Stam, or “Just what it says”

Why should a translator have to know history, religion, geography, linguistics, and sociology? Setting aside how impossible that is, why can’t she or he just write what it says, or write just what it says [someone remind me sometime to write a post to go with the title Death by Word Order]?

While we’re just writing what it says, or writing just what it says, let’s think for a moment about that word ‘just’. Just can mean ‘simply’, as in stop thinking so much. It can mean ‘only’ what it says, as in not imposing our own musings, interpretations or other junk into the text. Or it can mean ‘exactly’, as in getting it just right. ‘Just’, of course, also means fair. How can we do justice to what the original text conveys?

I look up an ordinary word. Stam. The limitations of learning-by-dictionary send me to Google, which then sends me on a (delightful? frustrating?) wild goose chase. Of course it has done this many times before. Here is a story about one of my favorites. It happened around when I was pondering the geography of the old world. I wrote, perhaps not quite yet coherently, about how I did not want to study the physical geography of ruined Jewish Eastern Europe as such, but first and foremost through the filter of stories. That post – [click link here] did not have room for this first wild goose story, but I have kept it warm for you.

First Eccentric Jaunt– Gomel

In the town of Kalinkovitch, two shtetlniks are arrested for a prank gone wrong. A blood-libel circulates, and a pogrom is feared. The townfolk try to ward it off with whatever tactics are available to them. Men iz gelofn in gomel says the text. At first I read this as they “ran to Gomel” or “to gomel” or, less plausibly “to a little gom”, followed by something after that about intercession with higher-ups. “Person, place or thing?” we used to ask at the start of Infinite Questions, our family’s souped-up version of the game Twenty Questions.

I could not find ‘gomel’ in the dictionary. A first web search turned up the Gomel prayer. Could it be they were looking for a different kind of intercession? I read, and learned that the Gomel prayer is said upon escaping danger. But, that is to say, specifically after escaping peril. One of the occasions for its use is, even more specifically, after being let out of prison. At this moment in the story, that has not happened. The two Jews are still very much in prison and the peril to the town is very much ongoing.

It strikes me that it is completely against Jewish custom to count your chickens before they hatch. One would not say a prayer of gratitude before the fact, not to ‘nudge’ things in the right direction, or for any other reason. The same week I looked up ‘gomel’ I had been wincing inwardly as I saw my friend and her husband counting the days until they could be reunited. “What if there is some last-minute SNAFU?” I wondered. I have no idea whether my reluctance to ‘jynx’ anything is a vestige of my Jewish upbringing, or whether it’s merely anxiety. Come to think of it, are those even two different reasons?

So anyway, I was skeptical that the Gomel prayer (giving thanks to God for escaping peril) was what was going on in the story. I kept searching. Maybe there was a similar prayer, said while one is still in peril. Failing to find that, I went back to my first idea and looked for a place.

Gomel District, Bealarus. Also not in the Yiddish dictionary, because it’s not a Jewish word. In fact, Kalinkovitch, where this story is set and where my grandfather was born, is in Gomel District. So, they simply went to the authorities at the equivalent of the county seat, bypassing the local police for the regional higher-ups. You need to know at least a little of the geography to understand these stories properly.

This is what learning Yiddish naturally branches out into. Learning about life in the old world, including the basics of places. Then, too, without knowing some fundamentals about Jewish ritual, Yiddish language itself can be incomprehensible.

Gomel Map

Second Eccentric Jaunt— Stam

Stam seems like an ordinary enough word. In fact, it means ‘ordinary’. But, like ‘ordinary people’ there may be no such thing as an ordinary word. Every word has an origin and a tradition, a changing history of use by particular people in particular contexts.

In a different chapter of my grandfather’s Amolike Yidn (a collection that includes folk stories, historical legends and personal history), there is a story titled A Stubborn Man. It is about a tailor who gets it in his head to study Toyre (Torah), leaves his workbench, and sits in a Yeshiva day and night, year after year. The townfolk whisper that he is a holy man, and even the educated set grudgingly admit that he is thorough and that he remembers everything he learns. “Gradually people began to call him Rabbi Rafael-Yossl to his face. And behind his back, Stam Rabbi.”

Stam Rabbi. I look it up. Stam can mean ‘ordinary’, or ‘any old’, or ‘for no particular reason’. But that didn’t make sense to me at all. Ordinary Rabbi, or Any Old Rabbi are not respectful, and in context it seemed the point was that they revered him.

The word stam is spelled סתּם. The letter tof and the absence of vowels means it ‘stems’ (no relation) from Hebrew. Now I couldn’t find the exact word in my little pocket Hebrew dictionary. The definitions of the words around it, sotam, s’tami, were vague and general. So I turned to the internet.

One great thing about religion is that the people who believe in it think it’s really important. They also like sharing it. So there is an amazing wellspring of information on the web about Jewish religious texts and religious practices. Here’s what I learned, and since it couldn’t possibly translate, I ended up putting the whole thing in a footnote to the story.

