These are brief definitions (most of them from Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish) of the Yiddish words that appear in L’chayam.
Bopkes: an exclamation that describes something insultingly small or trivial. “What was your tip?” “Bopkes.”
Farshstaisp: understand? It’s a question, like comprende in Spanish.
Farshtinkener: stinking, lousy, worthless.
Freiheit: radical Jewish newspaper from the 20s.
Kineahora: literally means to ward off the evil eye. It is a phrase uttered automatically, as if to magically ward off evil.
L’chayam: to life, a toast, like salud.
Macher: an operator, a big shot.
Mavin: an expert, a knowledgeable person.
Megillah: literally refers to the Book of Esther. In this case used to mean long, complicated, convoluted.
Nu: an all purpose exclamation and question meaning Well? So? New? What’s new? How about it?
Shalom: hello, good-bye, peace.
Shmaltz: literally means chicken fat; also means corny, mawkish, emotionalism.
Zetz: a belt, a hit, a punch.
Zie Gesundt: God bless.
You want I should tell you about Abie — he should rest in peace. Sixty years I know him. . . . A long time. . . . The things I could tell you. You know the Freiheit? No? Of course not. By you it means nothing. Today, I should tell you, what we stood for means nothing to nobody. But this you don’t want to hear. So, I promise, like they say in the movies, that I will stick to the facts.
One week ago we were sitting in his room playing chess just like we always did on Fridays. Abie, he should rest in peace, loved to play. In the good weather we’d play outside — in the park or on the sidewalk. In the winter we’d play in his room. Abie wanted it like that. He used to say it was the only time since his Rosie passed that he ever enjoyed his room. . . . So we were playing chess. That’s the fact. Only Abie, God bless, he wasn’t playing too good. Already in six moves he loses a bishop and a knight. To tell you the truth, I hadn’t noticed before, but Abie, he should rest in peace, he didn’t care about the game, and for him, I should tell you, that was something. So, Abela, I say, maybe you don’t want to play. Maybe you want I should leave. Oy, such a look he gives me. Such a look! Only when his Rosie passed had I seen it. Then I remembered in one week would be the anniversary of her death. A fact. So maybe, I’m thinking, Abie, God bless, needs some cheering. That’s when I ask him about Rosie. You see, we had this routine. You know what is a routine? Like Abbott and Costello. You know about them? Yes. Good. Well, we had a routine about Rosie. It went like this:
Abie, tell me again about Rosie.
She was beautiful, Herbie, beautiful. Remember?
She was strong. Lungs she had like bellows. And arms! Not like these skinny things today. They’re like sparrows. No, my Rosie was different. One tough buzzard. Never took from nobody.
From me she had to. But even then, I should tell you, never much.
She should rest in peace.
She used to call me her Jewish Valentino, remember?
Sure I remember. You were her Jewish Valentino.
And you, you were her Eric Flynt.
That was our routine. Always in the past, it made Abie happy. That day, I could tell, it did nothing. In three more moves he loses two pawns and a horse. Abie, I say, something’s wrong? That’s when he tells me. Herbie, he says, I’m too old. Only me, I don’t hear too good. So I say, Nu? Don’t be so cheap with the heat. Abie, God bless, he grins. I don’t know why, but I do too. I like to see him smile. When he lost his teeth he stopped. Only with me he continues. For this you bought a hearing aid, he says. Switch it up. I want you to hear what I’m talking. I shut it off, you know, when we play chess. I don’t want I should be distracted. And Abie, God bless, he knows this. He whistles before a good move. So I shut it off so as not to have to hear. But when he speaks what I hear I am not expected for. I’m too old, he says. Not cold. Already I’m eighty-four years. My father, he should rest in peace, lived for sixty. My Rosie, she should rest in peace, for seventy-three, I’ve seen enough. I don’t want to see no more. Farshstaisp? I don’t wanna see no more. Already after a few words I’m thinking, why is he telling me this? Why is he saying it? My Abela I know. From nothing he doesn’t speak. So what by me does he want? Herbela, he says, you hear what I’m talking? I hear, I tell him, but I don’t believe. From such a mouth I never expected these words. For sixty years I know him. A macher he could have been. A big shot. Such a brain, I should tell you. A mavin. From his mouth came only iron and pearls. . . . At Patterson, Gastonia, Brooklyn. You know what I’m talking? No? Such a shame. Always with him came a L’chayam. You know what is that? To life. Always when he spoke came to life. At Patterson, Gastonia, Brooklyn.
