You know how it is.
You’re standing in the hallway outside the bathroom watching your husband shave, your always-simmering wrath toward the state of American politics in general and the Republican Party in particular brought to a rolling boil by several cups of coffee drunk at injudicious speed, and you’re both inveighing against certain distant-ish relatives whose ideological leanings are a constant source of ire, wondering aloud what terrible misfortune might need to befall them to bring them around, or at least lay their hypocrisy bare. That they should suffer a catastrophic illness that their insurance refuses to cover, leaving them nothing to be so bent out of shape about re: the estate tax? That they should be so hot for Israel to bomb Iran that their son drops out of medical school to join the IDF? That their son should be elected president and they should have no idea what the hell they did with his birth certificate? And then a light bulb goes on.
Consider this a coming-out of sorts: My husband, the long-suffering Ben, and I are the force behind Yiddish Curses for Republican Jews, a mom-and-pop operated website that in less than a week has generated more than 4.5 million page views throughout the world, including four people in Iran, all of whom I would very much like to treat to a cup of coffee.
But while it’s certainly exciting watching the numbers tick up from the little corner in our kitchen that is our designated command center/smoking area, kind of like one of those spinning-newspaper montages from old movies that end with someone being really, really famous—and believe me, I can only wish that every child from a left-leaning Jewish family should get to hear at least once the sound of her father’s voice when he calls to tell her that something she wrote was linked to by Paul Krugman—what’s been most fascinating about it to me is to see how perfectly the Yiddish language lent itself to the emotions and ideas undergirding this project. With a cadence alternately baroque and colloquial, Yiddish—or rather, our Anglicized approximation of it—seems uniquely calibrated to lay bare any hypocrisy, pick the bones of self-righteousness, puncture the balloons of pompousness, and many other such metaphors. If, as W.C. Fields once had it, wars should be fought in a giant stadium by world leaders armed with socks filled with horse manure, perhaps all political discourse should take the form of Yiddish-style curses.
Let’s look at what makes a Yiddish curse so special, shall we? As Michael Wex, the lauded author of Born To Kvetch (and who, I would like to point out, had nothing to do with any of this, he should live and be well) has written, a Yiddish curse “isn’t a matter of yelling out bad words; the trick is to put them together in the most damaging possible way.” Unlike Irish or Italian curses, Yiddish curses rarely wish the target irreparable bodily harm. There have always been plenty of other people more than willing to give us that—and besides, as every Jew knows, there are things worse than death. Like having every tooth in your head fall out except one, to give you a toothache. Or going to the toilet every three minutes, or every three days. As Aunt Ceil said upon witnessing Uncle Abe’s gasping indigestion upon eating pork chops in the Woody Allen film Radio Days: “A heart attack? A heart attack is too good for him! He deserves an enema!”
The greatest Yiddish curses, however, are the sort with some kind of clever twist of the knife (always a dull one). These start off sounding like a blessing, wishing on the disdained something that anybody would be thrilled to have—a vast fortune, a superannuated life—and then, with little warning, wish for it all to turn to dust. Take for instance, the classic insult I consider to be the apex of this genre, and indeed my most dearly beloved Yiddish curse since I first heard it growled over a canasta table at a family reunion as a very young child: “You should have a large store, and whatever people ask for, you shouldn’t have. And what you do have, it shouldn’t be requested.”
I ask you, dear reader: Is there a better, meaner, more existentially maddening, more perfectly, essentially Jewish curse than that? It practically forces you to imagine the beleaguered shopkeeper behind the counter, tearing at his beard, his inability to satisfy a constant stream of increasingly furious customers forcing him to watch everything he has dreamed of and slaved over and used every aspect of his being to build crumble around him—making him, of course, a sitting duck for the kind of corporate raiders, Brylcreemed with sociopathy, that Mitt Romney and his acolytes would have us worship.
Which, of course, brings us to the Republicans, and their Jewish supporters who I have to believe somewhere deep in their souls really do know better. The GOP platform unveiled to the party faithful this week is so draconian in its policies toward the sick and underprivileged; so regressive in its attitudes toward women, gays, and hard science; so shamelessly tilted in favor of the supremely wealthy and disdainful of everyone else, that the greatest curse you can offer anyone is to hope it all comes true, leaving them to suffer the consequences. Live to 120 on your privatized Medicare vouchers. Make your fortune and lose everything when your chronic illness hits its lifetime insurance cap. Let the maniacs outlaw the morning-after pill the day before your daughter gets home from the NFTY convention, and see if your tax cut makes it all worth it.
Sure, there’s the reality that you’ll take all the rest of us down with you, but the truly embittered curser knows it’s all worth it just to see you suffer. What could be more of a blessing than that?
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Rachel Shukert, a Tablet Magazine columnist on pop culture, is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great. Starstruck, the first in a series of three novels, is new from Random House. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.
Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.