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    Blog — Yiddish Expressions

    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 “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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    What Does “Sleep Faster, We Need The Pillows!" Mean?

    Cartoon depicting the Yiddish quote, “Sleep Faster, We Need The Pillows!"

    Shlof gikher, men darf di kishn!

    People can be pretty particular about their pillows. Preferences vary from the plump and plush, to the pedestrian, to the painfully punitive (and, well, I suppose someone out there is partial to those pink, papery pillowcases whose purpose is to make us women forget that our feet are in stirrups and we’re about to have a “visitor” ... but hey, to each her own!).

    When it comes to pillow peculiarity, my family is a prime example

    To this day, my mother runs through a regular rotation of three different pillows from three distinct cushion categories. And my dad? Well! He had a staunch loyalty to what he referred to as his precious Jewish Pillows. (No, that’s not a euphemism for aunt Bessie's ample bosom). He could not possibly sleep without them. (Again, we’re talking pillows here, not bosoms.) Much like any addict, he had reserves squirrelled away in closets throughout our house, as well as the houses of relatives we’d visit most frequently.

    “What,” you ask, “is a Jewish Pillow?”

    Well, first of all, keep in mind this is in no way a universally-accepted term, so think twice before asking an eager employee at your local sleep center to show you to the Jewish Pillow section. (Nor is it all that P.C., so reader discretion is advised!) What my father categorized as a Jewish Pillow was one made from the highest quality down. No Jewish Pillow could contain any “drek” such as, G-d forbid, chicken feathers or, worse, synthetics! Now, while (as far as I know) this term is just one of many that comprised my dad’s personal parlance, it was born of a broader Jewish landscape. Historically, one’s status within the Jewish community, as in many other cultures, was determined by the quality of a family’s possessions; the finer the goods and materials they could afford, the better their standing. It is partly because of this traditional outlook that Jews are stereotyped as being materialistic, but the reality is that the Jewish people are no more or less materialistic than any other group; many in fact are quite the opposite. Outside the anomaly that was his cushion criteria, my dad was truly ambivalent toward material things. Allow me to illustrate with the following example:

    Daddy was in the shmata business and, as a practice, his company would cut off pieces of their garments (usually sportswear) to send as samples to potential customers. Well, Dad would think nothing of wearing and layering the leftover hole-y garments because, as he’d say, “They’re still perfectly good!” Not because he was cheap (another ugly stereotype)—he was more than capable of competing, couture-wise, with highly image-conscious Montrealers—but because he didn’t give a damn.

    The ironic part, given Dad’s high-end pillow preference, is that his most cherished Jewish Pillows were generations old and, subsequently, flat as potato pancakes—so much so that he had to sleep with at least four or five, Princess and the Pea-style. So, yeah, not exactly what anyone would call materialistic.

    As much as I’d love to go on and on about the peerless perfection that was my precious Pop, I must return to the expression in question:

    “Sleep faster, we need the pillows!”

    This is not the first time the Jewish people have put these plush props to use. We have a bit of a history with the headrest, making a habit of co-opting said cushions for purposes both physical and metaphorical. A couple of examples?

    1. There’s a well-known Jewish folktale warning against the dangers of lashan hora in which a plumage-packed pillow plays the primary part.
    2. Every spring, Jews all over the world borrow their best bedroom bolsters for the requisite reclining during the Seder. Red wine and charoset stains make for unique mementos, and, much like figurative bread crumbs (as well as actual crumbs—there are plenty of those too, and if anyone can eat a matzah-marror sandwich without making crumbs, they need to write a book), one can use them as landmarks to follow the passage of time. Allow me to illustrate:

    “Oh, that kidney-shaped schmutz? That one’s from Passover ‘92 when, during a fight over who found the Afikomen first, a rogue elbow upended Aunt Ida’s bowl of matzo ball soup and we heard Zeyde curse in English for the first time. Good times. …”

    (Word to the wise: no amount of washing, scrubbing, or other efforts by the Smell Gestapo can allay the arresting aroma of gefilte fish.)

    With this said however, no amount of pillow talk is going to get us any closer to understanding the meaning of this cryptic quote. Why? Because it’s not really about pillows at all. I’m sorry, what was that? If this has nothing to do with the oblong objects I’ve been obsessing about, were the last several paragraphs purely pointless prattle? An excuse for me to exhaust every last euphemism for these cranial cradles? A waste of your precious prescribed and otherwise productive time?

