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    What Does “Life Is Like A Child’s Undershirt—Short And Soiled" Mean?

    Cartoon depicting the Yiddish quote, “Life Is Like A Child’s Undershirt—Short And Soiled"

    Dos leben iz vi kinderhemdel—kurts un bash.

    Like many Yiddish proverbs and expressions, this one walks the fine line between gloriously inspiring and soul-crushingly-”what’s-the-point-of-it-all?-I-may-as-well-throw-in-the-towel” bleak. As with most things, it all comes down to perspective: Who is on the receiving end of this adage? Who’s delivering it and with what tone? Are they a glass-half-empty or half-full kind of person? (OK, I realize that the chances of a Jew [myself included] falling into the latter category is as dismal as the way most of us would interpret this adage, but just humor me.) So, yes, while at first this adage may appear to be a harsh and unsavory look at life, let’s endeavor to put on our ill-fitting rosy glasses (I know they pinch at the nose, but it’s only for a minute), do our shrinks proud, and look at it another way.

    If we replace the unfortunate translation of “soiled” with “messy” and ignore the uncomfortable invocation of a child’s undershirt, we’re left with this: Life is short and messy. Is this not inspirational, in that it motivates us to live now and not be afraid to get our hands dirty doing it?! Isn’t this actually a wonderfully positive and encouraging proverb after all?? Nu? OK, fine, you can take your glasses off now.

    Appropriate usage?

    Franny is having Sunday breakfast with her dad, Joe, and, over lox and schmear, venting about her college application process. ...

    Franny: “Tatteh, I’m totally stressing! If I don’t get into my first-choice school, I, like, don’t know what I’m going to do! I don’t really want to go to any of my safety schools, that’s why they’re my safety schools! Plus, it would totally ruin my 5-year plan! If I don’t get in, maybe I should take a semester off so I can retake my SATs and do a ton of community service and learn the cello or something? G-d, why didn’t you and Mummy make me learn an instrument??!?! Trudy Lawrence plays the harp! Not to mention her parents adopted like five kids from China or somewhere! She’s a shoo-in for sure! That’s it. I can’t stray from my five-year plan. It’s the only thing that makes sense. I don’t care how long it takes. ... Wait! Isn’t cousin Robbie adopted? That could wor—”

    Joe: “Bubbeleh, relax. Eat. You’re being meshugga. You want my advice? Plan shpan! Life is like a child’s undershirt—short and soiled! Now shut up and eat. Do you want your bagel heated?”

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    What Does “If You’re Still A Child At 20, You’re An Ass At 21" Mean?

    Cartoon depicting the Yiddish quote, “If You’re Still A Child At 20, You’re An Ass At 21"

    As men is biz tsvantsik your nokh alts a kind iz men eylz tsu eyn-un-tsvantsik.

    Not to sound like an alter koker, but this proverb is more relevant now than ever. Never before has there been a generation in greater need of learning this lesson! But as harsh as this proverb sounds, coming from a Jew it’s actually quite generous. You see, our tradition of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah perpetuates the belief that adulthood starts at 13.


    That’s a hell of a lead time (a whole eight years!) we’re giving young “adults” to get their acts together.

    (On a side note, and at the risk of delving into delicate territory, is it just me or does this proverb strike you as somewhat hypocritical coming from a people known for their smothering ability? Just saying.)

    Appropriate usage?

    Marlene watches as her daughter-in-law folds her grandson’s laundry. After a number of what Marlene feels were sufficiently-audible “tsks” and enough exaggerated head-shaking to force her glasses askew and send a pearl clip-on sailing across the room, she abandons all attempts at subtly and decides to speak up. ...

    Marlene: “Janet dear, don’t you think Joel is a little old for his mother to still be doing his laundry? He’s a junior in college! I had my boys doing chores before they could walk! I’m not telling you how to raise your children, but you know what they say: If you’re still a child at 20, you’re an ass at 21.

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    What Does “You Can’t Make Cheesecakes Out Of Snow” Mean?

    Cartoon depicting the Yiddish quote, “You Can’t Make Cheesecakes Out Of Snow”

    Gomolkes ken men nit fun shney.

    This proverb is a prime example of Yiddish expressions putting all other cultural expressions to shame. Take its more inexplicably prevalent equivalent, “You can’t get blood from a stone,” and its G-rated cousin, “You can’t get water from a stone.” Laughable! Irrelevant and shoddy! Let’s dissect, shall we?

