Posts Tagged ‘yiddish’

Selfie: Stuga40.
Because English is limited in the realm of relationships, I refer to Stuga40 as “my son-in-law’s mother.” But if we spoke Yiddish, I could use the handy word machatainista.

I wish the English language had more words to describe our extended-family relationships. My friend Jeanne laughed at me when I referred to Charlie as “my sister’s widower” instead of as “my brother-in-law.” But I have more than one brother-in-law. The other one is my husband’s brother.

At a senior community where Erik’s mother joined us for a tour, I caused the marketing director a puzzled moment until she translated for herself that “my son-in-law’s mother” meant “my daughter’s mother-in-law.”

A Yiddish word for that connection exists, machatainista, but if I were to use it, few people would understand me. (And I am not sure how to pronounce it.)

At the online magazine Slate, Jason Feifer digs into the subtleties.

“My parents and my wife’s parents have a good relationship,” he writes. “It’s nice. It’s rare. And they use a word to describe each other: machatunim. We hear it a lot. My wife’s dad, at home: ‘I spoke to the machatunim today.’ My wife’s mom, in an email to my dad: ‘I’m so glad we’re machatunim.’ My wife and I roll our eyes at this. Here we have a classic case of secular American Jews deploying a Yiddish word as a little secret handshake, sharing their delight that both their kids married Jewish. …

“But there’s another, more pragmatic reason they use this word: It’s super convenient. The word means ‘the parents of my child’s spouse.’ There’s no English equivalent, which makes describing this relationship otherwise kind of challenging. What else would they say? Co-in-laws? That barely makes sense. My parents would have to say something clunky like, ‘our son’s wife’s parents.’ …

“Why doesn’t English contain a word for this very common relationship?

“English actually lacks lots of familial concepts that other languages have. Consider Croatian: Ujak means an uncle on your mother’s side, and stric means an uncle on your father’s side. This kind of distinction is common around the world, but in English, we just have one word: uncle. Urdu goes deeper, with words for people three degrees away from you. Your husband’s elder brother’s wife, for example, is jethani, and your husband’s younger brother’s wife is devrani. A Pakistani friend of mine learned Urdu as a child, then picked up English by watching TV, and our vague language drove her nuts. …

“But English is highly detailed when compared with, say, many languages in the Pacific. In some cultures there, no version of words like uncle exists at all. ‘They work on a system of generations,’ says William Foley, a linguistics professor at the University of Sydney. If your dad has brothers, you just call them all ‘father.’ …

“Why do we have words for different kinds of relatives at all? ‘There’s a biological bedrock to it,’ says Foley. Societies want to avoid incest, and they want to establish lineage so they know how property and land gets passed down. When a constellation of relatives is given titles, the people in those societies are drawing a map — this person is good for marrying, this one isn’t, these folks get my money when I die, and those folks are out of luck. There are countless ways of accomplishing this, of course, so societies just develop the words that meet their needs. Are multiple generations of a family living together, say? Then they might need more specific words to identify each other. …

“ ‘The relationship you have to in-laws has an awful lot to do with the mating practices and the locality practices after marriage,’ Foley says. The more time someone is likely to spend with their in-laws after marriage, the more complex terms a culture is likely to have for them.

“In Yiddish-speaking cultures — particularly ultra-Orthodox communities in prewar Europe — marriages are arranged, and the bride and groom only meet a few times before their wedding. ‘The goal is to get matched with a family that is equal to or above one’s own family in terms of lineage, money, success, popularity, etc,’ says Ayala Fader, an anthropology professor at Fordham University who studies Jewish ethnography. That means the in-laws are developing a relationship just as purpose-filled as the bride and groom’s. They need a word to use to refer to each other, and they got machatunim. (Yiddish isn’t the only language with a word for this. Spanish has consuegros, for example, which likely developed for different reasons.) …

“English once contained other words about the families of married couples. In early medieval society, a beef between two people could easily spark a generations-long Hatfield-and-McCoys-style feud. So, some families tried to solve things with a high-drama union: One family’s daughter or sister was married off to the other family’s son or brother, and she was called a freoðu-webbe (translation: ‘peace weaver’). 