    Never! No … this, this was a … a test! Yeah, a test, see? An elaborate gambit to gauge just how in need you are of this expression’s wisdom, and judging by your little outburst it looks like I’m just in time! (And while we’re pointing fingers, you don’t see me bringing up the fact that, during my scintillating study of these noggin nests, you returned 3 voicemails and checked Facebook twice.)

    The truth behind the Pillows

    “Sleep faster, we need the pillows!” is an impossible imperative that objectifies our obsession with maximizing our every moment for the purpose of “productivity.” Its aim is to shed light on and hopefully challenge our increasingly harried habits. Those familiar with Barbara Gordon (no, Ben, not Batgirl —I’m talking about the documentary filmmaker) or the late, great actress Jill Clayburgh, are probably reminded of the former’s book (and subsequent film starring the latter), whose title practically parallels our proverb: I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can. But if you’re expecting the likes of a harrowing yet triumphant roller coaster ride of recovery (complete with climactic oceanside convulsions), you’ll be sorely disappointed. (If that were the case, do you really think I’d have maundered on about the minutiae of memory foam? Please!)

    No, the Yiddish cousin of Ms. Gordon’s captivating caption, though similar in structure, doesn’t carry the same breathtaking baggage. Although perhaps someday an aged and reflective Sasha Baron Cohen will entitle his memoir:

    Sleep Faster, We Need the Pillows
    From Borat to Burnout & Back

    How I learned to slow down and savor every second!

    But until then, what our phrase lacks in 1980s melodrama it more than makes up for in universal and timely significance. Our expression is a doomed directive that employs absurdity to showcase just how counterproductive our modern-day “Hurry up and live!” philosophy is. Think about it. Imagine rushing the very act of resting! Seems ludicrous, doesn’t it? Well, much of what we have come to expedite in our modern lives is just as unnatural!

    “Sleep faster, we need the pillows!”

    This is Yiddish wit and wisdom at its best. Like our mighty blintz, the best Yiddish expressions deliver a delicious duality: the initial allure of the crispy and comical outer layer is followed immediately by a surprising squirt of sweet (or savory) sagacity. Is anyone else hungry? Quick! Prepare the oil and fetch me my eating pillow! And be quick about it! Haven’t you heard?! Time is money!!

    So, what’s your pillow preference? Durable? Downy? Deflated? Please, (pillow) talk amongst yourselves!

    Appropriate usage?

    Following his knee replacement surgery, Albert is staying with his daughter, Gabby, and her two girls. From his vantage point on the couch, Albert has watched in a mix of silent awe and horror as his multi-tasking maven of a daughter ran circles around him all afternoon. Since coming home from her day job, Gabby has put away the groceries (which evidently required re-alphabetizing the cereal boxes), cleaned the apartment, supervised homework while cooking dinner, and counseled a friend over the phone with the receiver lodged in the crook of her neck. It’s nearly 7:30 pm and Gabby is showing no signs of slowing down. She’s currently preparing lunches while reciting tomorrow’s itinerary to her freshly-bathed kids who are “enjoying” their scheduled 18 minutes of TV time before bed. ...

    Gabby: “ ... so that brings us to 7:35 am. We’ll have 7 minutes for breakfast before we head to the arena where I’ll drop Noah off for his morning hockey practice. Then Beth and I will head to her ballet lesson. Beth, you’re going to get a ride to school with Tracy’s dad; and Noah, it’s Wednesday so you’ll take the bus. After school, Noah you have tutoring and then you need to be out front at 5:05 pm sharp. I’ll grab Beth from swimming and meet you there, OK? 5:05 sharp. That gives us 12 minutes to make it to karate. It’s a supper-in-the-car night so we’ll change when we get there. Remember how long it took Mommy to get those mustard stains out of your Gi? Beth, we’ll work on math and social studies while Noah’s in his big boy class; and Noah, when Beth is in her group we’ll tackle that science paper you have due Monday. Got it? That’ll get us home by 7:15 pm when you’ll jump straight in the bath. We’ll get up a little earlier the following morning so you can finish any remaining homework. Am I forgetting anything? Oh dear! It’s 7:46 pm! OK you two! TV off! Give Zeyde and Mommy a kiss and then it’s bedtime!”

    After goodnight kisses, Noah and Beth obediently scurry off to their respective, equally tidy bedrooms. ...

    Albert: “Gabriella, dear. I think you did forget one thing.”