    In the case of the first: Who are these blood enthusiasts?! Was this proverb intended to serve the vampires of the world?! Who else in their right mind lies awake in bed at night fantasizing about that last quart of blood they passed up at dinner? There’s a reason why there’s no chain operating 162 restaurants in 36 states called The Blood Factory! And what hypothetical schmendrik or blood-thirsty undead in search of the sanguine substance would look to the stone of all things?! Nonsense! Our Jewish version is far more logical. It’s a common scenario: snowed in one evening, desperately seeking something sweet, mind racing and creative culinary juices flowing, and, facing this hopeless situation, you stoop to embarrassing lows. Who hasn’t attempted to satiate their craving by nuking a combination of their pantry’s dregs and hoping for the best? The last ancient squares of unsweetened baker’s chocolate and some applesauce? Instant coffee crystals, a couple pulverized packets of Sweet ‘n Low you found at the bottom of your bag, and a half dozen shpritzes of cooking spray? Expired pancake mix and the last of the O.J.? We’ve all been there.

    And when our MacGyver-esque cooking concoctions fail, isn’t it only natural that we look out to the very powdery substance that stranded us to begin with? Anyone, especially in a state of sweets-starved hallucination, may think it possible to make cheesecakes out of snow. After all, in this case, it’s the most abundant ingredient we have available, and the two substances share so many properties! Both are pillowy, white, inviting. A layer of icy flecks can so easily be mistaken for a dusting of sugary crystals: The frozen earth below, a crumbly graham cracker crust. The dome of a fire hydrant peeking out from a drift, a luscious cherry on top. The similarities are endless. (Notice I’ve spared us the obvious canine-inspired pineapple gelée and chocolate fudge comparison. You’re welcome.) By contrast, what qualities does the stone possess that would lead someone to believe that it could produce even a drop of blood?

    I rest my case.

    Now, on to the kiddie version: “You can’t get water from a stone.” This one is dangerously open to debate. If the human body (something that, for all intents and purposes, appears to be a solid) is made up of 70% of the liquid stuff, perhaps getting water from a stone isn’t a totally hopeless endeavor after all. I’m no geologist (thank G-d), but it seems that expression, apart from its obvious banality, has some major holes. We Jews couldn’t take that risk! We can leave no room for optimism! Again, by contrast, our expression successfully drives home the point that, no matter what struggle has prompted the use of this proverb, said struggle is futile and should be abandoned immediately—no matter how hungry you are. Relevant and effective? It doesn’t get better than that…well, except of course a world in which one could make cheesecakes out of snow.

    Appropriate usage?

    Gloria is kvetching to Ilene about her nishtgutnik excuse for a son-in-law. ...

    Gloria: “Three years they’ve been married and he still doesn’t have a job! My Marnie said he just started taking these classes. Take a guess who’s paying for these classes! Anyway, maybe if he can learn a trade, G-d willing, I’ll live long enough, G-d willing, to see him become a decent husband to my Marnie!”

    Ilene: “I hate to say it, Glor, but you know what they say: You can’t make cheesecakes out of snow.

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    What Does “Only In Dreams Are Carrots As Big As Bears" Mean?

    Cartoon depicting the Yiddish quote, “Only In Dreams Are Carrots As Big As Bears"

    Nor in kholem zaynen mern vi bern.

    I can imagine you have a lot of questions. Why, you ask, would anyone need to be reminded of this seemingly obvious fact? And who is the intended audience of this saying? Who might possibly hold a vested interest in the carrot’s growth potential or lack thereof? Was this proverb the resentful and forlorn proclamation of a people suffering through an epidemic of a beta carotene deficiency? Is it possible that the author of this proverb (or someone he loved) had a paralyzing case of Lachanophobia? (Totally a real condition.)

    OK, so both are a little far-fetched. The truth is, we may never know the answers to these questions, but there is one last query that proves more fruitful (well, as fruitful as we’re going to get). The question is: why specifically the carrot and the bear? Why not a turnip and a squirrel? OK, I guess that wouldn’t be a very dramatic comparison. Well, how about a beet and a giraffe, then? The answer is simple and, well I hate to admit it, but, painfully boring. The mystery of this proverb’s particular characters all comes down to the fact that in Yiddish, the words “carrot” and “bear” rhyme. I told you. Cute, but a total snore-fest. Wait! It just occurred to me! What if it wasn’t vegetables the author (or, again, someone he loved) was so deathly afraid of but something far more sinister?! Think about it: if carrots were as big as bears, imagine the rabbits! (Leporiphobia: also a totally real condition.)

    Fun Fact! Alaska’s John Evans and the UK’s Joe Atherton hold the record for the heaviest and longest carrots ever grown, respectively. Both men are featured in The World Carrot Museum. (Also totally a real thing and very much worth checking out.) But despite these men’s impressive achievements, rest assured, my dear phobics, neither carrot came anywhere close to the size of a bear.

