This article was originally published in Tablet Magazine on July 28, 2009.
This is the story of a mystery that began ten years ago, when I drove up to the San Fernando Valley home of a new waxer I was trying out. Right there, in the garden in front of her house, was a small white sign that made me gasp: “Shmundie Central.” Shmundie, as you likely don’t know, is a Yiddish slang term for vagina, and it was a word that—until that point—I had never seen or heard outside of my own house.
One of Yiddish’s great legacies in American culture is, of course, the plethora of crackerjack terms it has provided for male genitalia. Most Jews, and even many non-Jews, are familiar with more than one: shmuck, shlong, and putz are the most widely used, but I bet a number of my friends could expand that list to half a dozen if they tried.
But female genitalia achieved no such preeminence. In fact, female body parts hardly retained a presence at all—which I learned when I decided, about a year ago, that it was time to take on a professional investigation. In my house, in addition to “shmundie,” there was also “knish” and “peergeh”—all innocent terms, neither clinical nor vulgar, an easy-going entry point into all matters relating to, as others call them, “my privates.”
I started asking scholars, native speakers, writers, and fellow yentas, but nobody had much to say on the subject. The most reassuring answer I received was “interesting question,” from a prominent academic who focuses on Yiddish culture and Women’s Studies. One referred to a pithy lesson on sexual education in Henry Roth’s 1934 masterpiece, Call it Sleep, given by a disabled girl in a clothes closet to the main character David.
“From de knish.”
“Between de legs. Who puts id in is de poppa. De poppa’s god de petzel.”
This was hardly much to go on. And, troublingly, more than half of the people I asked actually belittled the very question. (In the words of one discussion group responder: “One can make a living out of this?”) Even my own sister, after years of lovingly insulting one another as “knish-face” and answering the phone “Shmundie Central” (the inspiration, of course, being that beautician in the Valley), expressed her doubts about the value of this inquiry. Eventually, one member of a Yiddish discussion group gave me a decent list from his Stutchkoff’s Yiddish Thesaurus, but then added: “I do wonder how many of these words are actually known to anybody today.”
For me, these terms were crucial. Ours is not the most organized of families, historically or in the present: We have no family trees, no formal reunions, and are indifferent to losing contact with relatives who go a bit adrift. We belonged to a synagogue but didn’t really pay attention during services, and observed all the big holidays, though mostly just by cooking. I was left with a clear Jewish identity, but it was our Yiddish, brought over from Romania, that provided the real sense of authenticity. We never learned it in a formal sense, but there were at least 50 phrases in constant rotation. For a family that possesses only a couple of paternal heirlooms—a kiddish cup and a tallis—these phrases were happy reminders that we came from somewhere. Indeed, they are my matrilineal heritage.
And so, I soldiered on and, eventually, the fog began to lift. Yiddishist Eddy Portnoy explained that certain cultures favor male-centric slang words and insults, while others are more female-centric. France and Mexico tend to linguistically play around with lady parts, while both Yiddish speakers and Americans are bit more phallic—a fact that shed some light on why America fell in love with shmuck and putz. But it still didn’t satisfactorily explain what happened to their female counterparts.
The first real breakthrough came from Michael Wex, the author of Born to Kvetch and Just Say Nu. In the latter, he explains that, traditionally, Yiddish speakers were quite modest—using the phrase “dortn,” or “there,” to describe women’s private parts. Yes there were clinical terms for vagina, but the more playful words, the likes of which I had grown up around, were seldom used. OK, I thought, this makes sense in the shtetl, but what about in the early 20th century, among unionists and communists and suffragettes? They couldn’t have been afraid. Or even my great-grandmother Ella, my namesake, who would travel solo to the Catskills to visit her lover. She couldn’t have been fearful.
According to Michael Wex, they all were. “The progressives were no less prudish,” he told me. For years, I had attributed my own brassiness to my frank Yiddish foremothers. They were prudes?
Not necessarily. “It’s our projection of what we think they were, and our investment in this idea that they were too holy to go to the bathroom, have sex or tell dirty jokes that creates false impression,” wrote Alyssa Quint, a professor of Jewish literature at Princeton, in an email. She doesn’t buy speculation that “people who spoke Yiddish were too modest to say vagina.”
I could avoid it no longer. I finally called my maternal grandmother Esther, Ella’s daughter. I realize most readers will think she should have been my first phone call, but you’ve got to realize: These were not the kind of conversations she and I ever had. It wasn’t that she was prude, this was hardly the case, but rather that making her think critically always seemed like it would spoil the fun. So I forged ahead, and asked her if we could talk about the Yiddish vagina.
“What do you want to know about that for?” she asked.
“Just curious, Nanny. I wonder where these terms came from.”
“All right,” she said, with what seemed like a verbal shrug. Then silence.
“Did your mom use them?”
“No, not really.”
“Well, where did they come from?”
“She would, but once in awhile. But only about us children.” (She is one of five sisters.)
“So she was shy about it?”
“Oh, yeah. My mother wouldn’t really talk like this. Not about herself. Just sometimes with us girls.”
“So where did you learn them from?”
“Well my mother, and the other girls in the neighborhood.”
“But you used them with my mom, right? That is how she learned them?”
“But you weren’t embarrassed?”
“No, what the hell do I care?”
So perhaps my grandmother was a mini-revolutionary, undoing decades of modesty by making these the go-to terms in her house for female parts. Or, possibly more likely, they weren’t really as modest as we imagine, but like so much of the language, these words were lost to time. Fortunately my grandmother, and later my mother, knew a good thing when they saw one, filling my childhood with knishes and shmundies and peergeh, and even finding that faithful waxer in the valley who understood the sentimental and linguistic value of these terms. And while my sister may not understand why I care about the provenance of these words, she at least can see the genuine value of “shmundie”—how, like no other phrase, it binds us to our tangled diasporic past, creating an immediate sorority that I hope for my female children and grandchildren to take part in.
From Stutchkoff’s Yiddish Thesaurus:
Vagina -[*nekeyve] *beys-kibl, *oyse mokem, shandfleysh, * erve – *boser
erve, *mokem haturpe, shpil, +yene *mayse, zakh, +boye, +shmonde, +pirge, kote; [kl] ripke, sakhme, salepnitse; kutnitse [*beheyme]; trakht, mutertrakht, muterlayb, heybmuter, geboyr-muter, geber-muter, uterus; froyen-oder, muter-oder, klitor; dos ort, muter-kukhn, platsente; *bsule-haytl, *bsulim; sheyd, mutersheyd, vagine; eyfirer, eyerfirer, ey-durkhfirer, eyer-kanal; eyershtok, /180D ovarye; mutershtok; eyerzek, poliklen, eyer-lager; [*b”kh] eyerleyg-aparat,
eyerleyg-rerlekh. (My new favorite is di mayse, or “the story.”)
Elissa Strauss lives in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the American Prospect, the Village Voice and the New York Daily News.