    Gabby: “What is it Daddy??? I can’t imagine—”

    Albert catches his Gabby’s eye, raises a disapproving brow, and mock-shouts in the direction of his overscheduled grandchildren’s bedrooms. ...

    Albert: “Sleep faster, we need the pillows!”

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    What Does “Go Shit In The Ocean!" Mean?

    Cartoon depicting the Yiddish quote, “Go Shit In The Ocean!"

    Gai kaken oifen yam!

    I know. The translation comes as quite the shock, doesn’t it? Take all the time you need to collect yourself; pick your jaw up off the floor, change your shorts ... whatever you need. This can be tough.

    There comes a time in every Jew’s life when we learn the true nature of what our sweet little Bubbes were really muttering to themselves all those years. I imagine the way we feel as a result of this revelation is similar to the way gentile children feel when they find out …

    [SPOILER ALERT!]

    … there’s no Santa Claus. (Just so you know, we Jewish kids were told early on, as a kind of consolation I imagine, that the “jolly old elf” was a fabrication. And, yes, we subsequently enjoyed a quiet and knowing sense of superiority for most of elementary school.) Yiddish expressions, especially Yiddish curses, insults, and the like, are souped-up-turbo-Tim-The-Toolman-Taylor versions of those which reasonable people would consider more than sufficiently invective. However, as colorful as “Go shit in the ocean!” is, it seems unusually tame in comparison to its contemporaries. Accustomed as we are to having our expressions considered extreme, we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory here: smack dab in between the G-rated “Go fly a kite!” and the R-rated “Go f--k yourself!” The truth is, its lack of crude language notwithstanding, our seemingly-tame Yiddish taunt has been dangerously underrated.

    Let’s delve in, shall we?

    To begin with, the aforementioned G-rated “Go fly a kite!” is obviously absurd in that it’s essentially wishing for the target to enjoy a lovely day at the park. Useless! Couldn’t we at least throw some gory details into the mix? Is there thunder and lightning in the forecast? Or maybe a flock of pigeons is about to pass overhead after enjoying a complimentary nosh out of the local Mexican restaurant’s dumpster? (When it comes to vituperation, we Jews will choose specificity over brevity every time.)

    Now we’ll look at the Big Macher: the R-rated “Go f--k yourself!” I know modern society has come to embrace this expression and use it ad nauseum, but like the word “awesome” I believe we’ve travelled a great distance from its original meaning. Let’s look at it with fresh eyes. Is it not just—plain—ludicrous? How is one even expected to accomplish such a feat? If the target took just a minute to really think about what was being proposed, would they not be more perplexed than offended? See? Another unmitigated failure!

    Finally, let’s examine the supposed PG-rated Yiddish expression: “Go shit in the ocean!” When given proper consideration, the Yiddish version reveals its subtle genius and signature sting. Take a moment to imagine how truly humiliating and difficult a prospect it would be to fulfill this directive. I mean, even if you could find a completely deserted beach you’d never escape the beady eyes of the gulls, circling silently overhead in judgment. And what about the relentless thrashing of the waves, unstable sand, and all that slimy seaweed swishing against your legs (not to mention your unmentionables)?! Eeek! How could you possibly relax enough to let nature take its course?! You wouldn’t wish that on your worst enemy, would you?

    Or, maybe next time you will … ?

    Appropriate usage?

    Marlene and Abe are sharing a blanket and a thermos of Ovaltine in the bleachers at their grandson, Isaac’s, tee-ball game. …

    Marlene: “Is that him??”

    Abe: “Mar! For the hundredth time, no! His team’s still in the outfield.”

    Marlene: “I dunno how you can tell who’s who with all those fakakta helmets. They’re huge! He’s got such a little neck! They shouldn’t make them wear such groisser helmets!”

    Abe: “You want he gets a concussion instead?”

    Marlene: “Abraham! Tuh! Tuh! G-d forbid! ... Ooo, what’s happening? They’re all running every which way!”

    Abe: “That means we’re up, Mar! Isaac’s going to get a chance at bat!”

    Marlene: “Ohhh! I’m so nervous for him! He should really be wearing a sweater, it’s freezing out here. I haven’t felt my tuchus in ages!”

    Abe: [smirking and winking] “That makes two of us!”

    Marlene: “Abe! Don’t be crude—the children!”

    Abe: “Mar! That’s him!!! Our Isaac is up!!”

    Marlene: “Oh, I can’t look! Tell me what happens!”

