Rather than correct me in public, a kind and gentle soul took me aside after our Yiddish Ithaca meeting last week and asked me the following question: “How, when you read out loud, do you pronounce the letters aleph, vov, yud, langer-fey [אויף]?” I had just been teaching my small Yiddish Ithaca group, using di Heldn fun Chelm (the Wise Men of Helm) as my text. He had come in late and missed my opening speech about how, in fact, I really should not be teaching, and how I know it full well. But if not me, who?
So, there it was. I had once learned that I ought not to say ‘oyf’, which is the usual sound those letters would make in Klal (standard) Yiddish in other contexts. But I had forgotten that I knew it was wrong. Is there a word for the particular kind of fool who knows he is making a mistake, keeps making it provisionally anyway, planning to fix it later, then completely forgets about it, until finally he actually thinks the wrong way he is used to is fine?
In my defense, it’s complicated. The letters are pronounced one way when they are a preposition, and a different way when they are a converb (the initial, detachable part of a separable verb). So, Afn Shvel, or Afn bime, but Ufruf, which comes from the separable verb uf-rufn אויפרופן. Not infrequently, the two forms can occur one right after the other within a sentence. Me ruft zey uf afn bime. (They are called up onto the podium. אויף אויפן). Then, too, there are differences in dialect.
Confirmation of the fact that this isn’t easy came when I visited Rochester and saw more than a couple of my old classmates still struggling sometimes with the concept of separable verbs. By analogy, the basic idea is that if you wanted to look a verb like this one up in a Yiddish dictionary, you would have to search not under ‘L’ but under ‘U’ for the verb “to uplook”. The meaning (not to lift one’s eyes, but to search for a definition) is not intuitive from the two pieces.
Uf, Af, Off, Oof! This summer, a teacher who grew impatient with her students’ wild and seemingly random guesses, told us it was better to just say ‘oyf’. You will be wrong, but you will be less wrong than if you say ‘off’ or ‘oof’. So, I took the easy way out, choosing to be an ordinary fool, rather than “a khokhem fun der Ma-Nishtane”, who digs himself a pit with his little bit of knowledge and falls in.*
That is precisely the kind of fool Shimon-Eli is in the story The Enchanted Tailor. Full of himself over his learning (which in reality is a parody of book-learning, a disconnected jumble of quotations that have lost their referents), he insults his unlettered innkeeper relative Dudi to his face. Dudi vows revenge. Later, when Shimon-Eli stables a milk-goat at the inn on his way back home from buying it in the neighboring village, Dudi switches it for a he-goat. For all his ‘education’, Shimon-Eli does not notice the difference, and proudly brings his newly-purchased goat home to his wife, so that she can finally provide him and their children with all manner of dairy dishes.
When discussing this story in my online class, we talked about the values in East European Jewish society that lead Shimon-Eli to become the cause of his own downfall. The overwhelming emphasis on literacy, and its determination of social status, were simultaneously a strength and a weakness of the culture. My wise mother points out that the conflict in the story is not only between social strata, but is also an internal one. Shimon-Eli needs to prove to himself that he is more than ‘just’ a tailor. This makes it harder for him to be accepting of his illiterate relative, and irresistible for him to show off his superiority.
There are at least two pieces to this issue, which is pervasive in Jewish culture. One is that education is not the same as intelligence. It’s possible for someone to read a lot of books and still be unable to tell a male from a female goat. The other is that ability is not the same as virtue or importance.
My grandfather was obsessed with cleverness and intelligence and by contrast, with foolishness. He found ample material in Jewish folklore with which to work this obsession into his children’s stories. It is to the fools in Solomon Simon’s children’s stories that I will turn next.
* The blog Yiddish Word of the Week provided an English translation of Bashevis’ banquet speech, in which it gave the following for a khokhem fun der Ma-Nishtane— “A dunce; literally a wise child from the “Mah Nishtannah” (which doesn’t actually contain any reference to the wise child).” http://yiddishwordoftheweek.tumblr.com/post/58702012433/isaac-bashevis-singers-nobel-prize-speeches