I haven’t had as much time for this blog this week, so in lieu of my usual proverb with commentary, here are the four best Yiddish proverbs I discovered this week (from Fred Kogos’ “Dictionary of Popular Yiddish Words, Phrases and Proverbs”):
Hob mich vainik lib nor hob mich lang lib.
Better love me little, but love me long.
Hob nit kain moireh ven du host nit kain ander braireh.
Don’t be scared when you have no other choice.
In a shainem epel gefint men a mol a vorem.
In a good apple, you sometimes find a worm.
Kain braireh iz oich a braireh.
No choice is also a choice.
“Only once did the sun stand still”.
This saying references the story in the book of Joshua where a miracle stops the sun in the sky until ancient Israel can win a battle against their enemies (Joshua 10:13). The point is obvious: don’t rely on a miracle to make what you want happen.
All of us have a lot of things we wish would happen, both on a personal and a global level. We hope we will be healthy, happy and safe. We hope that climate change will be stopped and the ecosystems and creatures of the earth will survive, peace will prevail over war, and justice over injustice.
The question is, what are we doing about it? We can’t take on all of these causes (unless we can, and if you’re in that position, good for you!) but the pertinent question to ask ourselves is, is there anything in our lives we long for but are not actually taking practical steps to make happen? I can think of a damning list of things I wish for and maybe even pride myself on wishing for, but am not doing anything, or in any case could be doing more about. The message of this yiddishe vort: The sun will not stand still for me or for you.
This Yiddish saying sounds like it means “money is blood”, which too often is true when blood is shed for money,but it actually translates as “money is mud”. Several associations present themselves when one hears this saying:
Money is quicksand. The more money one has, the more one sinks in it, is consumed with protecting it and defending it, or making it grow. The sinking trap of money is not limited to those who have it, though. In an unequal society where whether or not one has money is conditional on many factors, only some of which are in one’s control and only some of the time, those who do not have money can also end up sunk in obsession about how to get more, how to pay next month’s rent, how to afford better food for one’s children.
Money sticks to everything it touches. Mud sticks to hands, shoes, clothing. It has a way of finding itself in your house, in the cracks of your shoes, smeared on your pants. Money also has a way of sticking to you, of walking alongside you, of insinuating itself into everything.
Money leaves a trail. As the saying goes, “follow the money”. Why did Christie Clark approve Kinder Morgan’s pipeline? Does it have anything to do with the more than $700,000 that Kinder Morgan donated to the BC liberals? Why was Drumpf elected president?
Gelt iz blotte.
Vos iz dem indik far a khilek tsi men koylet im af purim tsu der sude oder af peysekh tsum seyder?
What difference does it make to the turkey whether it’s slaughtered for the Purim feast or the Passover seder?
We live in a world of spin. Battles are fought with storms of words and rationalizations and counter-narratives abound, but in the end what are the real results of a given action? To a turkey, whether it’s slaughtered for Pesach or Purim is irrelevant. In the end it’s a dead bird.
It’s important to focus on the real world results of lifestyle choices, ideologies, policies and procedures. A good shpil is a good shpil, but what is the human cost, what the real result in the end? Prime Minister Trudeau may sport a Haida raven tattoo, but how does he treat real Indigenous people? He may do a mean “peacock” yoga pose, but does he support Hydro projects that will destroy the habitats of real animals? Another way of paraphrasing this proverb: keep your eye on the ball.
“Ten wise men were needed to save Sodom from being destroyed”, said the Kotzker Rebbe, “but it takes only one fool to destroy the world.” Or in the words of the Beastie Boys, it takes time to build, it takes a second to wreck it. With Drumpf’s inauguration on the horizon, coming relentlessly like the heat burst from the death star in Rogue One, the above statement seems all too true. How much work will it take to undo what one fool has done? An impossible equation to figure.
“This world is the world of work”, wrote the famous French born Jewish Torah commentator Rashi in the 11th century, “And here there is no rest.” Jewish tradition conveys a timeless urgency about moral action and the search for truth, and a relentless focus on details. Though in the peak days of the comfort bubble of mid-20th century capitalism it may have seemed to us like such stringent effort was misplaced and we should all learn to relax, accept a multiplicity of views, chill out and follow our bliss, the dark ride of the 21st century now underway suggests that such luxury is a perilous illusion.
How does this relate to our proverb? It takes a strong community to withstand the mischief of fools. The American lesson is that a community riven with weakness, self-interest, and moral compromise will collapse when one strong man with a sling-shot, swaggering in like a bizarro version of King David, animated not by faith but by lack of self-doubt, let’s his projectile fly. All of us have woken up to see that we are not able to sit back and enjoy the deteriorating pleasures of late modernity as it yeilds to something new and only partially imaginable, but must sober ourselves and put our hands to the plough. “You are not obligated to finish the work, but nor are you free to desist.” (Pirke Avot).
This curious saying can only be understood if you know another Yiddish saying: אויפֿן גנבֿ ברענט דאָס היטל. Afn ganef brent dos hitl: On the thief, the hat burns, or in other words, a stolen hat burns on your head. The saying above plays on that well known Yiddish proverb by qualifying it: the hat burns unless it’s a top hat, or as another Yiddish saying has it: קליינע גנבֿים הענגט מען, גרויסע שענקט מען. Kleyne ganovim hengt men, groyse shenkt men: Petty thieves are hanged; big time thieves are pardoned.
