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(Photo/maxpixel.com CC0)

F-bombs have nothing on proper Yiddish cursing

“Son of a b—h,” I swore as the book I was carrying dropped and landed squarely on my big toe. It hurt, but the curse made me smile. It’s one of my favorites, thanks to my father.

When I was around 18, a sophomore in college and feeling quite adult, I tried out the B-word in conversation with my mother while relating some indignity caused by a professor of mine. My father, a sixth-grade dropout and a child of the Depression, but nevertheless a man well schooled in Yiddish and American profanities, walked by. He did a double take, then mildly advised, “If you’re going to curse, do it correctly. The expression is ‘God damn, son of a b—h.’”

At the time, my father’s “lesson” was embarrassing. Instead of coming off as sophisticated, I was taken down a notch and schooled by my father in the nuances of expletives. And yet, it gave me an appreciation for the art — and value — of a well-phrased curse.

We all swear, of course. I haven’t conducted a scientific study on the subject, but I’d swear that swearing is a universal habit.

I speak, or more accurately I studied, a couple of languages, so I’m proud to say that I know a few choice phrases in Russian, German, Spanish, and French. Even one in Finnish!

But it is with great tribal pride that I say that Yiddish curses are my favorite. I mean, I don’t know of a language or ethnicity that has produced anything to rival the endearing enmity of these zingers (from Joe Singer’s 1977 compilation “How to Curse in Yiddish):

May you be bled dry by leeches,
but enough blood should be left
for the bedbugs, lice, and mosquitos to have a good meal too,
God willing.

May your husband’s father marry three times,
So that you have not one,
But three mothers-in-law.

May you make a widow and orphans happy – your own.

Ouch and oy vey.

I used to have a dictionary of Russian obscenities and curses. Besides the usual array of Slavic-style F-bomb invectives, the dictionary had an extraordinarily large number of curses related to flatulence. This makes sense, given the era in which the dictionary was published, the mid-1970s. Communism and the command economy were at full throttle. Markets, and vegetable markets in particular, provided a limited selection. Cabbage and more cabbage was the vegetable of choice — the only choice. Hence the nonstop black humor and cursing about flatulence.

I’ve misplaced that Russian dictionary. I hid it when my children reached reading age. (The last thing I needed was my sweet-faced babes trotting off to their Jewish day school armed with an X-rated arsenal of fart jokes!)

Sadly, despite my squirreling away that dictionary and my determined efforts to be genteel, I apparently was a fairly foulmouthed mom — at least if you take the ear-witness accounts of my children to heart. They claim I was a little “expressive” in my language. I guess the expletive-laced habits of all those years as a hard-nosed, hard-driving reporter were hard to break!

And I confess, I do recall one car ride when my daughter, sitting in her car seat, patiently instructed her just-starting-to-speak baby brother not to say the word “shit.” She sweetly explained, “Only Mommy gets to say ‘shit.’ ‘Shit’ is a bad word. So don’t say ‘shit.’”

This sisterly lecture prompted the baby to singsong the word “shit” the entire car ride home and proclaim it proudly and loudly in a greeting to my mother as we opened the front door. Who got in trouble? Me. Shit! I mean, sugar.

What can I say? Who can I blame for my cursing proclivity? My father? My Russian and Jewish ancestors?

As I think about those early Russian and Yiddish curses, I see them as a folksy, earthy art form, offering heartfelt reflections on people’s lives, economic realities and day-to-day worries.

Today’s American four-letter profanities seem boring and simplistic by comparison. F-this. F-that. The word is used so frequently that there should be a warning issued: F-ing overuse of the F-word leads to severe damage to health, hearing and sensibilities. And no matter how loudly an F-bomb is hurled, it will never equal the power of one good “May you …” Yiddish curse!

Therefore, in an effort to upgrade the quality of contemporary curses and with a nod to my heritage, I offer three curses of a middle-age Jewish mama:

May you never run out of toilet paper,
but may it only be one-ply.

May your tweets always be one character too long.

May you forever live under a cloud of poor internet and cellphone reception, except in an emergency when your children need you, God forbid.

Karen Galatz
Karen Galatz

Karen Galatz is the author of Muddling through Middle Age, a weekly humor blog. An award-winning journalist, her nonfiction and fiction essays and stories have been featured in multiple publications. She lives in Berkeley and can be reached at karen@muddling.me.