In Yiddish, we have to speak softly but carry a big shtick

Many — make that many, many — years ago, during my Beavis & Butt-Head phase, my best friend Rob and I reveled in our 14-ness. We were all-purpose snickerers. When it came to scoffing, we weren’t choosy. We stuck with Marlon Brando’s rhetorical query from “The Wild Bunch.” When asked what he was rebelling against, Brando the badass biker said, “Whaddaya got?”

One favorite target of ours was old people. We decided they suck. I can’t say we fully embraced the Who’s declamation, “Hope I die before I get old,” but we sure sang along.

We also laughed at the idea of ourselves growing old. The joke was that upon hitting some far-off birthday — 40? 50? — we would instantly lapse into the Yiddish accents of our grandparents, whining “Oy gevalt! I got such a pain here.”

We were long-haired California punks. To us, Yiddish was a language of age and decay. It wasn’t until later, when I looked more closely at the Mamaloshen, that I realized Yiddish is pretty badass itself.

For the vernacular of a nation of priests, Yiddish has a whole lotta cussin’ going on. It’s amazing how many words Yiddish has for bodily functions, waste products and telling some jerk what he can do with himself.

Terms like shmuck, shnook, shlemiel, shmendrick, shmagegge, nudnik, putz and yutz comprise a kind of insult lingua franca. Everybody knows them. The words just dive off the tongue, stinging as they go.

Which makes me wonder: With our overwhelming emphasis on personal ethics and its strictures against lashon hara (speaking ill of another), why are Jews so good at putting others down?

Perhaps due to relentless persecution, the Jews of medieval Europe deliberately infused their patois with a measure of weaponry. Perhaps the all-too-human urge to sneer proved irresistible, even to the pious Jews of yore.

Whatever the explanation, I admire the balanced Jewish approach to interpersonal relations. It all comes down to Rabbi Hillel’s immortal nano-version of the Torah: “What is hateful to thee, do not do unto thy neighbor.”

What a genius. In his infinite wisdom, Hillel did not concoct something akin to the Christian Golden Rule, “Do unto others as they would do unto you.” He understood human nature better than that. He knew how tortuously difficult it is to make nice all the time, especially when Cossacks are raping your sister.

Better you should just refrain from acting like a shmuck.

I asked Rabbi Mark Bloom, of Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham, about this distinction between these two views of “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

“They parse it differently,” he said. “Christianity takes the positive and idealistic view, and Judaism takes the realistic. It’s hard to know how you want to be treated, but it is easy to know how you don’t want to be treated.”

But what of all those mitzvahs about helping others? What about the prophet Micah’s admonition to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly?” That’s no walk in the park when some mamzer cuts in front of you on I-80.

It’s about options.

Five thousand years of collective Jewish wisdom, and here we have this elegant scaffolding for optimum behavior. Even if you don’t feel so charitable today, even if you feel like letting rip a torrent of Yiddish curses, you can still make the world a slightly better place. Even by holding your tongue.

I hold mine most of the time, but sometimes I get pretty mad at the world, mad at humankind. It’s an irrational fury that even the admonition of Hillel can barely contain.

That’s why I stopped dead in my tracks when I came across another aphorism recently, one I’d never seen before, one that inspired me to commit random acts of rachmones (compassion) even when I don’t feel like it:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is engaged in a great struggle.”

Actually, this prescription isn’t contemporary at all. It comes from the writings of Philo of Alexandria, the renowned Hellenistic philosopher who lived 2,000 years ago.

And wouldn’t you know it: Philo was Jewish.

Dan Pine can be reached at [email protected].

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.