    On his second swing, Isaac connects with the ball and sends it rolling lazily towards the first baseman who’s more interested in digging in his nose than fielding the oncoming grounder. After some instructive shouts from the coach and the players’ parents, the first baseman manages to get both himself and the ball back to the base before Isaac. The ump makes the “out” call, which was apparently obvious to everyone including Isaac, who trots happily back to the dugout unfazed, except Marlene who’s been watching the whole time through parted fingers. Surprising Abe, Marlene springs to her feet and shouts …

    Marlene: “Hey you! Umpire man! Gai kaken oifen yam!

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    What Does “The Roof Is On Fire And He’s (She’s) Thinking About A Canoe" Mean?

    Cartoon depicting the Yiddish quote, “The Roof Is On Fire And He’s (She’s) Thinking About A Canoe"

    Der dakh brent un er (zi) hot in zinen di multer.

    There’s no mistaking the aim of this allegation: call out a fool who, like the gentleman (or lady) starring in this saying, doesn’t have their head in the game, so to speak. This expression’s meaning is undeniably clear thanks to a device of which we Jews are famously fond: exaggeration. After all, why say anything if you’re not going to beat someone over the head with it? Subtlety is overrated … and that’s an understatement!

    We Jews artfully employ the most absurd embellishments to ensure:

    1. We’re not wasting our breath.
    2. A whole lot is said with very few words.

    Still, a proclivity for such overstatements may seem superfluous—and my assertion about my culture’s inclination toward inflation unfounded—coming from a people who never appear to be at a loss for words; who in some peoples’ opinions carry a reputation for delivering quantity over quality where communication is concerned. But the truth is—with the possible exception of one’s proverbial Uncle Sal and the odd nudnik who ruins it for the rest of us—I assure you that we Jews, armed with our ability to amplify our oratory, are more than capable of keeping our comments concise.

    Case in point, this unimaginable utterance:

    The roof is on fire and she’s thinking about a canoe.

    With less than a dozen words, a preposterous picture is painted and a piquant point is proclaimed; no elaboration needed! (Anyone still confused may need to get their head back in the game themselves.) But as silly as this scenario may seem, it would be a mistake to dismiss this expression (or any of our other overstatements) as arbitrary absurdity. Great significance lies within its seemingly-haphazard hyperbole. The roof is on fire and she’s thinking about … a canoe?! I assure you such a circumstance is not just universally untoward, the very thought of it is especially asinine when the subject is a Jew. Why? Well, 2 reasons. ...

    Reason 1: “Don’t worry, be happy”? Worry makes us happy!

    Our Jewish aptitude for aggrandizing may very well fuel the following fundamental forte: worry. We Jews are notorious neurotics, accomplished agonizers, famed fretters, well-worn wizards of worst-case-scenarios … OK, you get the point. Well, with such a renowned reputation for nerve-racking rumination, how truly inconceivable is the scenario employed by this expression? A Jew so rapt by reverie that he or she would turn a blind eye to their blazing abode?! Please! It’s far more likely that we’d find ourselves in a canoe coasting on the calmest of waters through scenic surroundings, worrying about (among other things) our house being on fire. (And that’s saying a lot! A Jew in canoe?! Hah! But more on that later. ...) Enjoy this glimpse inside this hypothetical Jew’s thoughts on such a truly hypothetical expedition:

    “Did I triple-check the stove or just double-check? What about the toaster? Did I unplug it? I remember unplugging something but that may have been the coffee maker—wait! Did I have coffee this morning? … No, I don’t think I did! Great. Now I’m going to have a headache this afternoon—I do feel a slight pressure starting behind my eyes (mind you, the sun’s glare off this lake isn’t helping things). Wait, isn’t eye pressure an early warning sign of stroke? Where’s my phone? ... I need to google this. … Oh, but what if the phone gets wet? I have nothing to dry it on! If only I thought to bring an extra towel or napkins or a couple sheets of … oh no! I left the paper towel roll on the counter … what if Mittens jumps up, knocks it over, and it rolls near the toaster—or, worse, the stove!? That’s it! I’ve got to get out of this canoe! Wait—shhh!—are those sirens in the distance!?! … ”

    Or maybe that would just be my inner dialogue? Regardless, we seasoned skeptics spend our lives constantly anticipating utter disaster (realistic or ridiculous), so we’re perpetually primed to spot even the slightest stirrings (real or irrational) of impending peril. So consequently the thought of us remaining ignorant of an outright inferno is as far-fetched as a French farmer forgoing le fromage in favor of a frankfurter with a side of flan! (Or maybe yours truly constructing a sentence without the use of alliteration. [Hey, look! I did it!])

