Yiddish-style curses as a tool for political debate on U.S. elections
The creators of the new Yiddish Curses for Republican Jews website hope to invoke serious political debate against the background of the Jewish experience.
In the wake of the success of the Yiddish Curses for Republican Jews site about which I blogged about last week – the site has attracted 300,000 unique visitors, generating 3.5 million page views – the creators have revealed their identities. I interviewed the husband-and-wife team of Ben Abramowitz and Rachel Shukert via Skype Wednesday morning at their home in New York City. Ben, 35, works as a creative director and designer at a product development shop; Rachel, 31, is an author and playwright.
Frustrated with the political views of some people close to her, Rachel had mused to Ben that she wished she had appropriate Yiddish-style curses on hand to hurl at her political opponents. And with the Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle website still fresh in Ben’s memory from the 2008 election, the idea clicked. Featuring a spare, attractive interface, quick download time and a font (Enriqueta) that evokes a sense of heritage, the Yiddish Curses for Republican Jews site is easily shareable.
Beyond being fun and funny, the site is meant to invoke serious political debate against the background of the Jewish experience. “We have the obligation not to pull the ladder up after us,” Rachel says.
Immigration is close to Ben and Rachel’s hearts. Ben was born and raised in South Africa, and Rachel, hailing from Nebraska, is a second-generation American. “Just look at the fearful myopia about borders and immigrants. We built on what they built. How can we feel that we spontaneously came into society with no roots and that we owe nothing to anyone? The fact that our ancestors were union workers is something to honor and be proud of.”
Using humor as a tool to loosen up the conversation, Rachel and Ben are trying to generate as broad a dialogue as possible. And while the site is focused on the upcoming American election, Ben and Rachel would like to see the conversation go global. Indeed, every society struggles with issues surrounding fairness and responsibility, individualism and collectivism, and fear and trust.
One participant, Judith Gelman, an active Democrat based in Greater Washington, D.C., has submitted several curses of her own to the site. One gem: “May you get a wonderful rich brown tan that complements your dark hair and eyes on your vacation in the Grand Canyon but unfortunately lose your ID when your raft overturns so that when you’re stopped for going 3 mph over the speed limit on your way to the airport home, you can’t prove you’re in the country legally.”
“I grew up around Yiddish speakers,” Gelman told me, “and Yiddish cursing is in my blood. In fact, until I was an adult I didn’t know that there were actual curse words in Yiddish; I thought that Yiddish cursing always involved these convoluted wishes spat out like a witch's spell. A blessing that turns on its head, especially one that does so because it reflects some belief or action of the cursed coming to fruition, just makes linguistic and cultural sense to me.”
Could Republicans come up with similar curses for Democrats?
Gelman’s take: “I can imagine similar curses from the other side. They would just feel a bit different because people would be done in by their own generosity, rather than by their own greed, legislating of morality and trust in the market.”
Ben and Rachel concur. In the case of responses coming from the other side, “there’s not enough self-awareness to be funny,” Ben says.
The issue of selfishness versus generosity in the current political climate looms large for Ben and Rachel. As Ben says, “Americans have a big problem with generosity of spirit. It felt like a lot of rich people tell poor people that they need to suffer through what’s to come.”
Republicans certainly have their own version of what constitutes selfishness and generosity, as Noam Neusner lays out in this week’s The Jewish Daily Forward where he calls Mitt Romney the “real tikkun olam candidate,” referring to the concept of repairing the world.
Neusner writes: “Roughly $7 out of every $10 spent by the federal government goes toward cleaning up other people’s mistakes or problems: housing assistance, food stamps, free or reduced health care, free and reduced lunches in schools and other educational supports, and subsidies for farmers.”
I can just see the Yiddish curses about getting sick or being hungry being “other people’s mistakes or problems” that are sure to appear in the coming days.
Outside the ultra-Orthodox world, Ben and Rachel may represent the last generation to have first-hand memories of Yiddish-speaking relatives. Though given the evident success of their project in expressing political irony, Yiddish may prove to be a new, universal language of politics. In fact, not all of the site’s participants are connected to Yiddish at all.
One visitor is a Muslim-American woman who penned a curse via a private message: “May you gain more wealth than Rupert Murdoch, and may you spend it all on urologists.” Judging from the post, Ben told me, “I am presuming she knows about Yiddish-style cursing.” Perhaps it’s in everyone’s blood after all.