Saturday, July 25, 2009

Jew-ish Phraseology

I really need to reread the extensive collections of files I have in my computer's memory banks, because these recollections written for past classes are some really good shit. At least, I think so.

Here's an essay I wrote as an "Ancestor Evocation" exercise about something one of my relatives would say that I still remember to this day.

"Zek J Evets
TH 451
Prof Baron

Ancestor Evocation: Oy Vey Ismir Gevalt Shemayim

[jump to continue - click header]
Let me explain a few things first. People say that it’s bad to believe in stereotypes, that they’re never true – well after two decades as a Tow, I’ve come to realize how wrong people can be about something nice like that. I come from a very big, very loud, and very crazy Jewish family. There are Hispanic-Italian and Irish Catholic in-laws on both sides, as well as confusing layers of relatedness. For instance, I am the half-uncle to my brother’s daughter who is older than me, and has a kid of her own, who is my half-grandniece. How do these things happen? I have no idea. So now that you have an idea of how very random my family is – like everyone else’s family – I’ll go on.
When I was born I had a Hispanic nanny who spoke only in Spanish to me, so much that I was fluent till almost seven. My first word was even “agua”. But slowly as I got older I forgot it for the English, Yiddish, and Hebrew that was spoken by the rest of the family.
The first time I heard the phrase that has come to represent my family in a nutshell was when my grandmother (on my father’s side) yelled it out during a visit to our house over the summer. When my youngest-older brother and I were young, she and my grandfather would come often to visit us. And while I’m certain this wasn’t the first time she had said it, it was the first time I can remember. “Oyveyismirgevaltshemayim!”
“Grandma, what does that mean?”
She looked at me and cocked her head. I have always pictured my grandma as a frog who’s just swallowed a particularly juicy fly (I love her, but she does look like it). She spoke carefully and said, “Well, bubbulah, it’s just what we say when something happens.”
“Like what, grandma?”
“Like when you stub your toe, or when you get a surprise, or maybe when things don’t go the way you expect, or when that good-for-nothing husband of yours eats all the crackers before dinner.”
“Oh.” I was a curious kid, but being the youngest so-so quiet, and left it at that.
Throughout my life I would hear this phrase. It came to be one of those things that we go on repeating, long after we’ve forgotten what the words mean or why we say them. During times of craziness: like when my brothers and I would fight and drive my parents mad, whenever someone had déjà vu, or things got busy around back-to-school time. When there was of happiness: like when my eldest-older brother was married, to the birth of cousins or nephews, Chanukkahs, birthdays, and small things like good grades or new discoveries.
It also came to symbolize the bad times as well, when it was whispered like a curse: broken bones, the divorce, business failures, when my sister in-law overdosed on Tylenol, when my grandfather died from pneumonia, when my cousin drowned in a lake, when my mother passed away from cancer, when her mother (my grandmother) died from ignorance and old age, and all those other horrible things which come into our lives unexpectedly, like sparks from a fire onto your hands held out for warmth, leaving their little red marks on you.
Oy vey ismir gevalt shemayim. Oy vey ismir gevalt shemayim. It wasn’t until my bar mitzvah at fifteen that I learned what the phrase even meant. Roughly translated: damn.
That’s it! This long string of expletives that my ancestors were saying across the Atlantic in the little shtetls of Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, and all the way back to the beginning of the Diaspora, meant just one thing. Damn.
The world outside and inside can be really difficult, whipping us around like leaves. I remember during that big hurricane season, my dad and I called my grandmother in Florida to see if she was alright. The second thing out of her mouth (after, "Hiya kiddo!") when we asked how she was doing was, "oyveyismirgevaltshemayim!" Everyone here is kvetching this big fuss. The shuffle-boards are all covered in palms leaves, and I’m telling ya buster, it's made the boys very cranky.”
Go figure that an eighty year-old Jewish woman would say that after a hurricane. Her retirement home lost nearly half of its standing buildings, and basic things like water, electricity and gas were gone for almost a week. Go figure, right?
Sometimes I think that when I finally die (hopefully of old age) the last words I’ll say will be oyveyismirgevaltshemayim, just out of habit. I still say it, and its many variations, from “oy vey ismir”, to “oy vey gevalt”, to just plain “oy”. From as far back as when I was a four-year old boychik just learning about the names for the days of the week, to now as a twenty-one year-old college-student [now twenty-two going on twenty-three] I have never forgotten how my father’s mother sounded when she first told it to me as a little kid.
How this phrase came to sum up my entire family is something I only recently discovered through having to do this for class. In Judaism we believe in guilt, we believe in struggle, survival, and that even when things are bad (and they almost always are), they’ll get better because we’re this “chosen” people. How else could it go?
That pretty much describes my family, and me as a person, in so many ways. Bad things happen, good things happen, random shit happens, and still we go on, staying exactly the same way we were before, as if these great and terrible things were just burrs in our coattails. When I look at my family, at all the time that’s passed from my earliest memories to now, it seems we’ll go on being that way till God stops laughing and comes down from heaven – unless global warming kills us first."

3 footnotes:

FunkyStarkitty50 said...

I've come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a "normal" family. "Normal" is totally subjective, like beauty is.

Zek J Evets said...

@funky: yeah, i would agree. normal is also what you're comfortable with.

Bells said...

Love it- I love hearing about how other people grew up and about their family life. I'm going to have to start using that phrase.