Thursday, March 1, 2012

Should I stay or should I sew?

Yiddish is a wonderful language. It has a unique ability to take a concept, a phrase, a paragraph of thought, and distill it into a single word. And then, from that single word, a wealth of connotations derives. It's a marvelous, cyclical affair.

(For example, Oy is not a word but a vocabulary with 29 distinct variations -- including sighed, cried, howled or moaned -- that express everything from ecstasy to horor. So it's fair to say that in the right copywriter's hands, ABC Sports' long-lived slogan might have been, The Oy of Victory, the Oy of Defeat.)

Now approaching the 44th anniversary of its printing, Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish remains the masterwork on the subject, blending scholarship with humor. Even if you're not Jewish, it's a great read. And you'd be surprised how many Yiddish expressions have crept into English. You like to shmooze? Yiddish, originally from the Hebrew word meaning rumors or idle talk. Your boyfriend's a shmuck? He's a dope, a jerk, a detestable fellow. (In the old days, shmuck was considered so obscene --  its first definition being penis -- that it was not to be repeated around women or children. The word shmo developed as a more polite alternative.) Something's a mish-mash? Trace the word, meaning mix-up or mess, to the Danes and the Germans, fine, but it came to English through Yiddish speakers.

I grew up around Yiddish. My grandmother's favorite Yiddish expression, which I can no long recall in the original, translated roughly to "A carrot should grow in his stomach upside down." It's not bad enough a carrot is GROWING in someone's stomach, it has to be upside-down, too? I do still remember the Yiddish for another of Grandma's key phrases. I won't try to write it here, but it means "My enemies should live so long." My parents used to speak Yiddish to each other and their siblings so I wouldn't know what they were saying. Although my husband was raised Congregationalist, he knows more than a few good words. And you'll remember that Brent and his Spanish-speaking friends made a mother tongue mish-mash during 5th grade lunch hours.

One useful word is shpilkes, which was used to full effect and made even more popular by Mike Myers in the Saturday Night Live sketches in which he played the character Linda Richman, hostess of Coffee Talk. Shpilkes literally means nervous energy.

It seems like every time I sit at the sewing machine lately, I've got shpilkes. I sew a seam or two, cut a few strips, then get up and do something else, occasionally something useful. (I find this totally ironic: when I'm away from home and not sewing, I can't wait to get back to the machine. Yet I can't stay put when I'm there.)

Sure, sewing what seem like endless straight seams can be a little mind-numbing (not to mention what it does to my carpal tunnel). But combining fabrics and playing with colors truly makes me happy.

Sadly, the result of my inability to focus is that I don't get enough done in a day. I've been inspired by a quilt on Pinterest, but in two days of working on it (admittedly not for a lot of time either day), I've completed exactly 10 blocks.

I had intended to complete about 30 and show them here. Will you be back next week to look at them?

In the meantime, I'll be on pins and needles -- another definition of shpilkes.

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