Monday, July 8, 2013

W27: 1001 Yiddish Proverbs

Perhaps the Biblio-Mat was feeling that I needed more spirituality in my life and had thus sent me a book to reflect on. Or perhaps it felt that I needed a break from reading textbooks and sent me a book of quotes. Either way, this week’s book was a welcome change from the density of recent offerings.

A very tasty shade of green.
1001 Yiddish Proverbs, written by Fred Kogos and published in 1970, has a lime green cover with a title that was written in what one would assume was the Comic Sans of the 70s. The back cover showed a photo of Kogos, who looked not unlike a cross between Kevin Spacey and Ernie Coombs.  A moderately-sized hardcover, the book felt very comfortable to hold with one hand and the proverbs were spaced sparse enough at seven per page that they were not overtly overwhelming.

Mr. Dressup meets House of Cards?
All the proverbs in the book had the Yiddish text first, followed by the English translation below it. Every twenty or so pages there would be a cartoon drawing to go along with one of the proverbs, which was a fun distraction.

Funny enough, when I first moved to Toronto, I went to the One of a Kind show looking for items to decorate my place with. The only thing I ended up buying was a print by Ian Kochberg containing a Hebrew proverb. To this day it’s the only thing adorning my walls, so you could imagine my enjoyment of reading a whole text of proverbs.

"In places where there are no good people, be a good person."
True to its title, 1001 Yiddish Proverbs did indeed contain 1001 entries. However, there were a handful of duplicates that appeared twice in different slots due to the Yiddish wording being slightly different. For example:

165: An alter freint iz besser vi a nei’eh tsvai. One old friend is better than two new ones.
328: Besser ain alter freint vi a nei’eh tsvai. / One old friend is better than two new ones.

621: Got shtroft mit ain hant, un bentsht mit der anderen. / God punishes with one hand and blesses with the other.
729: Mit ain hant shtroft Got un mit der anderer bentsht er. / With one hand God punishes and with the other he blesses.

But who's keeping track, anyway?
So in actuality, the book was more like 985 Yiddish Proverbs. Another interesting thing of note was how the proverbs would often contradict each other:

16: A friend you get for nothing; an enemy has to be bought.
18: A friend you have to buy; enemies you get for nothing.
665: There are no enemies for free; you have to pay for them.

38: A heart is a lock: you need the right key to it.
39: A heart is a lock, but a lock can be opened with a duplicated key.

592: Money causes conceit and conceit leads to sin.
594: Money rules the world!

What everyone did seem to agree on, though, was the role of women. While not quite outright misogynistic, none of the proverbs painted the fairer sex in a good light. Among the better ones:

64: A maiden is like velvet – come on, fondle her!
719: More blemish, more dowry.
905: When the wife wants the husband to stay at home, she talks less and cleans more.

If I had a nickel for every reference of a shrewish wife... I would have $1.15.
All in all, it was an entertaining read and while the proverbs skewed on the side of being more humourous than profound, there were nonetheless some gems in there that I will carry with me for a while so I shall pass them along:

56: A wise man knows what he says, a fool says what he knows.
71/400: Man thinks and God laughs.
189: When your enemy falls, don’t rejoice; but don’t pick him up either.
226: If you’re going to do something wrong, enjoy it!
386: The body is a sponge, the soul an abyss.
732: At night all cows are black.
1001: Everything ends in weeping.

Book rating: 9/10 (Half a point off for the duplicates)

Random quote: “They reveal the warmth of a people and, above all, their indomitable humor, well expressed in the proverb, ‘Suffering makes you laugh, too’” (Schadenfreude?)


  1. I love this idea of a book vending machine. And, I liked this selection. Neat piece.

    1. Thanks! It was quite a fascinating book. Everyone could use more inspiration in life.