’t be everything to everyone, or everywhere at once. Learning to say “no” is crucial because saying “yes” to everyone for fear of disappointing someone only leads to disappointing the whole lot (including ourselves).

    But all this touchy-feely-self-improvement schmaltz aside, the important thing is how effective and indispensable these sacred adages, no matter the wording, can be in getting you out of stuff, guilt-free. (Well, as guilt-free as we Jews can be.) Your mother-in-law’s garden party’s coming up? Hey, you’d love to go, but there’s a Golden Girls marathon that afternoon so your hands are tied.

    You can’t mess with the wisdom of our ancestors!

    Appropriate usage?

    It was Bar/Bat Mitzvah season, and not since all their friends started getting married and having babies—some doing both simultaneously!—had Jake been this good at calculating multiples of 18 in his head. Now in the final stretch of this year’s Mitzvah marathon, Jake, finding himself out of checks, was in the basement rummaging through a box labeled “Bank Stuff + Hebrew Camp ‘98 + Misc” in desperate hope of finding a spare checkbook.

    Just as Jake was reluctantly entertaining the prospect of raiding his 6-year-old’s piggy bank for $1 bills, it suddenly became clear that his wife, Dana, was having her own crisis upstairs. Knowing there was no way he could later claim to have been oblivious to the brouhaha (there was no denying the cacophony of Hannah’s, his eldest daughter, alternating high-pitched wails and guttural sobs punctuated by his wife’s muffled attempts to quell them), Jake took a deep breath and, against every instinct, forced himself to climb the stairs toward the tantrum.

    Once upstairs, Jake was brought up to speed by an enervated Dana. He learned that Hannah’s unintelligible meltdown was due to the fact that there had been a party-planning glitch. Somehow, the Pearlman and Weiss kids’ Bar Mitzvah parties were both scheduled for tomorrow night. Following Dana’s lead, Jake tried his darndest to feign the appropriate (apparently apocalyptic) levels of outrage and empathy. Hannah was beside herself because David Weiss and Nathan Pearlman were reportedly both her “most best friends in the whole wide world.” (This was news to Jake who hadn’t heard Hannah utter either one of their names in all the time since her first year of Hebrew school, and even then it was only in reference to their abhorrent cases of cooties.) After calming Hannah down, Dana did what she always does best: she proceeded to sketch out an elaborate itinerary for the evening that would make it possible for Hannah to be present for the most crucial parts of both events (nevermind the fact that it meant Jake would be spending an entire evening plus half-a-tank of gas shuttling their teen back and forth between the Holiday Inn and the Marriot). But Hannah was still not satisfied. …

    Hannah: “But what if I miss something?!?! Everyone’ll be talking about it at school and I’ll be the total loser who missed it!”

    Out of ideas, and in spite of Jake’s long and very spotty track record, Dana turned to her husband for help. ...

    Jake: “It’s a matter of physics, babe! You know what Zeyde always says: You can’t dance at two weddings with one behind!

    With that, Hannah burst into a reserve supply of tears and collapsed into her mother’s arms. Over her trembling head, Dana shot Jake a look that would kill (if not for the smirk she was trying to conceal).

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    What Does “When You Have A Lot To Do, Go To Sleep" Mean?

    Cartoon depicting the Yiddish quote, “When You Have A Lot To Do, Go To Sleep"

    Az men hot a sakh tsu ton, leygt men zikh shlofn.

    This poor proverb serves as the black sheep in a flock of Jewish maxims that denounce ineffective use of time. (Some even go so far as to explicitly promote responsibility—hence their conspicuous absence from my line of greeting cards.) But this wildly unbalanced ratio is not the least bit representative of how the average Jew approaches a task (or an overwhelming series of accumulated tasks).

    The truth is, the dizzying display of diligence demanded by our array of expressions does not always reflect an existing work ethic, but just as often aims to inspire those among us who need a little help in that department. For while many a Jew does enjoy a good schnoz-to-the-grindstone session, plenty of us are active proponents of the palpable power of procrastination; of relying on the stress and anxiety (our most available emotional states and greatest motivators) derived from putting things off until the last possible moment to fuel our productive fires.

