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The Uncivil Servant: A Zetz! "Yiddish Fighting Words" at YIVO

May 11, 2015

by Mitchell Abidor

bummy-davisI WAS NOT a red diaper baby. In fact, when I was a kid, ideas in general were as rare as bacon on Yom Kippur in my house. After supper, my father would go into the living room, lie down on the couch, and snore the evening away. He wasn’t alone in this: All of my friends’ exhausted fathers did the same, though some fell asleep in a chair rather than on the couch. No issues of the day, no great historical questions agitated my father, nor did they matter to Irving Glasser, Nat Brenner, Herman Rosenfeld or any of the other men my father socialized with, first in Brooklyn, then (they moved en masse to the same development) in Florida.

However, two topics were sure to enliven my father and his peers: the death of Kid Twist Reles (was he pushed or did he jump or fall from the Half Moon Hotel when he was in police custody and about to testify against Murder Inc.?); and the life and death of Bummy Davis, the Brownsville-born Jewish boxer who was killed in 1945 at age 25 while breaking up a hold-up in a bar. Reles, the gangster, and Davis, the fighter, were blood of their blood, flesh of their flesh, residents of the same tenements on Powell Street and Belmont Avenue and Glenmore Avenue.

My father, who to my knowledge never set foot in a museum, would have loved the wonderful new exhibit at YIVO, “Yiddish Fighting Words,” which, in its poeticizing of the elemental, would have spoken directly to him. But the exhibit is for anyone who appreciates the wonders of language in general and Yiddish in particular. A display of words relating specifically to the fight world, the vocabulary on display, extracted from the three pages within a massive lexicon compiled by linguist Hirschl Grinboym in 1926, was, we are told, “the rhetorical domain of the undocumented and disdained subclasses of Yiddish speakers: blacksmiths, butchers, porters, wagon drivers, and others who worked with their hands and bodies.” The words are phonically and semantically wonderful, so wonderful that it is almost criminal to translate them: their sound says as much as their sense could.

Who would want to be a recipient of an unterkletzl? My ribs hurt just thinking about the shtikhes I might once have received. And though in my own life I’ve received many a zetz, and the occasional knak, I’ve seldom seen a kop, which results in someone’s kishkes being knocked out. I’m small enough that a tluk from me wouldn’t do you any harm, though if I were to pletn someone, it would certainly result in my receiving a klung if my victim hadn’t been knocked out.

 

THE MEN who delivered these blows and are featured in the exhibit were a colorful lot.

Raphael Halperin was born in Israel in 1926 and studied at yeshiva under the Rabbi Hazon Ish. He became a bodybuilder and was chosen as Mr. Israel 1950. From there he moved on to wrestling, though he wouldn’t fight on shabes. After abandoning sport, he returned to his original life and became a haredi rabbi.

Shepsl Rotholz was a champion boxer on the Polish national team, but began as a fighter with the left-Zionist Shtern club.

Zelig Paskov was the most popular Jewish wrestler in Poland in the 1920’s, entering the ring in a blue and white sash.

Bummy Davis and the far more famous and successful boxer Barney Ross are here as well, alongside the legendary Blimp Levy, who supposedly weighed 200 pounds at his bar mitsve and who, as a result of glandular problems, blew up to 600 pounds. After a stint as a sideshow fat man in Coney Island, he joined the stable of the Jewish promoter Jack Pfefer. His fight career over, he further bloated to 900 pounds and died in 1961 at age 55.

There are no historic artifacts on display here, simply panels with photos and words and their definitions, which is usually reason to turn and run from a museum: why shlep out of your house to see something you could look up online? But the skillfulness of the exhibit’s design, the sheer joy and extravagance and earthiness of the language, and the oddity of the images and the men attached to them, more than elevates this delightful exhibit above Wikipedia. It reminds us of just how multifaceted the world of Yiddish once was, leaving you feeling like you’ve received a bentsh.

 

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his translation of Emmanual Bove's A Raskolnikoff. His latest book is Anarchists Never Surrender, an anthology of anarchist writings by Victor Serge.