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!
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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