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On Volcanoes, Chickens, and Plumbers

And the Yiddish word that unites them

Avi Shafran
June 01, 2018

There aren’t likely many Yiddish speakers in Hawaii, but one might be curious, reading of the eruptions of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano, about just how one says “volcano” in the mamehloshon. Be curious no longer. It’s vulkan.

Don’t be disappointed. There are, after all, no vents in the earth’s crust that have spewed lava, steam, and ashes in Eastern Europe, and so it’s no groiseh pliah (great wonder) that there isn’t some special Yiddish word for such a geographic feature.

But the Yiddish copycat word reminds us of the origin of “volcano,” namely Vulcan, the ancient Roman mythological god of fire and metalworking. Born, the myth goes, to Jupiter and Juno (Gmail hadn’t yet been conceived), baby Vulcan was small and ugly, and the newborn so horrified Juno that she hurled him off the top of Mount Olympus. Living in the depths of the ocean, Vulcan had a happy, if wet, childhood, and later, after marrying Venus, he built a smithy under Mount Etna. You can see where this is going.

It was said that whenever Venus was unfaithful, Vulcan grew angry and beat red-hot metal with such a force that sparks and smoke rose up from the top of the mountain, creating a volcanic eruption.

Yes, yes, this is a Yiddish column, not a Roman column (little pun there). Well, one of the metals with which the mythological Vulcan is associated is lead. In fact, “Vulcan” is the name of a lead supplier that claims the mantle of “The Leading Radiation Shielding Manufacturer in the World.”

And lead leads us to the little recognized etymology of a true Yiddish word: plumba.

Lead, of course, is the bluish-grey metal element that is, as noted, a good shield from radiation. It is also a poor conductor of electricity, has toxic effects on living things, and is assigned the chemical symbol Pb, shorthand for its Latin name, plumbum.

Jews, especially of a certain age, will recognize that word as the source of the Yiddish word plumba, a tamper-resistant metal seal, originally made of lead, that was traditionally attached to a chicken to identify it as having been slaughtered in a kosher manner. Similar lead seals are used to ensure the integrity of gas, electric and water meters.

The Latin plumbum, as it happens, is the root of some English words too, like the noun “plumb,” which refers to a lead weight, familiar to anyone who has tried to put up wallpaper. “Plumb,” thus, as an adjective, has come to mean “perfectly vertical.”

So if one wanted to describe someone standing impeccably upright, one might say that “Bob is plumb.” And if asked how one knew that, one might reply “I used a plumb bob.” One would, though, sound silly.

Another adjectival use of the word, implying “perfectly,” would be the sentence: “Bob’s plumb crazy.”

Since pipes were once fashioned out of lead, those who work with pipes are called plumbers; and what they work with, plumbing. So if your plumber’s name happens to be Bob, well, there are ample opportunities for further silliness.

The Yiddish word for “plumber”? So happy you asked. If it’s Romanian-influenced Yiddish it’s instilator, meaning something akin to “installer.” And if it’s German-influenced Yiddish it’s klempner, from the German word klemme, or “clamp.” And if it’s unimaginative Yiddish, it’s plohmer.

Related to klempner is klemperer, used to mean a tinkerer with metals, and the surname, of course, of the famous Jewish German-born conductor, Otto Klemperer. Who, you may know, was the father of the actor Werner Klemperer.

And for those who recognize that name, I have only one word:


Because I’m plumb out of anything further to say on the topic.

Rabbi Shafran, whose latest book is “It’s All In The Angle” (Judaica Press), blogs at

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