    Stranger in a strange dichotomy

    But we Jews are no stranger to this kind of dichotomy existing among us, and we almost always see it as an opportunity to engage in one of our favorite (and by “favorite” I mean “only”) sports: debate. From our sage Rabbis spending lifetimes arguing over interpretations of scripture, to American Jews at odds over which local deli has the best pastrami sandwich, it’s no secret that we have a weakness for a well-waged war of words. But there’s a point at which even we have to reevaluate the number of simultaneous arguments we, as a people, can sustain at once. With that said, are these divergent duty-themed devices really worthy of becoming yet another bone of contention destined to divide us forever?? I say nay! Indulge me while I suggest a radical and potentially controversial theory intended to unite us and free up our argumentative energies for more deserving disputes. ...

    One feeling to rule them all

    Let me ask you this: what if our opposing approaches to obligations are fueled by the same inherent quality; one that is present in all of us, but manifests differently in each of us? What is this curious common denominator? Anxiety! What else?!

    Anxiety, and the assuaging of it, is very trendy right now, but we Jews have had the market cornered for generations—think of us like the Amish people set against the farm-to-table phenomenon, or the Good Humor Man awash in the tumult of the food truck frenzy—and I’m living proof that the neurotic Jew cliché is a cliché for good reason. The bad news? Our propensity for anxiety is apparent. The good news? We each have a choice in how we channel it. Some of us ...

    • Deny it.
    • Embrace it and put it to good use.
    • Just learn to manage it.
    • Even make careers of it.

    But with this said, even though anxiety may manifest differently or to varying degrees in each of us, it’s important to acknowledge that deep down we’re all neurotic:

    • If you prick us, do we not bleed? … and then immediately sterilize the affected area while googling “flesh-eating bacteria + what to look for?”
    • If you tickle us, do we not immediately feel uncomfortable and wonder whether we’ve misjudged the progress of our relationship? (I mean, are we really at the “tickling phase” already? Well, why not? Why must we always drag our feet when it comes to intimacy? Is it the fear of inadequacy? An emotionally-unavailable father?) And immediately after feigning laughter in spite of our inner questioning, do we not feel guilty for having misrepresented ourselves as being completely comfortable with said tickling?
    • If you poison us, do we not sidestep grim death by neurotically refusing to leave open beverages unattended for fear of just such an attack upon our lives? And do we not listen with manic focus for the “pop” of the tamper-resistant safety seal when opening all drink containers for the very same paranoid reason?
    • If you wrong us, do we not keep silent in the moment, hold a grudge for the rest of time, and worry every time we see you, afraid you’ll sense that something’s wrong and want to discuss it?

    I propose that our seemingly oppositional approaches to obligations (the go-getters versus the go-grab-a-nosh-and-a-nap-I’ll-get-to-it-laters) are merely superficial stratagems, and, sadly, they obscure a shared sensitivity to our inescapably-inherent quality; one that has the power bring us together.

    Still not convinced?

    Ok, we’ve established that some of us are always (and most of us are sometimes) propelled by anxiety-producing procrastination, but don’t you think it’s possible that the episodes of efficiency “enjoyed” by our proactive polar-opposites are fueled by the exact same neuroses which so thoroughly render us incapacitated? Perhaps these people, in their more methodical moments, compulsively cross things off their “to do” lists because, when items are left to linger, it’s not long before their manic minds cause minor molehills to mutate into momentous and menacing mountains.


    Neurotics unite!

    But before we hold hands (after a thorough sanitizing, of course!) and sing “Kumbaya,” there’s still the matter of this matzah ball of a maxim hanging out there.

    “When you have a lot to do, go to sleep"

    Obviously this proverb is preaching to the procrastinating choir, but can it possibly be of any use to the proactive party as well?

    Let me ask you: What happens when there’s just too much to do? When tackling every task is simply out of the question? Therein lies the universally-applicable wisdom of this proverb! When such a situation arises, isn’t sleep (Ambien-induced or otherwise) the only way to successfully escape an insurmountable index, and, by extension, our conscious catastrophizing?

    With this said, it makes sense why so many of us run to our shrinks every week ... only to lie down! If we just made the contrary commitment to lie down at home, close our eyes, and enjoy a 50-minute nap, it would be a hell of a lot cheaper and apparently far more effective at alleviating our anxieties.

