Somewhere in White Russia, there was once a poor country tailor who made his living by going from village to village, sewing furs and cloth coats (sermenges) for the peasants. A kaptsn in draytsn poles, he had no designated place of his own in the synagogue, but instead had to pray standing next to the stove…
I scratched my head over that one. I knew a kaptsn is a poor man. Looking up poles, I discovered the magnetic pole, but also the plural of pole (2 syllables), which means “lap of a garment” or “coattail”. Still confused, I searched the web and learned that the usual expression is a kaptsn in zibn poles.
Back to the dictionary. Beinfeld and Bochner have come through for me again and again, but his time, they’re not much help at all. For ‘kaptsn’ (spelled קבצן) they give, “poor man,” and for ‘kaptsn in zibn poles,’ they simply have “penniless pauper”. Besides being redundant, this gives no particular flavor, except maybe “poorer than poor”.
Back to the research. Michael Wex says a pole is the skirt of a garment. So “this kaptsn,” he says, “comes wrapped in seven rags”. Shaul and Shulamit Seidler-Feller in their blog Yiddish Word of the Week, wrote a post in which they transcribed and translated Bashevis’ “Banquet Speech”. One of the themes of that speech was the richness of expressions for poverty in Yiddish [link]. The Seidler-Fellers say: “a pauper dressed in seven rags (lit. hems)”.
So there is little or no consensus on specifically whether a pole (again, two syllables; po – le) is a lap, a skirt, a coattail, or a hem. On the other hand, there is clear agreement that we are talking about rags, or about bits or ends of cloth. Maybe an equivalent easier to imagine might be a garment made of seven sleeves, if the intent is to portray a comically hopeless patchwork.
For me, the other point of curiosity is the surplus half-dozen rags to make up that that hyperbolic “thirteen”. If a poor man wrapped in seven rags is poorer than poor, would it follow that thirteen rags make him even poorer still? Or is that humor the point? He was so poor he had twice as many valueless things as the other poor people.
But, remember, he is a tailor. My mother used to say, “The shoemaker’s children go without shoes.” On the other hand, since she was a psychotherapist when she said it, I’d better not pursue that whole line of thinking. As a tailor, our protagonist had access to a half dozen more rags than some other poor person. Or, contrariwise, since he had the skill and the need to make professional use of cloth-ends, he would had to make do with even smaller leftover bits for his own garb.
I guess this qualifies as overanalyzing an idiom yet again. Perhaps these little bits of language are my cloth ends. But unlike cloth wrappings, those in the know tell me that blog posts are better when they are shorter.