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Feb 2003 Journal

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Virtual reality

Though der Heim – the Yiddish-speaking heartland of Eastern Europe - vanished over half a century ago, it spawned a rich folklore, some of which fed into world culture. Prime examples are the legend of the Golem – the precursor of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – and the notion of demonic possession exemplified in Anski’s Dybbuk.

At a less elevated level, stories abounded about archetypal fools, braggarts, drunks, beggars (shnorrers) and gossips (yentes). The fools all inhabited the real, existing Polish town of Chelm (Chelmno). German simpletons, in contrast, lived in the fictitious Schilda - hence the term Schildbürger. The English equivalent, Gotham – as in ‘Three wise men of Gotham went to sea in a sieve’ – was an obscure village in Northants.

Braggarts are personified in the European imagination by somewhat flaky aristocratic figures like Baron von Münchhausen and Sir John Falstaff. The Yiddish counterpart as teller of tall tales is the plebeian Hershele Ostropoler. The last named was ordinary, but not average. In the Yiddish communal subconscious, Mr Average – the Victorians’ ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’, alias Joe Bloggs – is Chaim Yankel.

After faces lost in the crowd, places lost in the distance. When the English want to evoke the back of beyond they say Timbuktu, and the Americans Hicksville. The Yiddish counterpart to those places is Yehupets (the Austrian equivalent is Kigrizpotschen – possibly a strange compound of Kirghiz and slippers).

Mention of Austria brings to mind their national stereotype of cretinous aristocrats: Graf (Count) Bobby. His nearest English equivalent, other than the generic term ‘chinless wonder’, is Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster. Yiddish folklore has produced nothing remotely similar; lacking a land of their own, the Jews also lacked a landed aristocracy. The closest Jewry got to having a hierarchy was the priesthood – and no one would poke fun at that living repository of traditional wisdom.
Richard Grunberger

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