“What happened after that is a little fuzzy; the records aren’t totally clear. But [Andrew Rabin, a professor of old English at the University of Louisville in Kentucky] says this is how it possibly went down: ‘Peace-weaving relationships are almost always depicted as ending in failure, often because my sister has stabbed you in the marriage bed — sorry!’ And so, to keep everyone alive, a second trade was put in place: When the freoðu-webbe gave birth to a son, that son might be handed over to be raised by her brother. The boy was called a ‘sweostor-sunu,’ which literally means ‘sister’s son,’ but the relationship between an uncle and a sweostor-sunu is different than it is today: The uncle was a patron, godfather, even a foster father, but could also represent a threat. ‘In some sense, what we’re looking at resembles an exchange of hostages: My female relative goes off to live with your family, but then the son of that union is returned to be fostered by me and my family. Implicitly, if an accident happens to befall my sister, your son might end up being equally accident prone.’ …

“So, let us all be thankful we no longer have freoðu-webbes and sweostor-sunus. Those words can die off with the traditions that necessitated them. But we still do have both sets of in-laws in our lives, and an English word for them might be nice. Then again, maybe it’s not necessary: English, after all, is a notorious word thief. Around the 12th century, we took the words niece, nephew, and cousin from French, and those words have served us well. (Before that, there was no single word for any of those types of relationships. A niece was simply called a bróþor-dohtor, or brother’s-daughter, for example.)

“So why not steal another word now? Machatunim does the job. Machatunim it is. Our parents — and oh, how they’ll love to hear this — were right all along.”

I’m all for it. But I like machatainista better for Stuga40 because it is even more precise. It is not just for Erik’s parent. It’s for his mother.

How about you? Do you have special words for these relationships?

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Photo: Philip Cutler
Zuni Maud, Bessie Maud, and Yosl Cutler on a 1931-1932 tour to the Soviet Union. Puppets are (L-R) Mahatma Gandhi, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, French Prime Minister Léon Blum, Wall Street, and Herbert Hoover.

Sometimes there things that we don’t think we can say that instead we put in the mouths of stuffed animals, pets, or puppets. In the early 20th Century, that’s what left-leaning Yiddish puppet masters found themselves doing more and more as international audiences lapped it up.

Eddy Portnoy writes at Smithsonian about Yosl Cutler and Zuni Maud, who “created a Yiddish puppet theater that fused traditional Jewish folklore, modern politics, and a searing satiric left-wing sensibility.

“Both immigrants from Eastern Europe, Cutler and Maud met in the New York offices of a Yiddish humor magazine called Der groyser kundes (‘The Great Prankster’), where both worked as cartoonists and writers of often surreal short stories. They became fast friends and opened a small studio on Union Square, where they sold artworks and painted furniture. Both were tangentially involved in theater set decoration; when Maurice Schwartz, the founder and director of the Yiddish Art Theater, asked the two to create puppets for a scene in a play he was staging at the end of 1924, they jumped at the chance.

“Puppets weren’t a common form of entertainment in Jewish culture. … But in the mid-1920s, puppetry had become hot in American theater. … Schwartz, who had his finger on the pulse of New York’s theater world, saw an opportunity to put puppets in his production of the Yiddish classic Di kishefmakherin (‘The Sorceress’). It would be the first time puppets would speak Yiddish on a Yiddish theater stage.

