I have bought the book Yiddish for fun in Brno, in the Academia bookshop, gallery and café where between two books you are served cakes, and from six in the evening the writers entertain their readers by words of mouth. Its author, Leo Rosten who had been born back in the Łódź of the czars, became popular in America – and, God knows why, also in Bohemia – with his books written on the encounters between the English and Yiddish language. The Hyman Kaplan series is the chronicle of the struggles of a Russian Jewish immigrant and his companions with the English language in the night school, while The Joys of Yinglish (1998) comments on the Yiddish words naturalized in English.
This book, in the original edition The Joys of Yiddish (1968) – whose enlarged edition, The New Joys of Yiddish was published in 2001 and also translated to Ceczh as Jidiš pro ještě větší radost, „Yiddish for even more fun” – is the explanatory dictionary of hundred and one Yiddish terms which illustrates their use not only with sample sentences but also with Jewish jokes. A genial feature of the dictionary is that it does not only interpret the most frequent Yiddish words – tsadik, mazel tov, rebe –, but it also lists with a special delight the various (up to fifteen or eighteen) shades of meaning of Yiddish interjections – aha! oyoyoy! feh! hoo-ha! nu! – which express a lot even with their changing emphasis: *
A term of several meanings, which formerly was frequently used in the Jewish conversation. Some of its meanings:
1. Understanding. “So you do not substract but add it? Ah-A!”
2. Realization. “AhA! That’s why he declined the invitation to dinner!”
3. Surprise. “So the doctor was wrong? AHA!”
4. Instruction. “Go and ask her, then you will see how things are. Aha!”
5. Joy. “Ah – A! So I have won the bet!”
6. Triumph. “AhA!” (Unsaid: So you confess that you were wrong!)
Don’t confuse “Aha” with the important interjection “Hoo-ha!” of which we will speak later.
Mr. Sokoloff has had dinner for twenty years in the same restaurant on the Second Avenue. This evening, as always, he orders bouillon. The waiter brings it, and wants to go back, but Mr. Sokoloff addresses him: “Waiter!” – “Yes, please?” – “Be so kind to taste this soup.” – “But Mr. Sokoloff, you have come here for twenty years and you have never complained.” – “Please”, repeats Mr. Sokoloff obstinately, “taste this soup.” – “But what is the matter, Mr. Sokoloff?” – “Please taste it.” – “All right”, the waiter says. “But… a moment. Where is the spoon?” – “Aha!”, says Mr. Sokoloff.
I thought about translating the book into Hungarian, of course from the English original. But as soon as I began to check, I discovered that it already had a Hungarian clone: the 100+1 jiddis szó: zsidóságismeret új megközelítésben (100+1 Yiddish words: Jewish studies in a new approach, Budapest: Makkabi 1999) by Chief Rabbi of Budapest Tamás Raj.
At the first glance this book looks like an adaptation of The Joys of Yiddish. For both of them interpret 101 Yiddish terms, and a great part of them are also identical in the two books. And they also have the same structure. Each term is provided with a short definition and then illustrated with a number of Jewish jokes and anecdotes. Of course it would be a shame if the wise author did not know the book which has been the basic literature of this topic for more than thirty years. However, the 100+1 jiddis szó fails to refer to any antecedents. The name of Rosten or the title of The Joys of Yiddish does not occur a single time in it. On the contrary, Tamás Raj traces back the birth of his book to a personal inspiration:
The idea of this book was provided to me by a saying of Rabbi Lau. He has insisted that every Jew of Israel, even if perfectly speaking Hebrew, should learn a hundred words in Yiddish, the language of the European diaspora. Through these one hundred words everyone could recognize and feel the way of thinking of their ancestors as well as the peculiar atmosphere of the old ghettos and synagogues.
This multitude of random coincidences seems quite unlikely, but don’t forget that the Septuagint was also translated from Hebrew to Greek by seventy wise rabbis working independently of each other, and nevertheless their results, when compared at the end, were identical to the letter.
But apart from the similarities in the basic idea and structure, the book of Tamás Raj is a quite original work. In contrast to his predecessor he is less interested in the shades of meaning of the terms and more in the rich historical tradition standing behind them, from which he quotes with delight one story after the other. Most of his stories does not come from the international stock of Jewish anecdotes, but from his own personal experiences, from the Hungarian Jewish lore, or from the fresh events of recent decades, like this example of the article Sheker-bilbul (confuse lie):
In the times of Soviet power an American journalist visited Moscow. The above mentioned Comrade Brezhnev gave him a display of the brilliant economic situation of the Soviet Union, telling him that for one ruble one can buy a suit and for two rubles a complete calf. The journalist listened to him doubtfully.
– If you do not believe me, I will call in someone whom you will certainly believe –, Brezhnev said. And they agreed that the Chief Rabbi of Moscow would decide the question.
– Well, Mr. Rabbi – the party leader asked in an awkward tone – the truth is that one can buy a calf for two rubles at us, isn’t it?