    And so it follows logically that our tendency toward anxiety-fueled prudent practices renders the potentiality of a roof fire perfectly preposterous; and any momentary distraction therefore irrelevant. Don’t you think we’d prepare for such a possibility? (And by “prepare” I of course mean “over-prepare.”) If the high-pitched harmony of the smoke detectors (and back-up smoke detectors) fails to tease us from our trance, surely the elaborate sprinkler system we insisted on installing (despite the Fire Marshal’s urging that such precautions were overkill would hamper Hades’ handiwork long enough for the firefighters to arrive—especially considering the fact that we made a point to purchase a property that abutted the fire station.

    Reason: A brief intermission from reasons

    Now before we move on, I would be remiss if I did not address the (very- and fittingly-rotund) elephant in the room: there is only one thing in this scenario that could possibly offset our observational skills—our Achilles heel, our Kryptonite, if you will—and that is food. Yes, if the author of this proverb had opted for a knish rather than a canoe, we’d be having a very different conversation. I mean, whose mind wouldn’t wander to the thought of a savory s’more at the first whiff of burning wood? That classic, comforting combination of chocolate, marshmallow, and graham cracker melding together over a campfire; the hurried act of attacking the sweet sandwich before its gooey contents completely escape the confines of the crunchy crackers. … Oh! And have you tried swapping regular marshmallows for sugar-coated Peeps? You must—what? Oh, I’m sorry. Where was I? Oh yes. ... my point is, this proverb did choose a canoe, and unless that canoe is constructed of kugel and covered in chocolate, the author made a wise and intentional choice to help prove the proverb’s point. Which brings me to my second reason. …

    Reason 2: Sometimes a canoe is just a canoe. This isn’t one of those times!

    Why the canoe? The answer to this question is critical because it proves that the details of this expression were actually very carefully thought out and chosen for a purpose. There’s a reason the author didn’t use a bagel, or a book, or even Bergdorf’s Bargain Basement to serve as distraction, and that reasoning is:

    1. Any other option might make the scenario plausible, thereby eroding its efficacy.
    2. One cannot pass up the opportunity to push the exaggeration envelope to make extra certain the proverb’s point won’t possibly be missed. (Perhaps our tendency to double-check appliances is somehow related to our doubling up on absurdity when trying to make a point. You know, just in case. One can never be too careful!)

    Based on this straight forward logic, the canoe is the consummate choice and its effectiveness can be attributed to two factors; one universal, the other Semitic-specific:

    Universal Factor: Oil and water? No, fire and water!

    First of all, if your roof actually was on fire, ask yourself what some productive and relevant thoughts might be. Perhaps one or more of the following:

    1. “Call 911.”
    2. “Find the fire extinguishers.”
    3. “I need large and powerful hoses through which copious amounts of water could be delivered upon my smoldering ceiling.”
    4. “How soon until the handsome goys in dashing uniform come running (in slow motion) to my rescue?” (OK, so this last one, while not entirely helpful, is unquestionably relevant.)

    If any or all of those would come to your mind, Mazel Tov! You’re neither insane nor a fool. Now, ask yourself what perilous problem, if not a roof fire, is likely to logically inspire thoughts of a canoe? Exactly! A flood! (OK, not if you’re Noah facing the task of saving all of G-d’s creatures, but a canoe would totally work for one’s everyday flood needs.)

    And wouldn’t you agree that, in the disaster department, no two tragedies are more diametrically opposed than a fire and a flood? So when faced with the former, thoughts of a canoe would arguably be the most absurd anyone could have.

    See? Brilliant choice! But if this first reason isn’t enough to convince you of the canoe’s credentials, there’s my second, more targeted theory.

    Semitic-Specific Factor: It wasn’t Lewisberg and Clarkstein …

    I propose the “Canoe Premise” proves powerfully potent because, for most of us Jews, any time (roof fire or not) spent pondering a pirogue (or any other paraphernalia of proportionate perversion) strikes us as particularly pointless. Let me explain. …

    This expression plays off yet another widely-known Jewish stereotype: our aversion to outdoor activities of all kinds. Now, in the spirit of total accuracy, I must point out that while not the most renowned wildlife warriors around, we do enjoy a stroll beneath a branchy canopy as much as the next person! That being said (for the record), there does remain one activity in particular that ruins the bell curve and, by extension, our lackluster reputation for rustic relish: camping. For Jews, there’s a huge difference between “outdoors activities” and camping.

