As long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by word play, origins, anomalies - you name it.
Although I'm not adept at them, foreign languages also intrigue me. Other languages have words or phrases we don't have in English (and vice-versa, of course), but we should, since they're so spot-on. For example, when we say someone has joie de vivre, we sort of know what it means in English - joy of living - but it really doesn't have the same sparkle. Or how about the German word schadenfreude? It's only one word, but it describes a whole lot - namely taking great joy in the misery of others.
The foreign language I most enjoy is Yiddish, the lingua franca of Eastern European Jews. I can't speak it, but I know a lot of Yiddish words, and I add to them by fits and starts.
One might assume I learned Yiddish at my mother's knee, but nothing could be farther from the truth. I learned some Yiddish from her, but not much, since her vocabulary was limited. Where I really learned it was from reading books, the best of which is Leo Rosten's "The Joys of Yiddish." Because I think it's a must-have, I give copies to all my Jewish friends and to a bunch of my non-Jewish ones as well.
"The Joys of Yiddish" is a vocabulary book of sorts. It's arranged in alphabetical order and has an excellent collection of words. But Rosten goes way beyond the definitions themselves, having anecdotes, jokes and sometimes even serious history to illustrate each word.
For example, take the word "chutzpah." Its closest English equivalent is "nerve," as in, "He has a lot of nerve to do that." But the connotations in Yiddish go way beyond that. It's a brashness and sense of entitlement that borders on the pathological. The classic example used to explain chutzpah is a guy who murders his parents and then asks the judge for mercy because he's an orphan.
Or how about "nebbish"? I guess in English you'd define a nebbish as a Sad Sack, a nobody, a nonentity. To illustrate his insignificance, it's always said when a nebbish leaves a room, it's as if someone came in.
Then there's the "shnorrer," from the Yiddish word "shnorr." Shnorr means to beg, but a shnorrer is no ordinary beggar. Beggars are figures of pity; shnorrers are sometimes figures of disdain, but also of amusement and appreciation. It's not an easy concept to get your head around. Maybe a starting point is to say a shnorrer is a beggar with chutzpah.
In the Old Country
The thing about shnorrers is they're not sick or disabled or weak or unable to work in any way. They just don't WANT to work, so they shnorr instead. And they do it with no shame, nor even any embarrassment. In fact, they do it with pride.
In the Old Country, every town had a shnorrer or two or even three (depending on how many the economy could support), and they got by just fine. This was probably because they took advantage of two essentials of Jewish culture. One is charity, which is mandated. The other is guilt, which, while not mandated, might as well be. So when the shnorrer ran his game, people gave because they felt they had to; plus they knew he'd make them feel guilty if they didn't.
But while the shnorrer was a pain in the prat, he wasn't despised; in fact, in some ways he was, as I said, a figure of entertainment and often affection, too. Perhaps it's because he lived by his wits alone, and one way or another, he succeeded.
An illustrative tale: A shnorrer comes to a home asking for food. The lady of the house lets him in and sits him at a table. On it is a lot of black bread and some slices of challa (a braided honey/egg bread considered a great delicacy). The shnorrer immediately starts wolfin' down the challa.
"But," says the woman, hinting broadly, "there's also black bread."
"I know," says the shnorrer. "But I prefer challa."
"But challa is so much more expensive," she says, hinting again.
"Lady," says the shnorrer, without missing a beat or a bite, "it's worth it."
and in the New One
But while the shnorrer may have been beloved by the old Eastern Europeans, he held no place of affection in my mother's heart. Her rules of life were simple and absolute, and one of them was, if you don't have the cash for something, you don't get it. That was it, and there was no exception to it. It's a lesson I took to heart (and pocket) and is why I always carry enough money to cover my daily expenses.
Or at least it's why I always HAD carried enough money, because Sunday I found myself high and dry in the cash department. And worst of all, I was in the Grand Union, having just checked out.
What happened was, I changed my clothes before I left for town and left my wallet in my other pants.
I was on the spot, but then I remembered I had my quarters for laundry in the car. I hauled out to the car, grabbed the coin stash and came back in. Unfortunately, I had eight bucks in quarters, and my bill was 12 bucks.
What to do? Well, I put some things back, but the remaining essentials came to $9.50.
I stood there, feeling like a stranger in a strange land, not knowing what to do next, when the checkout dude, Joe "Hell on Wheels" Karp, came to my rescue.
"Here," he said, handing me the buck-and-a-half, "take it."
"No," I said. "I can't."
"Hey," he said, "you gave me that book. Consider it partial repayment."
"That book" he mentioned was "The Joys of Yiddish," which, of course, I gave him as soon as I found out he was a MOT (Member of the Tribe).
"No, really - "I started.
"Look," he said, "it's the second day of Chanukah. Consider it your Chanukah present."
He was right - it was the second day of Chanukah. But could I take his money as a gift? I debated it for a bit and then decided, OK, I'd do it. After all, I'll pay him back the next time I see him, so it's not like I'm REALLY taking it.
Then a sudden thought crossed my mind - the thought of a shnorrer.
Chanukah is considered the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. It's not, really, but it comes at about the same time and involves gift-giving - hence the resemblance. But while Christmas is only one day, Chanukah is eight days, and traditionally we give a present each day.
And here was my shnorrer thought: Since Joe celebrated Chanukah and was a generous lad, then the least he could do was give me six more presents.
Suffice it to say, I kept that thought to myself.
Chutzpah, I got. that much chutzpah, I don't.