Whenever people find out that I work in Yiddish, they almost inevitably ask me to tell them my favorite Yiddish curse. These days it’s a kazarme zol af dir aynfaln, “a barracks should collapse on you.”

Having a building of any kind collapse on top of you is never pleasant, but if that building is a barracks, then you’re probably in the army–the last place any East-European Jew wanted to find himself. There’s a whole history of bad luck built into the collapse of the barracks: first you get a conscription notice; then you can’t buy, hide or cheat your way out of serving; you endure the million and one horrors and humiliations of army life, along with the additional horrors and humiliations reserved exclusively for minorities; and then–as if all this isn’t already punishment enough–the scene of all these crimes has to fall down and crush you–all because you hadn’t succeeded in evading the draft, that is, because you had failed as a criminal.

There is something quite Talmudic about all of this; it’s the dialectic, the logical examination of premises, that gives the curse its kick. In a culture in which every cursee is his or her own Rashi, cursing isn’t a matter of yelling out bad words; the trick is to put the good ones together in the most damaging possible way.

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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