I can’t think of a more apropos saying to reflect on and remember as the Drumpf presidency unfolds down south. Drumpf is guilty of dozens of crimes and misdemeanours that would sink an average person. The only reason they haven’t sunk him is his wealth. Over the course of the 20th century democracies have tried to create systems to protect us from individuals or groups using wealth or force in order to dominate and damage our societies. The big question which remains unanswered as we go into 2017 is whether or not civil society and the laws of the land will protect us all from the consequences of the most powerful country on earth being ruled by a narcissistic conman with less moral sense than the average toddler, or whether he and his cronies will be able to bend the structures we thought would protect us to their will.
יעדער מענטש האָט זיך זײַן פּעקל
Yeder mentsh hot zikh zayn pekl.
Everyone has his own burden.
Another way you could translate this is “everyone has his own baggage”. Either way, the point is the same: everyone suffers, everyone has a history, and much or all of it is invisible to us. As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr once wrote: “Look, I didn’t ask to be born.” All of us are born into situations we didn’t choose, needing to learn to operate and then care for bodies and minds we didn’t choose to be in, often with minimal instructions given the daunting complexity of the task. Parents, class, race, even religion, are largely chosen for us and we must learn to play the hand we’re dealt. To quote another Yiddish proverb:
ווען אַלע זאָלן ברענגען זייערע פּעקלעך צרות אין מאַרק פֿאַרקויפֿן
.וואָלט יעדערער גיך זײַן פּעקל צוריקגעכאַפּט
Ven ale zoln brengen zeyere peklekh tsores in mark farkoyfn, volt yederer gikh zayn pekl tsurikgekhapt.
If everyone brought their bundle of troubles to sell in the market,
each person would quickly take back his own.
Let’s try to be gentle and understanding with each other.
לאז נישט דעם רוגז אבערנאכטיקן ביי דיר
Loz nisht dem rogez ibernechtiken bei dir
Don’t let your anger stay overnight with you.
This saying reflects an old teaching in Judaism. In Tehillim/Psalms and Mishle/Proverbs there are many sayings warning against the dangers of anger. Rabbinic teachings follow suit: One must not persist in a quarrel (Sanhedrin 110a). The traditional Siddur (prayerbook) lists “making peace between one person and another” as a mitzvah (good deed) whose fruit one enjoys both in this world and the next (Hasidic prayerbooks add, “and between a man and his wife!”).
Traditional siddurs also include a prayer before sleep where one forgives anyone who may have hurt one. The prayer is admirable in its thoroughness, stating, “I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or irritated me, or who has offended me, whether they injured me my body, my finances, my honour or my property, and whether they did so under duress or willingly, inadvertently or deliberately, whether with full consciousness or whimsically, whether in word and deed…” The prayer than continues with a clause that surprises many Jews: “…whether in this lifetime or in another incarnation (Reincarnation has in fact been accepted as part of Orthodox Jewish theology for almost four centuries)…and then concludes, “…any person, and may no one be punished on my account.” The prayer really covers all the basis.
We can learn from this tradition. It would be a good thing to take this saying literally and close our accounts at the end of every day. It would be even better to take its intent to heart and forgive those we jostle and bump against in this life as soon as have the heart to, for the sake of peace both internal and external.
לאָז אַרײַן אַ חזיר אין שטוב, קריכט ער אויפֿן טיש. Loz arayn a khazer in shtub, krikht er afn tish. Let a pig in the house, and he’ll crawl on the table.
Who can read this Yiddish proverb and not immediately think of Donald Trump? The President-Elect tours the country gloating in front of his supporters while refusing intelligence briefings (because he’s “a very smart person”) and rage-tweeting at comedians and teenage girls who criticize him, while gleefully accepting commendations from anyone who will offer them, whether it destabilizes relations with China or emboldens overseas tyrants like Putin or not. ער האָט אַזוי פֿיל שׂכל ווי אין קלויסטער מזוּזות. Er hot azoy fil seykhl vi in kloyster mezuzes. He has as much sense as a church has mezuzahs.
Will he actually do the horrible things he has promised to do? It’s hard to say, since as the saying goes- זײַן וואָרט זאָל זײַן אַ שטעקן, וואָלט מען זיך ניט געטאָרט אָנשפּאַרן. Zayn vort zol zayn a shtekn, volt men zikh nit getort onshparn- If his word were a stick, you couldn’t lean on it. It is impossible to get over the sight of Trump- incompetent, narcissistic, ignorant, entitled, a pathological liar, sexual predator, and ally of white nationalists- and think, “President of the USA.” Those who took to the streets with signs reading “Not My President” are surely on the right side of history. After all, טו אָן אַ חזיר אַ שטרײַמל, וועט ער ווערן רבֿ. Tu on a khazer a shtrayml, vet er vern rov? If you put a Hasidic hat on a pig, does that make him a Rabbi?
That said, the Trump administration is terrifying. Between Bannon, a white nationalist, as chief strategist, Pruitt, an opponent of environmental regulation, to head the EPA, Flynn, an islamophobe and conspiracy theorist who believed Pizzagate, as national security advisor, one can’t help but worry, ?װאָס קען װערן פֿון די שאָף אַז דער װאָלף איז דער ריכטער Vos ken vern fun di shof az der volf iz der rikhter? What will become of the sheep if the wolf is the judge?
What is truly amazing are those who think that the office itself will bring dignity and common sense to Trump’s head, or that he will suddenly wake up with a conscience. All I can say to that is, אױב די באָבע װאָלט געהאַט אַ באָרד, װאָלט זי געװען אַ זײדע. Oyb di bobe volt gehat a bord, volt zi geven a zeyde. If grandma had a beard, she would be a grandpa.