‘Stam’ literally means ‘plain’ or ‘ordinary’. But when it is said of milk or cheese, ‘stam’ means “Kosher, but not milked under the direct supervision of an Orthodox Rabbi”. By analogy, then, you could think of Stam Rabbi as ‘Just as good, though he did not go through official channels.’ And, as an interesting aside, while I was searching I learned that in Modern Hebrew, the word ‘stam’ is sometimes used to mean nearly the opposite of the Yiddish: “only kidding.”

Perfect. A compact way to say he is a real kosher Rabbi, except he never got his certificate. And (perhaps? ironically?) gently questioning the whole ordination/certification system. Credentials don’t bear a one-to-one relationship to excellence.
Except, I’m pretty sure I was all wrong about the whole thing. Now that I’m in a class again, online, I’m pretty sure stam just means ‘just’. That is, I have heard my teacher use it simply to mean ‘simply’ at least twice now. Stuff goes by faster verbally, so it took the second time before I was sure. And hearing it sent me back to the dictionary, where it was there the whole time, tucked in below the other meanings. So to his face they call him Rabbi Rafael-Yossl, and behind his back, just Rabbi. Note that I spelled it Stam Rabbi in capital letters before, as though it were a title, but Yiddish does not have capital and lower-case letters. There is no way to tell just by looking the difference between calling him stam Rabbi and calling him Stam Rabbi.

I love these rambles from pure not knowing, to a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, to finally realizing what my mistake was. In this case, I got to learn about koshering. I got a glimpse of Hebrew slang (which, by the way, implies stam milk is “not for real”. Maybe the rules and attitudes have grown more rigid over time). And I learned that the phrase “Stam a Rov” would, in fact mean “Any Old Rabbi”, but you’d need the article ‘a’ in the middle. There is still a remote possibility that my grandfather meant it the first way, or even (he loved to play with words) both ways. But in this case I’m pretty sure it just meant ‘just’.

To My friend Colleen

What I love about blogging has a lot in common with what I loved about calligraphy, and what I love about poetry. I was also a scientist and academic in between. I do know how to make a linear argument. I know how deductive reasoning works, and how words can be used to mean something not just specific but specifiable.

But when I was a calligrapher, a word had, in addition to its sound and meaning(s), a size, shape, color and texture. In the context of a piece of art it did more than just mean what it said. In poetry, too, a word can mean more than one thing. A word’s source and its sound can matter as much as its literal referent(s). And in a blog about learning, as in these other art forms, there is not a straight line from question to answer. Exploration is not only permitted, it matters as much as the starting point and the destination.

I just (!) had the pleasure of listening to an erudite and energetic Avraham Lichtenbaum give an introductory lecture on Jewish Folklore. A central point was the intertwining of Yiddish folklore and language with gentile European intellectual history, with the ways the people who spoke it actually led their lives, and with earlier intrinsic Jewish literary culture of the holy tongue: Torah and Talmud. It was this lecture that provoked the first sentence of this post (see also Harshav, The Meaning of Yiddish). And while, viewed from that perspective, it seems absolutely impossible to know all one needs to know in order to translate, it strikes me that being equipped with broad curiosity and easily distracted helps. Like the open attentiveness that invites poetry in, meandering through the internet with no clue what you are doing is another great way of stumbling onto multilayered and unexpected connections between words and worlds.

Today’s blog post is dedicated to my dear friend Colleen, who slogs her way through all my posts, even the long ones like this, out of love. She follows my eccentric paths, though she is not Jewish and she knows no more Yiddish than any old (stam an) east coast American.

Colleen was my first and best calligraphy teacher. When I met her in January of 1984, her name was already Colleen. She had been Colleen Fathersname, and then after she grew up and got married she had been Colleen Husbandsname. After her divorce she did not want to keep her husband’s last name and did not want to go back to using her father’s last name. Because it was then. Women were redefining personhood. So, she had only one name.

I actually had seen her work before I met her. One of the first calligraphy books I ever owned had a piece of hers, with the text, “Yo ain’t the man yo momma wuz.” When I met her I was surprised, because I had sure ‘Colleen’ was an African American woman. I had thought this partly because of her choice of quotes, but mostly because the only person I had ever heard of before with one name was Odetta. If you don’t know who Odetta was, and if you like folk music at all, you must check her out. [Here is a link to an introduction and farewell rolled into one]

Anyway, this business with Colleen’s name was before computers had arayngedrungen zikh into every aspect of our lives. If someone wanted to have one name or three rather than two, folks could more or less handle that. Now, the machines that run the world have two spaces and you cannot proceed unless and until you put something in each box.

But even then people were not used to it and so would ask her again. Colleen? Colleen what? And she would answer, just Colleen. And we, her friends would tease her and call her Just Colleen. Because she was, and still is.



Calligraphy by Colleen. From “Modern Scribes and Lettering Artists”, Taplinger, 1980. A reproduction of a reproduction. I’m sure the original looked better, but this is still cool. Scanned and placed on the internet utterly without permission.

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