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Yiddish’s Favorite Disease

There are many ways to tell someone off in the mamaloshen, but only one medical metaphor that really stings

Avi Shafran
July 10, 2018

Even if one finds alleged comedian Michelle Wolf to be whiny, obnoxious, insufferable, vile, revolting and positively emetic, she must be given credit for one thing: inspiring a Yiddish column, the one you are presently reading.

Among the sophomore insults Ms. Wolf recently spewed at members of the First Family and various administration officials and lawmakers–her tried-and-true method for evoking snorts from mean-spirited simpletons–was a recent oh-so-funny comparison of Ivanka Trump to a venereal disease.

Well, Yiddish beat her to it–no, not in her attempted insult of the First Daughter, but in employing a disease as an insult.

Reader, meet chaleryeh.

Likely borrowed from the Russian холера or the Dutch klerelijer, it is slang for cholera, the contagious disease that spread over Europe for several years in the early part of the 19th century, reappearing on the continent over ensuing decades, and persisting even today, primarily in Africa and Southeast Asia.

The use of the word as an insult likely began as a direct misanthropic wishing of the disease on another. As in Zol dir chapen a chaleryeh! Or, “May you catch a case of cholera!”

Eventually it morphed into a direct insult, used to describe a despicable person. Were Ivanka a different sort of person, she might well have hurled it at Ms. Wolf.

But, as Yiddish insults go, chaleryeh lacks the characteristic humor of the many other, often elaborate, ones available.

Like, say: Zolen dayne beyner zich brechen azoy oft vi di Aseres Hadibres–“May your bones be broken as often as the Ten Commandments” (a reference not to Moses’ shattering of the first tablets but rather to human beings’ disregard for the commandments engraved thereon).

Or the colorful: Veren zol fun dir a blintshik, un di kats zol dich chapen–”May you turn into a blintz and the cat snatch you.” It loses something in translation.

Or the straightforward: Zalts im in di oygn un fefer im in noz!–“[May there be] salt in his eyes and pepper in his nose!”

Then there’s the enigmatic but expressive Chasene hobn zol er mit di malekh hamoves a tokhter–“He should marry a daughter of the Angel of Death.”

And that all-time favorite: Aleh tseyn zoln dir aroysfalen, nor eyner zol dir blayben af tsonveytik–“May all your teeth fall out, except one, to give you a toothache.” Take that, Shmerel!

So there’s no dearth of creative ways of telling someone off–or worse–in Yiddish. Still, chaleryeh retains its unimaginative place in the language.

As in the tale they tell of the late Sadie Goldstein, who, in the 1930s, tried to register in a posh Long Island hotel, but was informed by the clerk, who noticed her accent, that only Christians were welcome at the establishment.

“And vot do you sink I am?” retorted a snooty-sounding Sadie, implying membership in the majority religion.

The clerk, to test her, asked who the son of God is, and she responded as a Christian would be expected to respond.

“And where was he born?” asked the clerk.

“In a stable,” said Sadie.

“And why in a stable?”

“Because a chaleryeh like you vouldn’t rent him a room!”

A good zinger is better than a room, no?

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