Jewish Curses – Then & Now
Verbal wit can serve as a safe outlet for repressed impulses, and if your aggression is likely to elicit retaliation, it is prudent that your slings and arrows be linguistic rather than physical. Cursing has proved to be a cathartic tool for oppressed minorities. This is borne out by the colourful curses to be found among chronically subjugated groups such as gypsies, African-Americans and, of course, Eastern European Jews.
The Jews who lived in Eastern Europe before WWII had no problems cursing creatively, as they enjoyed the advantage of speaking Yiddish, a tongue seemingly fashioned exclusively for the prickly barb.
Yiddish curses should not be confused with the Hebraic curses of the Bible. Hebrew curses were deadly serious whereas there is a humourous thrust to almost all Yiddish curses. Although most people associate cursing with malevolence, Yiddish ones can be downright jocular. This is because the Yiddish curser usually does not believe in the power of her/his execration. Yiddish cursing developed into a choreographed activity where satisfaction was gained by ejaculating an imaginative imprecation. Many of the ditties were improvised and were designed to exhibit the verbal nimbleness of the execrator. Yiddish curses lull you with their seeming innocence, then flatten you with the punch line. An example of this verbal feinting is “May you lose all your teeth except one-so you can have a tooth ache.”
This is not to say that ill will was never directed towards others in Yiddish curses. Shtetl life in Eastern Europe was onerous and interactions did not take place in idyllically bucolic settings with fiddlers prancing on rooftops. In this environment, an acerbic wit and a good delivery could earn one much respect A good example is, “May you fall into the outhouse just as a regiment of Cossacks finishes a prune stew and twelve barrels of beer!” But in cursing your neighbour or your competitor at the market, you could pretend that the object of your scorn was the Czar or some other oppressor.
Yiddish cursing was, by and large, the domain of women. The men enjoyed sanctuary in holy studies but Jewish women were not invited to club meetings and because men devoted most of their time to religious study, women became the family providers. The only profession open to her was work at the market and to release anxiety in this hectic workplace, it was necessary to learn to “curse like a market-woman.”
Henny Youngman mother-in-law jokes notwithstanding, in Yiddish culture, a mother-in-law was not the bane of a man, but of a woman who could be constantly besieged by her mother-in-law in the home or the market. Two examples of women’s disdain for mothers- in-law are, “May your mother-in-law treat you like her own daughter and move in with you!” and “May your husband`s father marry three times so that you have not one but three mothers-in-law!”
One would never merely say “Drop dead!” in Yiddish. The simplest way of expressing this aspiration was “Into the earth with you!” Since a child could only be named after a deceased, you could kill with kindness by saying “May they name a baby after you!” One's death wish could be couched in blessings, as in “May you have a sweet death and have a wagonload of sugar run over you” ; “May God bless you with a son so smart he learns the mourner's prayer before his Bar Mitzvah speech!” and “May you be spared the indignities of old age!”
Wishing disease or pain on someone was a popular theme, especially if the individual was wealthy. Benedictions took sudden u-turns and mutated into maledictions: “May he own ten shiploads of gold-and may all of it be spent on sickness.” One peculiar ill wish was “A cholera in your bones!” It must have been felt that bone cholera was more uncomfortable than the run-of-the-mill variety. Other ill wishes included, “All problems I have in my heart should go to his head,” “May you become famous-they should name a disease after you!” and "May your blood grow so healthy, your leeches' leeches need leeches!” Anorexia nervosa was not a common ailment, and a zaftig figure was a sign of affluence and a selling point for the local matchmaker. “May you never develop stomach trouble from too rich a diet” was definitely not a blessing but it sounds desirable next to “May you grow four stomachs like a cow, so that you get four times the bellyache and four times the heartburn.”
Alas, Yiddish is not widely spoken anymore but the spirit of these curses lives on at the website www.yiddishcursesforrepublicanjews.com. Here's a sampling :
May you sell everything and retire to Florida just as global warming makes it uninhabitable.
May your insurance decide constipation is a pre-existing condition.
May the state of Arizona expand their definition of “suspected illegal immigrants ” to “anyone who doesn't hunt .”
May you grow like an onion with your head in the ground and then may the ground be fracked.
Howard's book From Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published next Spring.