This is the first of five guest blog posts I wrote for Powell’s Books.
It’s been quite a while since I attended shul — synagogue — with any regularity. Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, holidays that feature memorial prayers, and the anniversaries of my parents’ deaths are about the only time you’ll find me there these days, other than for weddings, bar mitzvahs and similar celebrations. And work — let’s not forget about work. I’ve been lecturing on Yiddish and associated aspects of Jewish culture for close to twenty years now, but since the publication of Born to Kvetch, I’ve started to find myself in synagogues two, three, sometimes four times a week, often at the pulpit and always with a yarmulke on my head, as if there’d been a sudden halachic emergency, a question about Jewish law that just couldn’t wait, and I was a highly trained shock-rabbi who’d parachuted onto the scene:
“Rabbi! Rabbi!” It’s the same tone of voice that calls out “Medic!” in war movies.
“I’m not a rabbi.”
“Fine, don’t be a rabbi. Just help me.”
“Nu? What can I do?”
“The skullcap box in the lobby is empty. The synagogue’s run out. I don’t have a yarmulke and I didn’t bring a hat, but I am wearing a toupee. Am I cool? Does it count?”
I take one look at the man’s head and know exactly how to answer. “Ets hot a yidishn kop, Mister, you’ve got a Jewish head, and a Jewish man’s head is like the quality of justice in one respect at least.”
“Only one that concerns us here. For just as justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done, so must the Jewish male head not only be covered, it must also be seen to be covered. Whether it’s a skullcap, a derby, a baseball cap or a foam dome, any kind of head-covering is valid, so long as everyone can tell that it isn’t part of your head.”
“So you’re saying…”
“I’m saying that you are cool. A toupee is perfectly acceptable in place of a yarmulke as long as it’s clearly a toupee. The cheaper the toup, the worse the rug, the more likely it is to slip out of place or slide off altogether, the better-suited it is for ritual use.”
“So it’s ‘Bad toupee — kosher; good toupee — treyf [non-kosher]?'”
“That’s right. And you, sir, are as kosher as they come right now.”
No one actually asks me ritual questions — since I’m not a rabbi, my answers would have no authority — but people in synagogue and other Jewish community audiences sometimes come out with Yiddish idioms or proverbs that I’ve never run across before and that haven’t been noted in any articles or reference books. Given the age of surviving Yiddish-speakers from pre-WW II Europe, it’s entirely possible that the person using the phrase was the last living being to have heard it before he or she brought it up at a lecture or reading, usually in the form of a question of the “have you ever heard the following?” sort.
I ran into a great one on Saturday, though not while I was at work. A friend decided to hold his son’s bar-mitzvah at the kind of synagogue that Daniel Pinkwater once described as a “your basic, Orthodox, bare-knuckles shul” in downtown Toronto. It’s probably the last of its kind in the city, a working class place that still runs largely in Yiddish and which I once attended on a daily basis. Its only really Orthodox congregants are born-again non-Yiddish-speaking youth in their forties and fifties for whom the old-timers — most of whom seem to believe that their attendance at synagogue exempts them from all other forms of religious observance — have no time at all.
I got there early on Saturday, a good couple of hours before the bar-mitzvah boy would be doing his thing, ready to soak up some Yiddish in one of the few public places where it’s still spoken as a matter of course. After a few minutes, another guest came in and sat down on the bench — the word “pew” is a little too grand — in front of me. He was wearing a madras-patterned tallis (prayer shawl) with a flock of skullcap-wearing teddy bears frolicking on the back in Judaism-can-be-fun appliqué.
The old man sitting next to him looked, snorted, gave the tallis a tug, and asked, “What kind of tallis is that?”
“My kind of tallis,” answered the guest.
The old man nodded. The guest wasn’t doing too badly — at least he came up with an answer. “Nu.” The old man turned around and addressed himself to me. “Zug eym, Michael. Tell him that that kind of tallis is as out of place here” — where every tallis is white with black stripes — “aza tallis toyg du vi matses in berchtesgaden, it’s as out of place here as matzohs in Berchtesgaden.”
And that’s why I never complain about spending any time in synagogues. “Matzohs in Hitler’s summer home” — it took a silly-looking ritual appurtenance to draw this jocular insult out of the mouth and memory of the Holocaust survivor who said it on Saturday. Had I not been lucky enough to have come to shul early, the phrase would have vanished as soon as it came out of his mouth and none of us would know it now.