The Freudian Side of Jewish Expressiveness
By Meyer Zaremba
Editor’s note: This article appeared in the February
1994 issue of Der Bay. This was the third year of its publication.
As a celebration of having completed 18 years of continuous publication, each issue will have one
or two articles of “the best of the rest”
Meyer and Helen have been continuous supporters
of Der Bay and have contributed articles periodically. They can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
When I get together with friends who share my background we often reminisce about years spent growing up in the tenements and the common threads that run through our experiences as children of Yiddish-speaking parents. One of these threads was the adult world’s capacity for instant generation of an ‘expression’ in reaction to any situation:
If my mother wanted to comment on the never-ending tribulations in dealing with a fool, she’d say:
A toytn baveynt men zibn teg, a nar dos gantse lebn. (You mourn for the dead seven days, a fool for your entire life.)
If my father was prodded “to make sacrifices for the common good” but suspected the prodder wasn’t doing very much himself, he’d counter with:
“Af yenems tokhes iz gut tsu shmaysn.”
(It’s good to whip somebody else’s behind.)
If my aunt wanted to criticize somebody who was putting on airs, she’d announce:
“Zi meynt az zi pisht boyml.”
(She thinks she urinates olive oil.)
If my uncle became frustrated by a person who wouldn’t accept the "wisdom" of his arguments, he’d strike back with:
“Gib tsu farshteyn a sores dem tam fun biye!”
(Go explain to a eunuch the taste of intercourse!)
If the “boarderke” lashed out against one who wronged her, she’d cry:
“Men zol dir tsuklepn tsum vant vi a luakh un yedn tog zol men fun dir aropraysn eyn shtik.“
(May you be affixed to the wall like a calendar and every day have one piece torn from you.)
The above all are examples of Yiddish expressiveness that have three things in common. They all express varying degrees of hostility and/or ridicule. They are all funny. They are all in harmony with theories advanced by Sigmund Freud.
In l905 Freud published, Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious. Using many “Jewish anecdotes of deep significance” that he had been collecting, Freud analyzed them and came to certain conclusions with regard to the purpose served by joking:
“A joke will allow us to exploit something ridiculous in our enemy which we could not, on account of obstacles in the way, bring forward openly or consciously. They [jokes] make possible the satisfaction of an instinct (whether lustful or hostile) in the face of an obstacle that stands in its way. They circumvent this obstacle and in that way draw pleasure from a source which the obstacle had made inaccessible.“
Freud's humor serves a very important purpose. It relieves one of tension; it releases one from inhibition. The “censor,” which is Freud’s term for the internal inhibition which prevents us from giving rein to many of our natural impulses, must be outwitted if we are to be permitted to give expression to our hostile impulses, our malicious impulses, our sexual impulses, and, says Freud, this outwitting of the “censor” is effected through humor. It is in the light of these theories that the Freudian side of Jewish Expressiveness becomes clear.
YIDDISH EXPRESSIONS ARE MINIATURE JOKES! Not only are so many of the techniques (play on words, bewilderment and illumination, double entendres, diversion of train of thought) described by Freud as providing the underpinning in joking present in JOKES, but evidence of these same techniques are so often present in Yiddish Expressiveness.
YIDDISH EXPRESSIONS ARE FUNNY! They are, also biting, sarcastic, belittling, ironic, hostile. They are used as “shtokhs” (shots) and “grizhes” (grating gnaws) with which to put adversaries in their place, and it is the humor with which these arrows are directed towards targets that make them “acceptable” even to the targets themselves.
The wit with which Jews expressed themselves
made possible the sarcasm directed towards those
in “high stations” and even towards God Himself/ Herself:
“Der rebbe iz groys ven er hot a sakh kleyne yidelakh.” (The rabbi is a giant when he is
surrounded by dwarfs)
“Gotenyu, helf mir tsu oyfshteyn; faln ken ikh
aleyn.” (Dear God, help me to stand; I can fall
down by myself.)
The cleverness with which Yiddish Expressions
are constructed allowed for the verbalization of cynicism and skepticism about our cherished
values and beliefs:
“Di toyre laykht, di toyre brent, ober varemen
varemt der kerbel” (The Torah illuminates, the
Torah burns, but warmth is provided by the ruble.)
“Vos toyg khokhme az narishkayt gilt.” (What’s
the good of wisdom when it’s foolishness that succeeds.)
“Ven a nes treft zikh, vayst oys az s’iz nisht keyn nes.”
(Once a miracle happens it proves it’s not a
miracle.) It is the wit with which it is fashioned that allows (at least in some quarters) for the acceptance
of sayings with sexual overtones. The following will probably elicit a smile instead of reproach because they are “funny”:
“Az der mentsh iz umetik lozt der kleyner oykh arop dem kop.“ (When a man is sad his “little one” also hangs its head.)
“A kurveh git nit oyf kredit vorum ir gesheft iz nor oyf a minut.” (A whore does not give credit because her business is open only for a minute.)
Sigmund Freud asserts that jokes serve a very serious purpose. It is my contention that Jewish Expressions deserve an honored place alongside Jewish jokes. THEY ARE JEWISH JOKES!! They are an integral part of the much proclaimed whole which we call JEWISH HUMOR and together they are entwined with our Self-Assertiveness, our Self-Preservation, our Survival-Through-Laughter in a succession of hostile environments.
“From the Original” Editor's Note: Meyer Zaremba's very humorous book, Freud un Fargenign, was reviewed in the April 1993 issue of Der Bay. He can be reached at 6406 Pointe Pleasant Circle, Delray Beach, Florida 33484. Meyer is a performer in great demand, and also has taught at Elderhostels. He's one funny man!
Saskatoon Becomes the Newest Canadian City Added to TYN List
Editor’s note: Much has happened since this article was published in Der Bay, January 1994. Both Barry and Bess Shockett, o”h, are no longer with us and Sylvia is no longer with the Committee for Yiddish. We now have TYN contacts in Halifax, Fort Erie, Windsor, Dundas, Hamilton, Edmonton, Aspen Park and Regina and the Canadian list has more than doubled to 261 key people in the Yiddish Community.
The Yiddish Network's (TYN) newest contact is Anna Gersher of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Since the next Yiddish Club Conference is being held in Canada, this addition is even more significant.
Anna was born in Moldova, USSR and wrote that a small group was going to meet for the purpose of possibly starting a Yiddish club. Presently there is no organized Yiddish activity. She will be reporting on its results.
We still are searching for a contact in Regina. Both Regina and Saskatoon have a Jewish population under a thousand. Other cities for which we need an immediate contact include: Edmonton, Halifax, Hamilton, Kingston, and even Quebec City (:–l.
The database of key Canadians numbers 100, and our current Canadian TYN list now stands at eleven. They are in:
Canadians can receive the names and addresses by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) to our Toronto contact Sylvia Lustgarten at 4600 Bathurst St., Willowdale, ON, M2R 3V2. Subscribers to Der Bay, who are traveling to Canada, may receive this list from the editor by sending a request and including a (SASE).
Remember that the contact for the Yiddish Club Conference in Toronto, and also the Canadian representative on the International Yiddish Club Committee, is Bess Shockett at 303 Joicey Blvd., Toronto, Ontario, M5M 2V8 Canada.