The rabbi felt utterly embarrassed. If he tells the truth, he will be taken to the Gulag, and if he does not, he will lose his reputation all over the world. After a short consideration he answered to the journalist:
– But why do you insist on that calf? Do you know what? Add a hundred rubles to it, and then you can even buy a chicken.
The anecdotes, etymologies, historical analyses follow each other in an exuberant storytelling, and unexpected relationships are illuminated to the great delight of the reader. Se non è vero, è ben trovato. Like the following story about the Chinese Sassoon sisters in the article S’hoyre (wares).
And if we are here, we also have to tell about the Chinese Jews who settled there and used to live there in a large number because of the above mentioned Silk Road, to ensure the transport of the s’hoyre, especially around Kaifeng and in Shanghai. In the latter city there lived a rich Jewish businessman of Baghdadi origin from the famous Sassoon family, whose name was pronounced Sun by the Chinese. He had two daughters. The elder married a talented young Chinese whose education was financed by the businessman. The young man, in a sign of gratitude, adopted the family name Sun, and later he became the leader of the Chinese revolution: Sun Yat-sen. The other daughter also married a Chinese officer who later became famous as the leader of Taiwan: Chiang Kai-shek. The two daughters lived for almost a hundred years, and it happened so that the great widows of the “two Chinas” competing with each other were sisters, and of course Jews…
This beautiful story recalls the well known joke about the Martian visiting the Earth who on the question “And does everyone carry a little cap like this over there?” replies: “No, only the Jews.” One almost feels it painful to add some philological commentaries:
• The s’hoyre of the Silk Road used to be traditionally not in the hand of the Jews but of the Muslim Hui merchants playing a similar role in China.
• Although the history of the Jews of Shanghai is extremely interesting – I also want to write more about it later –, and Sir Victor Sassoon, the great developer of the cosmopolitan Shanghai of the 30’s in fact played an outstanding role in it, nevertheless this history only started in the late 19th century with the arrival of the first Jewish immigrants.
• It would not be easy to establish the pre-war local Chinese pronounciation of Victor Sassoon’s name, but today the Chinese Wikipedia transcribes it like 沙逊 Shā Xùn.
• On the other hand, the name of Sun Yat-sen was 孫 Sūn. And he inherited it from his ancestors, like any other Chinese.
• The education of Sun Yat-sen was not financed by Sassoon, but by his rich merchant brother Sun Mei living in Honolulu.
• And indeed, why should have Sassoon financed it? For they had absolutely no relationship. In fact, Sun Yat-sen did not marry the daughter of Sassoon,
• among other things also because Sassoon had no daughter: he died without children,
• but Soong Ching-ling, daughter of another rich Chinese of Shanghai. His father-in-law, who is better known as Charlie Soong because of his American education, came from a Hakka family just like Sun Yat-sen. But his Chinese family name was 宋 Sòng, which has nothing to do either with Xùn or with Sūn.
• Charlie Soong, being a Hakka, was obviously no Jew. But he was no Taoist or Buddhist either as one would expect it from a Chinese. But a Methodist Christian. Just like Sun Yat-sen. What is more, the two men met for the first time on a Sunday service. And what is even more, Charlie Soong himself was a Methodist missionary and preacher, who established his wealth with his Bible press.
• Logically enough, Soong’s other daughter Soong May-ling was no Jew either, but another Methodist Christian. Her husband Chiang Kai-shek was baptized as a precondition of their marriage, and later he became a convinced Christian.
• And those two daughters were in fact three. They also had an elder sister, Soong Ai-ling. She married the richest man of contemporary China, H. H. Kung, a 75th generation descendant of Confucius, who was also Premier of China for a short time, and a Christian himself.
• All this said, the essence of Tamás Raj’s story is basically true, although with some minor modifications. The wives of three – rather than two – of the main figures of the confronting post-war “two Chinas” were sisters indeed (and what is more, the widow of Sun Yat-sen was also Premier of the Communist China for a time). And they in fact were followers of the same religion. The only slight difference is that this religion was not the Israelite one.
A proverb widely known in China says about the three sisters: 一個愛錢、一個愛權、一個愛國, one loved money, the other loved power, the third loved China. The contraposition of “power” and “China” where the latter is identified with Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic, while the former with Chiang Kai-shek who had “torn off” Taiwan, refers to the saying’s being coined after the Maoist takeover. And indeed: this is the motto of the film The Soong Sisters (1997), the most primitive Communist propaganda film I have ever seen, although life has provided me with no small experience in this genre.
But why should we demand historical fidelity here, if we had not pried into the truth of the Chief Rabbi of Moscow and Brezhnev’s encounter? Indeed, the essence of this book is not this, but the convivial storytelling, the multitude of anecdotes, the evocation of once existing worlds. Read it with pleasure, although cum grano salis. And do not forget about The Joys of Yiddish either.