    Even if only temporarily. …

    Oh, and please don’t let your anxiety of public “speaking” or self-expression prevent you from commenting and sharing your thoughts on tackling overwhelming tasks, taking advantage of therapeutic slumber, and anything in between!

    Appropriate usage?

    After knocking repeatedly to no avail—and silently cursing her husband, Maury, for continuing to avoid getting the doorbell fixed—Estelle resorted to using her teeth to insert and turn the key in the lock. Once inside, she finally allowed the dozen or so bags and packages (G-d forbid she make more than one trip from the car!) to fall to the parkay floor. …

    Estelle: “Maury?! Do you think you could help me?! I nearly had a stroke—G-d forbid!—schlepping everything from the car in this fakakta heat! Helllloooo?!?”

    As Estelle wiggled her tingling fingers in an attempt to regain sensation, she got her first look at the state of the house. Not one thing had changed since she’d left to run errands over 3 hours ago. Their matching luggage still sat empty waiting to be hauled upstairs, and the two baskets worth of laundry that she’d done that morning hadn’t budged from the dining room table. …

    Estelle: “You’ve got to be kidding me! MAAAUUURY!?!?!“

    With still no response, Estelle moved into the kitchen and her blood pressure soared again as her eyes fell upon a similar scene. The dishes she’d washed, now long-dry, were still in the rack, and the couple’s digital camera (and its cord!) still sat, uncharged, mere inches from an outlet. Speechless, Estelle made her way over to the sink for a glass of water where, upon closer inspection, she realized that the dish rack wasn’t exactly how she’d left it: her husband’s chipped coffee mug and favorite cereal bowl were missing.

    Her nostrils flared wildly as she gulped tap water and tried to count slowly to 10. Just then, she heard Maury’s distinct slippered shuffle from down the hall. Estelle spun around and, sure enough, there stood her husband, slightly flushed and squinting against the afternoon sun. The telltale asymmetry of his toupee meant one of two things, and (unless he’d gotten frisky all by his lonesome) she knew exactly what he’d been doing. …

    Estelle: “Maury!!!!! Are you meshugga?!?!?! I left you a list of things to do, but, by the looks of it, other than managing to feed yourself (which wasn’t even on the list but G-d knows you’d manage to do it even if the house was on fire), you haven’t done one thing! We’re meeting our cruise in two hours, we’re not even packed, the house is a complete mess, and YOU DECIDE TO TAKE A NAP?!!?!?!”

    With a yawn and a scratch, Maury shuffled toward the refrigerator. …

    Maury: “My father always used to say, When you have a lot to do, go to sleep.

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    What Does “When I Am Eating, Everybody Can Be In The Ground!" Mean?

    Cartoon depicting the Yiddish quote, “When I Am Eating, Everybody Can Be In The Ground!"

    Ven ich ess, ch’ob ich alles in dread!

    A good nosh is the answer to all of life’s problems, and, even on the rare occasions when it’s not, the very act of eating can at least help you forget about them for a while. There is perhaps no other group more food-focused than us Jews. Don’t believe me? Just look at our track record:

    • Are we not the group who readily accepts folks arriving three hours late to Saturday services—coincidentally, just in time for kiddush lunch?
    • Am I wrong in reporting that many Jewish families think nothing of racing through the Haggadah (skipping major chunks of the story in the process) in a collective effort to get to the Passover meal already?
    • Aren’t we talking about some of the blandest food in the world? (Not to mention there’s no bread!)

    If that’s not a dedication to delectables, I don’t know what is.

    But the $64,000 question is this: is the power we Jews ascribe to the act of eating born of nature, nurture, or a mouthwatering mélange of both? Is our, as some might say, dysfunctional relationship with all things edible a trait that is passed down from generation to generation (not unlike a deviated septum), or is it something taught like the confidence and resolve needed to pass for a child at the movie theater until well into our teens?

    Even if we Jews were born with a clean slate (well, with the exception of thousands of years worth of guilt that is most decidedly inherited), a Jewish upbringing (the “nurture” factor) alone would result in a scant few of us (on second thought, that’s most likely just the margin of error) managing to escape a full-fledged food fixation. I mean, what hope do we have? Inherited or not, the seeds are present early on, and lurking around every corner are bubbes, mummies, Temple secretaries, and other meddling maternal mavens armed with bottomless vats of proverbial MiracleGro. Even as adults, immediately upon crossing the threshold of our childhood homes, barely one arm free of its coat sleeve, the food-focused floodgates are flung wide and the interrogation begins:

    “Are you eating? You’re too thin! When’s the last time you ate something? You look so pale! You’re wasting away! Here, have some kugel, I made too much! Come, sit, I’ll fix you a plate! Ess! Ess!”

