Yiddish Curses are today's Jewish Trash Talk

        May 2014    
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Jewish "Trash-Talking" Yiddish Curses

By Walter D. Levy

"Gai in drerd arein!" my father said as he abruptly hung up the phone. Our landlord had just complained that he hadn't received our monthly rent check. My father said to my mother, "I mailed it out two or three days ago. The gonif!" he added.

When I was boy growing up in the Dorchester-Mattapan section of Boston, and on the occasions when we visited my grandparents in Syracuse, NY, I heard Yiddish - more specifically - Yiddishe swears, all the time. I later surmised it was their way; the way that my parents and grandparents felt most comfortable in expressing their displeasure.

I'd classify their approach as "the Jewish way" of "getting it off your chest," that is, without letting anyone - except possibly a fellow-Jew who understood Yiddish - know exactly what they were saying. Oh, and of course they didn't want their children - heaven forbid - to hear them saying coarse English-language swear-words. Simply stated, it was an expedient, almost secretive way of "talking trash".

Well, I'll never forget the day over sixty years ago that we were visiting my mother's parents, my Bubbe and Zayde, in Syracuse, NY. That evening, my mother and her younger brother, my Uncle Marv, brought home a take-out pizza (who knew from pizza in those days?). Immediately, my Bubbe, who was as frum [pious]as the day is long and kept a strictly kosher home took a conniption. "Is this 'pig'?" she stridently asked. Then, she used the Yiddish expression, "Chazerei" [pig, unclean]. I remember meekly saying, "Bubbe, I don't think so" (it looked to me like a plain cheese pizza).

Well, in hindsight, I don't think Mayne Bubbe ever got over it. I don't recall ever seeing a pizza in her house again; maybe a kosher bologna or salami from Trotsky's Kosher Market on South State St., but not a pizza.

At about the same time, I recall that my father and I were watching the 1951 National League baseball playoff game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers on our old black-and-white TV. I can still my see my father now, then an ardent Dodgers fan, sitting on the sofa glued to the set when the Dodgers pitcher, Ralph Branca, served up a "gopher ball" to the Giants' Bobby Thomson.

I can still hear my father now as the ball left Thomson's bat: "Oy Vey! Oy Vey!" he repeated as the baseball nestled into the stands down the left-field line in the old Polo Grounds. And then, as Thomson rounded the bases, my father called out, "That Bobby Thomson: "Gai kukken afen yam!" [He should go defecate in the ocean].

Yet, there were certainly other times when either my parents or my grandparents used Yiddishe swears. Only on some occasions they didn't have the time for lengthy idiomatic Yiddishe expressions. On those occasions they'd settle for "What a klutz!" [a clumsy person; a fool]. Or meeskeit [an ugly person]. And other Yiddishe words, such as: fortz [fart], nebbish [a loser], schlemiel [a retard], schmegegge [a jerk], and a meshuggener [a crazy person]

Yet, as I think back, there was one time that really stood out, at least when it came to my father's use of Yiddish swears. On that occasion, we were about to purchase a new car from a local dealership. Everything seemed set. And, prior to picking up the car, my father had made all the financial arrangements. I recall my father was getting ready to hand over a down payment check and then drive off in our new vehicle when - in mitten drinen [suddenly, unexpectedly] - problems arose. Apparently, the salesman who sold my father the car had failed to mention the added costs like a title search, dealer prep, etc. that amounted to several additional dollars.

Well, my father was livid. You should know at this point that my father was too refined a man to let it all hang out at the dealership, so - after he had nixed the deal and walked out of the showroom - he let out all his pent-up frustrations with a steady stream of Yiddishe swears. I can't remember them all, but I do remember some: putz, schmuck, mamzer, gazlen, ghlub, nishtikeit, grober and the list went on and on (you'll have to excuse me for not translating; some are simply too crude).

And yes, I freely admit, even today - yet to a somewhat lesser degree - the tradition of using Yiddishe swears continues. Shortly before I retired from teaching we had an open house at my school. I remember a parent being quite critical (I thought unfairly) of some of my educational methodologies. Now, don't get me wrong, I can accept constructive criticism, but this was more of a personal, verbal attack.

I do recall just sitting there and listening politely to the parent's constant haranguing. Yet, when the parent's verbal tirade had at last ended and he left my room, I bellowed out - no one else was in the room at the time - just as my father had done years earlier: "Geh in dread arein!" [Go to hell!]. You know, I have tell you, it felt good saying it in Yiddish. And, if by chance, there was anyone within in earshot, they wouldn't have understood what I was saying, anyway. That was the beauty of it all.

Oh, I almost forgot, as for the landlord, the one who had complained that he hadn't received my father's rent-check. He found it. At least his partner did. The partner had misplaced it. I remember my father was mollified that the landlord had offered his apologies. My father then said to my mother, "Golda, you need to "moykhl zayn" [To forgive].


from the May 2014 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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