As Yiddish means Jewish (a Yid is a Jew), it’s not surprising that so many of the language’s most expressive expressions and maxims revolve around Jewish holidays. Like the one referenced in the previous Yiddish column about the chicken gazing at the words of a prayer book. (Missed it? Well, as Casey Stengel is said to have said, “You could look it up.”)
Now, in the midst of Sukkot, another colorful Yiddish expression comes to mind—fitting not only because it pertains to the last of the “intermediate” Sukkot-days (this year, Sept. 30), but because of the happy exhaustion experienced by Jews who spent all of Yom Kippur day in shul, then built their sukkot, purchased their “four species,” the plants and fruit taken each non-Sabbath day of the holiday, and cleaned and cooked for the holiday.
There are a number of words in Yiddish that mean “tired.” Mid, from the German müde, is one. Its noun form, meaning fatigue, is midkeyt. A more recent addition to the Yiddish lexicon is flimidkeyt (with the stress on the first syllable), meaning jet lag (fli meaning just what it sounds like).
Another, likely from the same root, are the adjectives fahrmahttert (with the stress on the second syllable) and oisgematert (stress on the first one). They subtly differ from mid, implying tiredness born of hard work, what we would call “exhaustion.”
Then there’s oisgeribn, which literally means “rubbed out” or, as we would say in English, “worn out.”
Taking things to an extreme is the phrase toit mid, or, literally, “dead tired.”
A Yiddish phrase that seems to be based on the observation that dogs tend to sleep a lot is mid vi a hundt, “tired as a dog.”
And an uninspired maxim informs us that Vos shverer men arbet, alts mider vert men, or “the harder one works, the more tired one becomes.” Well, yes.
A somewhat more sly saying is Der vos zucht laychte arbet geyt mid tsu bet, or “the one who looks for light work goes to bed tired”–presumably meaning that, ironically, the search for easy work, a rare animal, can itself leave one exhausted.
Ah, yes, the holiday tiredness maxim. Some background is called for.
The last of the “intermediate days” of Sukkot is Hoshana Rabba (literally “many hoshanot” – “hoshana” being an entreaty to G-d for salvation). It is marked with its own special liturgy and ritual – a strange one, the beating of the hoshanot (in Yiddish, pronounced hoishanehs)–branches of black willow, one of the “four species”–against the ground.
The ritual’s meaning is obscure, and its roots as a custom from the days of the prophets seem to be mystical ones. But its result is clear: bent and battered willow branches whose leaves are missing or damaged.
Which leads to our seasonal phrase: vi a oisgeklapteh hoishaneh–“like a utterly beaten hoshana.” It’s a feeling we have all experienced at times, though we likely have no more colorful way of expressing it. The phrase can also refer to something being totally worthless (as hoshanot are generally sold for a few dollars but, once beaten, entirely without value), but utter exhaustion and the attendant inability to do anything includes something of that meaning too.
Finally, no Yiddish column about tiredness would be complete without the old, in fact tired, joke about the Frenchman, German and Jew who walk into a bar.
“I’m tired and thirsty,” says the Frenchman, “I must have wine.”
“I’m tired and thirsty,” says the German, “I must have beer.”
“I’m tired and thirsty,” says the Jew, “I must have diabetes.”
As Chassidim are wont to say in the days before Hoshana Rabba, when, mystical sources teach, a final “voucher” of divine judgment is set to come: A git kvittel, or “Good Certificate!” to all.