    Fun Fact! A great respect and admiration for, and even enjoyment of nature is at the very heart of Judaism. Fartootst? Take the case of my own father. He was quite closely connected to the natural world and spent every possible moment he could outside. For example:

    1. His weekends (and some weeknights) were filled with skiing and hockey throughout the winter; and tennis, rollerblading, biking, and more as soon as the mercury broke freezing.
    2. As soon as the snow would melt enough for him to free the patio furniture from its icy anchor, Daddy was outside enjoying both breakfast and dinner in the fresh air. (The rest of us, not unlike spectators at a zoo with him the fascinatingly-alien specimen, observed this behavior from the safety and warmth of the indoors, often through still-frosty windows.)
    3. Even aside from eating, his downtime was spent outside: with an extension cord running through the cracked-open backdoor (allowing flies unfettered access to our abode) across the entire length of the deck (presenting an ever-present hazard to life and limb) to power his boombox, Daddy spent afternoons reading dozens of newspapers in his weathered hammock (very relaxing notwithstanding the odd rogue page needing to be chased across the lawn).
    4. Every evening after dinner, rain or shine, with greater reliability than the Post Office, my father would drag my thin-blooded mother out for their evening walk up Mont Royal.

    But! As much time as he spent outdoors, come sundown it was back inside to civilization. There was no way in hell he’d have voluntarily popped a squat in the woods or spent a night in a tent. Many Jews draw the same distinct line in the lumpy, unforgiving earth. It’s no coincidence that Sukkot is among our least … über popular holidays, and, even when it is celebrated, the ritual for the most part only involves eating in the sukkat—and, keep in mind, even then the sukkat is erected in one’s own backyard, conveniently close to all the creature comforts—few actually sleep in it. Hey, like many of us tend to reason: 40 years in the desert is enough, thank you.

    Yes, every stereotype has its exceptions (although I’m willing to bet your Jewish friend who “loves to hike” always sticks to day trips), but this expression succeeds at being incredibly inclusive … for its time. (Keep in mind it was coined long before the invention of Nascar and power tools, and the rise of the puzzlingly-popular practice of camping—trying to pick just one perfect example from a current, comprehensive list of antithetical Jewish lifestyle practices would not be so simple!)

    Wait! you may be saying. Canoes and camping aren’t exactly synonymous! Yes, I’m quite aware, but don’t think for a moment I’m relying on such an ambivalent association to keep my argument afloat. (Ha ha!) You’ll notice from the above, otherwise extensive list of my father’s outdoor activities that all water sports are conspicuously absent. The reason is, like many Jews, my father preferred to keep both feet planted firmly on dry land. (It may come as news to you that the same, seemingly-inherited preference in addition to proneness to motion sickness keeps yours truly ashore as well.) You can’t really blame us considering:

    1. We come from an area of the world where water is extremely scarce.
    2. The Bible is proof that water was almost exclusively associated with death and danger.

    How then could we possibly know from boating?! As a perfect example of what I mean, let’s examine Moses’ parting of the Red Sea. Don’t you think it would’ve been a heck of a lot easier to conjure a cavalcade of kayaks and just coast across the current? Sure, Moses may have had a flare for the dramatic, but I’d put my money on the fact that our dear prophet (whose own traumatic childhood incident afloat Adam’s ale surely shouldn’t require mentioning) chose to take the dry road because he knew that as much as we as a people like to avoid extra exertion, when given the choice we would much rather walk. And even when we are left no other option but to take to the tide, our last choice of vessel would be a rickety canoe! Pretty much the only circumstance in which we feel comfortable setting sail is aboard a cruise ship (the bigger the better). This doesn’t say much for our nautical knack since an ocean liner is basically a floating city equipped with every conceivable amenity, whose goal is to have its passengers forget that they’re on a boat. (I don’t think I need to point out the notorious 24-hour buffets. Could offers of free food bribe us to brave the briny boundlessness in a canoe? That would have to be one hell of a spread!)

    In conclusion: a proverb as perfect as the Golden Ratio

    With all that said, I hope I’ve not only successfully sold you on the conscientious creation of this expression, but also, true to form, went completely overboard with my overstatements. Just to be safe.

