Let's say I boarded a bus in Jerusalem, and let's say that someone, a man or a woman, told me to move to the back of the bus because I'm a woman. And let's say, which is for certain, that I would refuse and that man or woman would call me a "pritzeh" or a "shiksa" or "tzatzkeh." I think my instinctive reaction would be to burst out laughing. For one thing, because Yiddish is such a funny language. Second, because anyone who could call a woman of my age and status such names is so divorced from reality as to not know that real whores usually ride in taxis or, as used to be said in the Polish areas of my hometown, Haifa: "Special taxis are just for prostitutes." And third, because in a certain sense, being called such names at my age could almost be considered a compliment.
I can cite plenty of examples of how derogatory terms that are considered stinging insults at one age turn into compliments much later on, but I'll confine myself to a single example concerning my wonderful friend Y., a fine and chronically underpaid journalist. Once - a decade ago, when she was already over 50 - she received a scary letter from the Income Tax Authority, informing her that while she earned a minnow's wage, the Income Tax Authority considered her a shark in terms of tax evasion.
She was ordered to visit the nearest Income Tax Authority office immediately to make a payment roughly equal to 50 monthly salaries. "What will I do?" she asked the clerk there in desperation. "At my age I'm too old to work in prostitution." "Why do you say that?" retorted the clerk. "You look great."
Ever since I can remember, terms like pritzeh and tzatzkeh have evoked hearty laughter from me. The first time I heard them addressed to me, I was around 8-years-old. It was a cold winter evening. I remember my childhood winters as much colder than the winters nowadays, probably because the only heating element in our home was a "Fireside" kerosene heater that emitted a little warmth to about a five-foot radius.
That winter, as happened every other year, my parents' three-room apartment also hosted my father's sister Reitza, a Mengele survivor with a number on her arm, her husband Leibo - a Gur hasid, and their four children. They all came from Germany, where Leibo and Reitza, who met in a DP camp, lived.
Whenever this visit was upon us, my mother would get into a tizzy, separating the kitchen utensils into meat and dairy, while softly cursing the "chenyuks" (nerdy students ), especially Uncle Leibo, who after everything the Nazis did to him, decided to stay and live in their country. He insists on living there because of his business, and meanwhile he's so pious that he sends his children to boarding schools every year just so they won't assimilate, groused my mother. And just look how miserable he's making Reitza, who's not well to begin with, and is such a nice and kind woman who could have been much happier without him. And what a shame for the children who only see their parents when they all come together on their trips to Israel, which Leibo really only plans because he wants to be near his rebbe.
But still, blood is thicker than water and a sister is a sister, my mother would conclude, and inform us as usual that we were to give up our beds for our cousins and sleep in sleeping bags laid out next to the pull-out couch in the living room, where they, our parents, were going to sleep during the visit - because they would never think of not putting their double bed at the disposal of the distinguished visitors.
After all this, every time my mother would be very disappointed to find that all of her newly-koshered kitchen utensils remained unused. In our home, her devout brother-in-law would only permit his family to eat a hard-boiled egg served in the shell, uncooked foods served on paper plates and clear tea in glass cups only. For their daughter, who was still a toddler, they would relent a bit and, in a special plastic cup they brought from Germany, would prepare a drink made from a powder they scooped out of a large can the likes of which we'd never seen in our country. It was called Nesquik, with a picture of a mug filled with a steaming brown beverage. None of us was ever allowed near this can, which explains why, when I was in the army, one night when I was feeling depressed and was using the apartment of a cousin who was off working as a flight attendant, I finished off half a can of the stuff I found there, spoonful after spoonful.
Back to that winter evening: I was 8-years-old, the cold in the sleeping bag woke me, I opened the sliding door that connected the living room to what we called "the hall," where my parents and aunt and uncle were sitting, and ran past on my way to the only bathroom in our apartment.
I was wearing pink flannel pajamas with blue balloons on them, and checkered slippers, and despite the very short distance from the living room to the bathroom, I still managed to hear my uncle calling after me "tzatzkeh" and "pritzeh." Of course I laughed. When you're eight, every word in Yiddish sounds funny, certainly those words.
"What did he say?" I asked my mother the next morning, and she said they were words that only someone with a screw loose would say.
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