    Appropriate usage?

    Halfway through the fourth reading of her favorite bedtime story, little Rebekah is finally drifting off to sleep. Her grandmother closes the well-worn, food-stained book, gently tucks Rebekah in, and turns off the light. Just before tiptoeing out of the room, Bubbe kisses Rebekah on the forehead and softly whispers…

    Bubbe: “Remember, my Bubeleh, Only in dreams are carrots as big as bears.

    Over three decades later, Rebekah, still unhappily single and largely oblivious to the lasting effects of her Bubbe’s seemingly benign ritual, kvetches to yet another therapist…

    Rebekah: “I don’t know what to tell you, Doc; ever since I can remember, if I come within 100 feet of a crudite platter, I start to hyperventilate.”

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    What Does “Dress Up A Broom And It’ll Look Nice Too" Mean?

    Cartoon depicting the Yiddish quote, “Dress Up A Broom And It’ll Look Nice Too"

    Az men tut on sheyn a bezem, iz er oykh sheyn.

    This expression gets right to the point and is as harsh as it is funny. The choice of subject is ripe with intrigue and warrants some exploration.

    Why not an animal? After all, one need not look further than the farm to find fodder for many an unsavory comparison. In recent years, we’ve all been made to picture a lipstick-wearing-pig thanks to a similar expression being batted around the US political arena.

    So, why a broom? Well, first of all, I like to think of this expression as a refreshing nod to an Old World ideal that, sadly, lies in contrast to our modern standards of beauty. Historically, Jewish women are hearty, and Jewish men like them that way. Compared to our shiksa counterparts, Jewish women are often endowed with countless curves and (luckily for our vertically challenged male equivalents) rarely reach heights above five-foot-three. (The Kogan legs are relentlessly, disproportionately short and stout; built for, as my aunt always says, running away from the Cossacks.) Therefore, if the Jewish standard of beauty (dating back to the shtetl) is closer to perfectly round than long and lean, you can begin to see why a broom is a greater insult than a pig or cow. And if this weren’t enough (one-dimensional affronts rarely are), the fact that an inanimate object was chosen as the subject of this expression—the ultimate utilitarian one at that—can only be meant to add salt to the wound. After all, imagine if you were trying to fix up a friend with an unsightly someone, and, when asked what the mysterious date is like, you couldn’t even employ the fall-back avoidance technique: talking up their wonderful personality! Homely and humdrum?! That’s one two-fer even a bargain buff like me would pass up!

    Appropriate usage?

    Frank and Ruthie are reluctantly attending the Bat Mitzvah of a distant cousin’s awkward daughter, Piper…

    Ruthie: “What kind of name is Piper anyway? How are you supposed to know if she’s a boy or girl?”

    Frank: “Well, you couldn’t tell by her figure. ... ”

    Ruthie: “Frank! Hush. [giggle] Can you believe how she read her Torah portion? I thought I was going to nod off. No personality on that one! Well, at least they got her in a skirt and a bit of a heel. Who knew? She doesn’t look bad!”

    Frank:Dress up a broom and it’ll look nice too.

    Ruthie: “Frank! You’re gonna make me split my girdle! Now get me a few more rolls, would you? I still have some room in my purse.”

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    What Does “Every Ass Likes To Hear Himself Bray" Mean?

    Cartoon depicting the Yiddish quote, "Every Ass Likes To Hear Himself Bray"

    Yeder eyzl hot lib tsu hern vi er aleyn hirzhet.

    This wisely dismissive proverb reminds us not to take the musings of others too seriously. Furthermore, the animal choice in this proverb is, as usual, not arbitrary, and implies an important subtext: not only do those doing the musing like to hear themselves opine, but perhaps the value of the rhetoric being brayed—and, by extension, the brayer—needs to be seriously called into question. Why? Because they’re an ass.

    Appropriate usage?

    Adam and his grandfather are playing chess with the evening news droning on in the background. A particularly obnoxious politician appears on the screen and begins asserting views that make young Adam’s naive blood boil. Adam springs to his feet, nearly shattering a bottle of Manischewitz and causing bits of broken glass to be embedded in the carpet fibers, deep, deep in the shag. ...

    Adam: “Zeyde! Can you believe what he’s saying? He’s full of it! Where’s the remote? I can’t take another minute of this!”

    Grandfather: “Sit! Sit! It’s been your move for ages. G-d willing I’ll live to see the end of this game!”

    Adam: “Zeyde, how can you just sit there and listen to this jerk spreading lies?!”

    Grandfather: “Oh Adam. Pay no attention, Every ass likes to hear himself bray. Now play already!”

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