Colorful blessings and curses in Yiddish subject of new book by Hebrew University scholar

01/21/04

"May you grow like an onion with your head in the ground!" Or, as it goes in the original Yiddish: "Zolst vaksn vi a tzibele mitn kop in dr'erd!"

That's just one of the colorful curses to be found in the new book, Let's Hear Only Good News: Yiddish Blessings and Curses, by Dr. Josef Guri of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Among the blessings is the familiar "zolst zein gezunt" -- "good health to you," one of many similar expressions wishing another party well.

All told, there are 200 blessings and 450 curses in this folkloric work, which is illustrated with amusing drawings. The items are listed alphabetically in Yiddish, with the equivalent expressions in English, Hebrew and Russian. Indexes are provided in the translated languages according to alphabetical listing and by themes.

This is the seventh lexicographical work by Dr. Guri, of the university's Department of Russian and Slavic Studies. His other works include Yiddish idiomatic expressions and proverbs. Dr. Guri says that his latest work is the culmination of three years of work and is the first attempt to assemble and describe blessings and curses (or good and bad wishes) as a genre of Yiddish folklore.

"This genre is highly developed in Yiddish and is richer and more variegated than similar expressions in the folklore of many other peoples," says Dr. Guri. He acknowledges, however, that his book is by no means an exhaustive list of such blessings and curses since Yiddish has been spoken in many parts of the world, with local variations, and new expressions are still being coined.

Among many peoples, curses are characterized by the use of foul language (swear words). Among the Yiddish-speaking Jewish Eastern European population, however, curses took the form of often humorous maledictions. Yiddish speakers, continue Guri, are accustomed to witty remarks and do not become overwrought when someone hurls an expressive curse at them. As the Yiddish proverb says, "Fun a kloleh shtarbt men nit," or "curses do not kill." At the same time, neither does a blessing create a new reality, adds Guri.

Josef Guri – a self-described "Yiddish addict" -- immigrated to Israel from Lithuania in 1957. After eight years of work compiling the Great Yiddish Dictionary, he began work on a series of dictionaries compiling various forms of expression in Yiddish, including proverbs and idioms.

Dr. Guri points out that his latest book is intended not only for Yiddish lovers but also for those learning the language, for translators from Yiddish and for those interested in folklore.

The book was published by the Hebrew University Department of Russian and Slavic Studies and is distributed by the university's Magnes Press. Publication was made possible by a grant from the Pratt Foundation of Australia, founded by Richard Pratt, a lover of the language.

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