With Jewish New Year cards on display all over town and Halloween candies clogging supermarket aisles, there’s no question that the holiday season is already upon us. From six weeks before Rosh Hashana all the way to Memorial Day, tshatshkeh-makers and greeting-card companies hak us an endless tshaynik—bang us an endless tea kettle—about holidays that can now be ruined months before they take even place.
More often than not, the kettle gets knocked in the negative: Hak mir nisht ken tshaynik, don’t knock me a tea kettle, means “You don’t have to shut up completely, but I’d really appreciate it if you’d stop rattling on about the same damned thing all the time.”
Knocking or hitting or chopping a teapot is the kind of image that causes kids from Yiddish-speaking families to wonder about their parents’ thought processes, and generations have been disappointed to realize how pedestrian the image really is. Think of a kettle with a cover or lid on the top. You pour the water into the kettle, put the lid back on top, turn the burner on, go off to make a phone call and forget all about it. The more water boils away, the more the cover rattles. The fewer the contents, the less it has to offer, the louder and more annoying the noise. The lid is moving up and down, banging against the kettle like a jaw in full flap, clanging and banging and signifying nothing. Hak mir nisht ken tshaynik–don’t bang away at me like the lid on an empty kettle.
Hakn a tshaynik is based on the same principle as the steam engine, but no one’s ever going to write a children’s book called The Little Tshaynik That Hakked–it wouldn’t be good for the Jews. James Watt looked at his kettle and came up with the Union Pacific; a Yiddish-speaker looked at a similar kettle and started to complain about someone else’s complaining. “Don’t knock me a tea kettle”—it’s seventh-grade science filtered through two thousand years of Talmud and persecution.
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Week. Below are some items for sale from eBay for those of you with an interest in Yiddish.
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