Sixteen members of our Levine clan gathered for a Shabbat dinner in the dining room of our mom's San Diego residence. We have been getting together in warm places during winter vacation for more than 25 years.Brother-in-law Harry believes in a central focus and hence we played a game reading prompts like "what was our dad's (z"l) favorite Yiddish phrase?" My brother and I responded in unison—"I need that like a loch in kop" (a hole in the head). Leslie quickly offered the Yiddish phrase "Vaksn zolstu vi a tsibele mitn kop in dr'erd! " (Go plant your head in the earth and may it grow up like an onion).
Dad had many other pet Yiddish phrases, but our home and our maternal grandparents' home was militantly English speaking.Not so at our paternal grandparents' where Yiddish salted and peppered their language and our Baubie (great-grandmother) continued to speak her mama loshen. Baubie learned only the bare minimum of English like "Greyhunt" [buses] and "Spry" lest she bake with the dubious "Crisco" which she believed to be traif—just look at the name!
"Oy vey" was such a common phrase that one hardly thought about it.It conveyed angst, the existential dilemma, with such conciseness and profound emotion.I can remember our mom telling me not to use the phrase because I sounded like an old lady. As the sixties progressed and Yiddish phrases made their appearance on TV, the movies, and on Broadway, I incorporated some of those phrases. Sometimes you need a word like "shmattes," "hutzpah," or "ferklempt." Oy vey didn't become a part of my everyday vocabulary until I became a mother.
If one of my toddlers fell, "oy vey" might tumble out.When I glanced over the toy strewn house at the end of the day,that might merit another "oy vey." If someone hurt my child's feelings, "oy vey" prefaced whatever consolation I could muster.It captured the intensity of the moment and gave me a moment to gather my thoughts before other words rushed out of my mouth.
When Leslie called recently, we began to talk about our children and their assorted troubles. "Oy vey!" we remarked to each other."Oy vey," I realized, is the Yiddish chorus, a Jewish response, to family problems.The entire phrase is "oy vey iz mir,""woe is me!" Yep, that fits.When our children hurt, it pains us beyond belief and we are consumed by waves of sadness—especially if the situation seems out of our control."Oy vey" thumbs its nose at modern child rearing theories and claims a parent's right to own her child's suffering.
When walking around the lake with my friends, the "oy vey" refrain also pops up when we're talking about our children.It's perfectly versatile not only as the preface to a sad tale about our children, but also as the response to hearing the tale.It lets the storyteller set the mood and the listener acknowledge the gravity of the story she's just heard.
As we begin 2016, Leslie and I wish you a year of minimum oy vey iz mir moments in your life.