    Let us once again take a moment to marvel at what a truly intricate insult is this remark: “The roof is on fire and he’s thinking about a canoe.” In this one pithy phrase, not only is its subject called out for being divergently and dangerously distracted, he’s censured even further with the implication that he’s so dim-witted and/or impractical that he’s become completely preoccupied by the most trivial of minutiae. It doesn’t get much better than that!

    Appropriate usage?

    Stan is having brunch with his son, Joel. Joel’s wife, Marcia, is expecting their first child and her due date is fast approaching. …

    Joel: “Dad, I swear, this pregnancy thing is weird! Marcia woke me up in the middle of the night last week so I could move a bureau!“

    Stan: “No, no, no! What’s weird, my son, is pregnant women! As you know, your mother’s completely meshugga, but when she was pregnant with you, she really went off the deep end! Putting ketchup on everything and telling me I had to buy all new socks! The worst was when she went into labor. I was running around, tripping over everything like a shikker, and after I finally get the car all packed, I go back into the house to get her and do know where I find her? She’s in the bathroom clipping her toenails, huffing and puffing and everything! The roof is on fire and she’s thinking about a canoe! What did I tell you? Meshugga.”

    Joel: “At least she didn’t make you stop for Jujyfruits on the way to the hospital!“

    Stan: “Huh? Vos retstu eppis!? Who’s crazy now?“

    Joel: [smiles to himself] “Forget it, Dad.“

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    What Does “Therefore The Geese Go Barefoot And The Ducks In Little Red Shoes" Mean?

    Deriber geyen di gendz borves un di katshkes in royte shikhelekh.

    You’re on the proverbial edge of your proverbial seat, aren’t you? “How the heck is she going to explain this one?!” you ask yourself. Well, sit back, relax, and prepare to be disappointed. OK, disappointed may be a little strong, but I’ll tell you upfront, you’re out of luck if you’re hoping for an action-packed explanation the likes of:

    Well! This expression can be traced all the way back to Mount Sinai. You see, Moses’ bursitis was acting up that morning so he decided to send his trusty goose-proxy to present the Ten Commandments in his place. (Few people know this but, the Burning Bush? That was actually glimpsed by Gary the goose on his way home from his gaggle’s weekly poker game. Although he later relayed the incident to our man Mo’, that kind of hearsay would never stand up these days!) After Gary prepared the tablets, Moses’ right-hand goose glanced out the window just in time to see the last strands of his sandals being gobbled up by the gluttonous neighborhood goat. Gary alerted Moses immediately, but, since the 7/11 Decree dates back to Biblical times (Genesis 3:7-11: Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. Then the Lord G-d said unto them, “Keepeth going, from this day forth; no shoes, no shirt, no service.”) and there was no time to fit Gary for new shoes (he wore a 13 and had arch issues), Moses was forced to send J. Edgar (a local duck with a thing for crimson pumps) to the mount instead.

    The very point of this expression is that it has no point. In fact, just in case there does exist a context in which this phrase could possibly be relevant, we Jews keep the following pinch hitter in our back pocket:

    Original Yiddish Saying

    “Deriber geyen katshkes borves un gendz on pludern.”

    English Translation

    “Therefore ducks go barefoot and geese without trousers.”

    Both of these irrational interjections can be used in one of two ways:

    1. As a nonsensical interpretation of something that is painfully obvious and doesn’t need interpretation at all.
    2. As a sarcastic response to an illogical statement.

    Come to think of it, the above shamefully-sacrilegious scene featuring Moses-and-his-Anatidae-attendants serves as the perfect setup for this second scenario! An irreverent invention that inane—one invoking our paramount prophet and a couple of anthropomorphized avians—is simply ripe for this sarcastic saying.

    Appropriate usage?

    Helen is on the phone with her cousin Merna in Arizona. For what feels like the 50th time, Helen is going over the contents of her suitcase in anticipation of visiting Merna and her husband this coming August. ...

    Helen: “So Mern, I’ve got my Harlequin romances, my puzzles, the photos from my cruise, my good brassiere ... what else? Oh, that article on calcium I wanted you to read, my exercise clothes. ... Oh now, Mern, you’re sure I’m not going to need my winter coat? I don’t know why you won’t let me bring it just in case.”

    Merna: “You’ve got to be kidding me! It’s Arizona in August! Therefore the geese go barefoot and the ducks in little red shoes!

    Helen: “Alright, alright! I’m just asking!”