Should the federal grand jury currently investigating possible anti-trust violations on the part of certain unnamed kosher meat suppliers uncover evidence of unkosher business practice, I’ll bet dollars to dales—that’s Yiddish for poverty—that we’ll soon see more than one representative of the firms in question weeping tsibele trern, “onion tears,” and adopting a yires-shomayim peniml, “a little fear-of-heaven face.”
Tsibele trern, “onion tears,” is the Yiddish equivalent of “crocodile tears,” but is a much more kosher idiom. The patent insincerity of the person shedding them shouldn’t need any explanation, but it’s interesting that someone who’s unusually brazen in the shedding of such tears is described as pishn mit tsibele trern, “passing water with onion tears”—corrupt in more than just mind.
A yires shomayim peniml, a little countenance of outraged piety on the part of someone whose piety is strictly for the onions, is only little because the face itself has been so tightly screwed up, as if the offended owner just bit into a bitere tsibele, “a bitter onion.” Bitere tsibele can also mean a wet blanket; imagine the look in question as a reaction to others’ good times. While yires shomayim, fear of heaven, is a virtue that inevitably promotes mentshlekh behavior, the yires shomayim peniml usually signifies the opposite of ethical behavior, what Yiddish describes as acting like a dover akher, “that other thing,”—the khazer that we’re neither supposed to eat nor be.
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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