    Their arsenals are locked-and-loaded and the shots just keep coming. It’s almost as though instead of the Jewish matriarch’s strength waning with age, her energies are simply redirected for the purpose of fueling her continuous, compulsive culinary crusade. (They may need help opening the jar, but she’ll easily move mountains to see that you consume its contents.) It’s not long before Bubbe’s barrage or Ma’s manipulative method wears us down and we find ourselves giving in.

    Is it possible that we choose to surrender voluntarily? That our waving of the embroidered white napkin is prompted by a simple desire to put an end to the campaign and move on to other topics? Sure, anything’s possible, but I can’t imagine who among us would be all that eager to discuss the absence of a nice Jewish doctor in their lives. No. More often than not, what’s really happened is that we’ve succumbed to a certain matriarchal mojo that manages to trump whatever the bathroom scale, mirror, or even physician told us that very morning; to erase from our minds the conversation we just had with ourselves on the elevator ride up or car ride over. Our resolve is dissolved and we start to think, Maybe I could stand to gain a few pounds? Either way, before we know it we’ve got a knish in one hand and a forkful of brisket in the other. I’m no scientist but, with nurturing like this, what does nature matter?

    Anyway, no matter the cause, given our ardent attachment to the alimental, we Jews naturally take the consumption of the stuff pretty seriously. The expression in question proves this, suggesting that the act of eating deserves the level of hushed reverence reserved only for the most sacred of rituals. And how better to relish (kosher dill, of course!) our refreshments than to partake of them free from all distraction?

    Even still, you may be wondering to yourself, “From where is this hostility coming?! Is it really necessary that the proverb employ such harsh language?!” Cut us some slack, OK? This saying’s savage statement is no doubt born of a lifetime of pent-up frustration; a lifetime saddled with a sadistic irony. We Jews must cope with the reality that our traditions (like those mentioned above) revolve around communal and often chaotic consumption. (Breaking the fast after Yom Kippur can be especially perilous!) Coupled with the fact that our dining companions are notoriously difficult to ignore, Jewish feasts are not exactly conducive to uninterrupted indulgence; a sad fate for a people with such ardor for the act of eating.

    What can I say? Extreme (eating) conditions call for equally extreme language. Now everybody out! I’m feeling a little peckish.

    Appropriate usage?

    Even after 57 years of marriage, Abe still couldn’t believe one person (in this case, his wife, Sandra) could possibly have this much to say. But one thing these 57 years had taught Abe was how to tune out his wife’s monologue to the point where her voice was no more than a faint din. (Leaving his hearing aids on the dresser helped considerably.) Vos iz ahfen kop, iz ahfen tsung, he often commented to himself while marveling over Sandra’s speaking stamina, not to mention her lung capacity. Abe was never more grateful for his ability to turn down his wife’s voice than at the dinner table. At 82, there were only a handful of life’s pleasures in which Abe could still partake, and, despite having dentures and a no-sodium diet to contend with—not to mention a pill to swallow between every bland bite—the act of eating still topped the list. With Sandra on mute, the resulting effect was not altogether unpleasant. As she read articles aloud and re-enacted scenes from the senior center, her limbs flailing and face contorted, Abe often thought it akin to watching the climactic scene from one of the those silent films his father used to take him to—only, these days, his box of Cracker Jacks was downgraded to a bowl full of watery Borscht. Abe’s skill had been honed over the years so much so that he also developed a keen sense of when to tune back into the “conversation.” And, when this failed him, he also possessed an array of neutral interjections to offer at appropriate intervals. But today, like any maven, Abe was simply off his game. …

    Sandra: “Abraham Markowitz! I said, are you even listening to me?!”

    Abe chose this moment (wisely or not) to speak up. …

    Abe: “Sandra, can’t I have a meal in peace? I promise, I’m all ears as soon as I’m done here. How many times do I have to tell you? When I am eating, everybody can be in the ground!

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