Week 26: 1001 Yiddish Proverbs

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 183 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 101 hours
I have reviewed 2,549 individual flashcards

First, some milestones: As of yesterday, I have completed half a year's study, 182 days. Sometime in the past few days, I studied my 2500th flashcard, half of the 5,000 I want to study in my first year. And as of yesterday, I completed 100 hours of studying, so if I am to ever become an expert at Yiddish, I just need to do 1,000 times that many, according to Malcolm Gladwell.

Actually, that's not fair to the amount of work I have done. As I have mentioned in the past, I spend between a half-hour and an hour a day making new flashcards, so, conservatively, I have now spent 150 hours on flashcards. I also spend a half an hour per day listening to a Yiddish language program on my iPhone, minus weekends, so that's maybe another 25 hours. I blog about the subject almost every weekday, which requires additional research, so maybe another 15 hours. I read books about Yiddish and watch Yiddish movies, so maybe another 10 hours. All told, in six months, I've probably spent somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 hours working on various Yiddish projects.

So according to Malcolm Gladwell's formulation in "Outliers," I just need 9,800 more hours work to become an expert at Yiddish. Just 25 more years of study at this rate.

I can't be the only one who dislikes  Malcolm Gladwell, can I?

As I mentioned last week, I have been memorizing proverbs. Most of them are drawn from Fred Kogos' book "1001 Yiddish Proverbs," and it hasn't been an enormously satisfying experience. Kogos never explains where he found these proverbs, neither does he try to explain them when they seem to make no sense. He includes the proverb's original Yiddish, which is sometimes different than his translation, and writes the Yiddish in Roman characters, which is more than a little frustrating when you are trying to learn them in the Yiddish alphabet. And despite Kogos' insistence, in his into to the book, that he has assembled the"proverbial wisdom" of the Jewish people, a lot of the proverbs are less wise than, at best, hokily comic, like something a bottom rung Catskill's comic would come up. At worst, some of the proverbs reflect a meanness and smallness of mind that I don't really want to commit to memory.

There's an underlying sexism to many of the proverbs that I genuinely find awful. Some of it is openly misogynistic -- proverbs about women's appearance and their place in society are frequent -- but it also shows itself in the absence of women from general conversation. The first example, the openly sexist proverbs, are frequent enough that I can almost open any page and find an example -- I just did, and the first thing my eyes fell upon was the phrase "more blemish, more dowry," which makes it clear that to whatever Jews passed these proverbs along, a woman's value as a companion came either from her appearance or her money.

Another: "When the wife wears the pants, the husband washes the floor,"  which sounds like something Ralph Kramden would say, and then set about to wash the floor under his wife's icy stare, seething the entire time. But, as I have said, there is also a sense of the absence of women in other proverbs. It's hard to place, exactly, but I can't help but feel that unless they appear in a proverb as a wife, mother, or lover, the proverbs don't really take women into consideration.

I know we should expect these sorts of epigrams about women, or with women pointedly absent, as Yiddish's history developed largely in a pre-emancipated word. I suppose they have historic value, although, considering that Eastern Europe had a large number of Jewish women who both ran their household and their family business, as well as women who were actors, authors, activists, and even religious leaders, these aphorisms do not so much represent history as represent what historical sexism looked like. Regardless, it's not Yiddish that I need to memorize, and that means that Mr. Kogos's 1001 proverbs are more like 101 sexist jokes, 700 blandly amusing observations, and maybe a couple hundred aphorisms that I actually want to memorize.

That being said, the proverbs I have learned so far I genuinely enjoy. An example: One is a lie, two are lies, three is politics. That seems like the sort of thing that I'm going to make use of for the rest of my life. Or this strange aphorism: All corpses have one face. I don't know precisely what it means, but it is tantalizingly ambiguous. Does it refer to the fact that superficial things like beauty cease to matter when we're dead? Is it more literal, in that all corpses end up just having skull faces? Is it an anguished cry from a time before photography, when most of our loved ones, when they die, died without their appearance ever being recorded, and so were lost, first to memory as our impressions of them dimmed, and later to history, as we all died and melted into the great faceless void of the past?

I should say proverbs are hard to memorize. If you don't manage to learn all your flashcards, the Anki flashcard program just carries the remainder over to the next day. For six months, I have not had this happen, but since I started this, I regularly find words and phrases shoved back to the next day, despite the fact that my study time has doubled from a half-hour to an hour. I may have to take a little break from proverbs just to catch up, and then introduce them slowly, so I don't overwhelm myself.

That's okay. I need time to track down the proverbs that I really want to learn. There's a scene in the film "Amelie" when the title character's friend quizzes the man Amelie has a crush on, and she does so by starting a proverb and asking him to complete the sentence, which he does. "I  think that those who know the proverbs can't be bad persons," she explains.

I agree with this, sort of. But only if they know good proverbs.