Someone recently asked me about the worst thing that you can say in Yiddish. After weeding out all the obvious contenders, I realized that the final frontier of Yiddish cursing also involves the ultimate reversal of any victim’s expectations: Zolst onkumen tsu mayn mazl, “you should have my luck.” In other words, “The worst thing I can wish on you is…that you should be me.”
Ale tsuris vos ikh hob zoln oysgeyn tsu dayn kop, “all my troubles should be redirected to you.” It doesn’t say much for my own life, but at least no one can call me conceited; this is what old-fashioned Hebraists meant when they called Yiddish a language of internalized exile.
Your most secret thoughts are best inflicted on somebody else: Vos s’hot zikh mir gekholemt di nakht un yene nakht un a gants yor zol oysgeyn tsu dayn kop, “what I dreamed tonight and last night and every night for a whole year should happen to you.” And finally, one that leaves the curser safely within the bounds of Hillel’s famous dictum, “Do not do that which is hateful to you to your fellow”: vos s’iz mir bashert tsu zayn in mindstn fingerl zol dir zayn in dayn gants layb un lebn, “may what is destined to happen to my baby finger happen to your whole body and life”: What did I do that you should deserve this?
Ask anyone who works with publishers or agents.
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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I’m just getting into the brilliant “Born to Kvetch,” thus my search for this phrase led me here to check the spelling before I have it tattooed on my arm.
Please find a tattooist with a good feel for orthography.