Published: Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 02:02
When you think Jews, you probably think Hebrew. I think of eating far too much food as a child and a marginally overbearing family, but you probably think Hebrew. It is, after all, the language of the Torah, the Jewish Bible. But the Hebrew spoken and written today is Modern Hebrew — a revival and an evolution of Biblical Hebrew, yes, but a language that no Jew spoke as their mother tongue for nearly 2,000 years. They spoke Yiddish.
Until its near-extinction during the Holocaust, Yiddish was the first language of millions of Ashkenazi Jews, — these are ethnic Jews, mind you, not necessarily religious ones. Though initially a Germanic language, Yiddish grew to incorporate bits of Hebrew and other languages the Jews encountered over a thousand years, eventually giving birth to a distinct language that flourished in eastern Europe.
Yiddish is never more expressive, creative and colorful than when you’re using it to insult someone. The range of words that exist to execute a searing verbal smack -down is never ending. And a disproportionate amount of those words — of the Yiddish lexicon in general, really — begin with “sch-”. There’s “schmuck,” “schmekel,” “schmegegge.” My dad’s favorite for me growing up was “schmendrick.” I suppose ‘sch-’ is just a satisfyingly vulgar phoneme.
Oddly enough, a fair fraction of Yiddish insults literally just translate to “penis.” Seriously. I’m guessing that the variety only exists to fairly represent the range of size, girth and inherent efficacy — or lack thereof — that a penis can have. Perhaps self-confidence was in short supply among European Jews. That, and Victorian sensibilities.
There is a lovely pair of ‘sch-’ words, though, that often work in tandem. They do not translate to “penis,” but can articulate just as well some people’s strong propensity to make you roll your eyes and sigh. They are “schlemiel” and “schlimazel.” The common joke used to illustrate the difference between the two is that a “schlemiel” is the fool who spills a cup of scalding hot coffee on his neighbor. A “schlimazel” is the one who gets spilled on.
A “schlemiel” is a sort of equal-opportunity klutz. They’ll trip over themselves almost daily and most likely pull you down with them. Kind of like being caught in Shamu’s splash zone. The closest English approximation would be “bungler,” but no one who speaks English actually uses that word. “Schlimazel” literally means “crooked luck,” and as such, they are the walking epitome of Murphy’s Law — if some misfortune can befall them, it will. A “schlimazel” would manage to get caught in the crossfire of a police shootout and then be sent to the hospital to have the bullet removed by a blind doctor.
Neville Longbottom is a schlemiel — or at least he was pre-Deathly Hallows, when he was upgraded to magical badass status. Eugene Horowitz is a schlimazel — you know, that ginger dolt from “Hey Arnold!” (1996-2004) who attracted lightning bolts and bad juju like a magnet.
It’s a wonder that English can function without such admirably succinct words for such common afflictions. Then again, my perspective may be slightly skewed, as I am both a schlemiel and a schlimazel. Cracking my ribs after falling off a swing set built for five-year-olds was hardly the work of an Olympic gymnast. But doing it twice, and then proceeding to fall off my bike in the middle of College Ave., trip and fall over a crack in the sidewalk while running, ski into two trees, run straight through a screen door and both crash my car and get it towed within the same week is just bad luck.
Falcon Reese is a junior majoring in sociology. He can be reached at Falcon.Reese@tufts.edu.