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Helfn vi a toytn bankes

Along with the shone toyves that I’ve been sending out to friends and family this year, I’ve been receiving New Year’s cards of another kind from politicians and Jewish communal figures whom I’ve been peppering with what are best described as instructional letters and e-mails. These cards implore me to be sure to go to shul this year, in order to be sure to have a chance to gey shray khay ve-kayem, “go scream ‘living and existing.’”

The phrase comes from the High Holiday liturgy. Right after the cantor recites a passage in which humanity is described as a broken pot, a passing shadow and a dream that flies away, everybody yells out “Ve-ato hu melekh keyl khay ve-kayem, But You [God] are the king, a living and existing God,” a God who is outside of time.

It’s a situation that can never change. We remain transitory, mortal; the eternal, by definition, stays eternal. In idiomatic Yiddish, gey shray khay ve-kayem means, “shout your head off, protest in vain;” as they used to say when I was a kid, “Go fight city hall”: se vet dir helfn vi a toytn bankes, it’ll help you as much as cups on a corpse.”

If the cups were dead, the phrase would be helfn vi a toyte banke or helfn vi toyte bankes. Imagine it as es helft vi bankes (helfn) a toytn, like cups help a corpse, and you’ll have it right (thanks to Dr. Shlomo Karni for this final Yiddish phrase).

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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