“But it never happened. … Schwartz decided that the puppets Cutler and Maud had created were too small to see from the house, so he cut the scene. The two would-be puppeteers took their creations home. As a joke, they began taking the puppets with them to the literary cafés they frequented and performed shtick for their friends. Someone suggested they start a Yiddish puppet theater. …

“At the end of 1925, Cutler and Maud set up shop in a space in the Lower East Side in what had previously been a children’s clothing factory. They briefly hired an artist by the name of Jack Tworkov, who had been trained in the art of puppet making by Bufano. During shows, they would set fabric cutting tables and simple wooden benches in front of the stage for the audience: a somewhat ramshackle production with a proletarian feel. Initially performing comic scenes and a modernized version of the traditional Jewish Purim shpil (holiday play), which included a variety of characters from the Lower East Side, they quickly garnered good reviews in New York’s Yiddish newspapers.

“Under the moniker Modicut, a combination of their last names, word spread, and their shows began to sell out. Adding to their repertoire, they included comic playlets, often including parodies of popular Yiddish theater songs. …

“In addition to lauding Modicut’s plays, reviewers noted how finely their puppets were constructed. Although they were caricatures and grotesques, their costumes were deemed authentic, from the silk robes and prayer shawls of Jewish traditional figures to the work clothes worn by Lower East Side laborers. Some of their puppets included unique, culturally relevant innovations, such as the rotating thumb or wagging thumb of a sermonizing rabbi, or the wiggling ears of their emcee. The first time Yiddish-speaking audiences saw homegrown characters on a puppet stage, their reaction was one of sheer joy. …

“They went on tour in 1928, bringing their Yiddish puppets up and down the Eastern seaboard, to parts of the Midwest, and even to Cuba. As they wrote and performed new skits, they became more politicized, actively engaging with and satirizing the news of the day. …

“They traveled to Europe, playing in England, France, and Belgium before heading to Poland, the largest center of Yiddish culture. In Warsaw, they played 200 sold-out shows, followed by 75 sold-out shows in Vilna. Reviews in the Yiddish press were effusive, and journalists were amazed that two ‘Americans’ could present something that was so authentically Jewish. …

“On the back of their European success, Modicut was invited to perform in the Soviet Union during 1931 and 1932. They prepared by writing skits addressing themes such as the oppression of the working class, and featuring sweatshops, corrupt bosses, exploitation, imperialism, the depression, and war. All of this proved popular to audiences in the USSR. …

“They worked together until 1933, when a fight of unknown origins caused them to split up the act. … In May 1935, Cutler went on the road, allegedly to California in hopes of making a full-length Yiddish puppet film, performing in Jewish communities along the way. It was on the road to Denver that Cutler and his puppets met their demise [in a car crash]. …

“Maud was devastated by Cutler’s death. Having worked together so intensely and successfully, he felt awful on account of their earlier falling out. He nonetheless continued to produce art and work in puppetry for the remaining twenty years of his life. Notably, he worked with puppeteer Nat Norbert Buchholz, who later taught the craft to Shari Lewis, who debuted her famed Lamb Chop puppet on Captain Kangaroo in 1956.”

“Cap’n Aroo,” as a kid I know used to say! Though not as insightful as the later children’s TV star Fred Rogers (who also used puppets to speak for him), he nevertheless entertained kids for 29 years. So here’s to puppets on Captain Kangaroo!

Read more about the Yiddish puppeteers at Smithsonian, here.

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I was talking to my neighbor on the train this week, and she told me that one of her daughters — the one who goes to Brandeis and was in a production of Eddie Coyle that I saw at Oberon — is spending a chunk of this school year in Morocco.

I was curious about how her daughter got interested in joining a program there.

Apparently she likes languages. First she learned Yiddish. Last year she decided to learn Arabic. Her mother says Arabic is much harder.

The daughter will live with a host family, take five classes, and … well, she has her own blog. There she writes that she will be in Morocco for four months as part of a program “called AMIDEAST, which, like most study abroad programs in Morocco, is stationed in Rabat. … I’ll get to intern/volunteer six hours a week for a local business/organization!”

I like her enthusiasm.

A word to the wise for readers from other countries. There’s a lot of joking in her blog, not to be taken seriously the way a Chinese news outlet once took seriously a story at The Onion that was of course a complete fiction.

Map from http://jojomorocco.blogspot.com

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