So, Abela, I say, something’s the matter? You’re ill? Maybe you want we should talk? No, he says, nothing. Life is wonderful. In the morning I take a bissel walk and in a few short feet I’m exhausted. I read a little in the afternoon and my eyes they water and ache. Out of a can comes my supper. At night I go to sleep like a child at eight o’clock. And the next day I wake up for what? For what do I live? Pills that I take for the heart? A piece of beef I can’t even enjoy with these farshtinkener teeth? And what I see on television, nobody needs to see. So you see, Herbela, my life is fine. It’s wonderful. Nothing is the matter. L’chayam, I say. No more, he says. This is not life. This is no way to live. The things in life that are important are not for me. So, I say, Mr. Revolutionary, oppression is all of a sudden over? To this I know he will react. The world is such a good place to live it no longer needs Abraham Isaac Hersch? This is so? You should tell me. Maybe I am missing. With news like this I’d willingly join you in the grave. Abie, God bless, says nothing. Nu? I say. Nu? The fight is over? Herbie, he says, I’m tired of staying the soldier. I don’t even write any more my letters. So write? I say. Don’t want, he says. No more. Instead of Abie getting angry I am. So you’re old. So am I. You think my life is better than yours? This, between us, is an old struggle. Always we compared our miseries. You, he says, at least have Esther. So, for years you had Rosie and I had bopkes. Now it’s the other way. Such is life. I don’t want it, he says. Abie, God bless, is a fighter. So what do you want? You want I should ask Sadie Lefkowitz? Abie laughs. Better I should die a celibate. Nu? So what? What I want, he says, is for you to take me to Jersey.
As soon as he says this I smile. My Abela I know. Always on personal items he talks around the bush, then bang! he give such a zetz to the kishkas. Apples he talks when he wants oranges, his Rosie used to say, but when he finishes I should tell you aleph to zeda’s been said. Used to be he called it the real megillah. You know what is that? The big picture. Rosie, she should rest in peace, called it shmaltz. So Abela, I say, for years you don’t leave Brooklyn — not since the march on the Pentagon. All the time I say, come to a museum, to a matinee show in the city? Come, a sandwich we’ll get, a nice cup tea? No, you say, don’t want. Don’t want to go, don’t want to see, not hungry, and now, from the blue, you want I should take you to Jersey? Abie, God bless, knows I’m joking. But already he knows what I’m thinking. Always he knows what I’m thinking. By us, you see, Jersey means two things: Patterson and Mary O’Sheen, and Patterson I know he don’t want. Nu? Abela? I say. You know where
now is Mary? I know, he says, I know. And she wants to see you? She wants, she wants. Then he gives me that look. A week ago yesterday I called. To tell you the truth, when he says this I’m not surprised. On tactics and women Abie always did better than me.
So four days later I take him. I still drive, you know. A Buick. UAW made. Abie, God bless, is dressed like a king. He’s wearing his blue serge and his Florsheims I should tell you are so shiny you could see your face. Even he’s got on a tie. And in his pocket, I see, is stuffed his Spanish beret. Used to be he called this his courtroom outfit. You know what I’m talking? Yes. Good. Last time he wore it he got ten days. If you was younger the judge said you’d get more. If I was younger Abie said I’d of done more. Then he gives to the judge such a speech on human rights the courtroom
with a bang! applauded. But this you don’t want to hear. To you this is nothing but bopkes. So now I return to the facts. All the way there Abie, God bless, is talking about Mary. Mary this. Mary that. Mary, kineahora, is still organizing. Nurses, orderlies, maids, people who work where she lives. That Mary! Fifty years he knows her. Knows, not sees. This I assure you is a fact. Used to be he called her his Wild Irish Rose, till his Rosie, she should rest in peace, made him stop. Then he called her Irish Emma. You know who is that, Emma Goldman? No? A little history you should read. It wouldn’t hurt. Some Marx, some Lenin, a little Kropotkin. Believe me I know what I’m talking. So, Abela, I say, when we arrive, you want that I should come? Better, he says, go get a nice cup tea.
Three hours later I come back. Abie, God bless, is waiting on the curb. He knows I don’t want to drive in the dark. So Abie, I say, how’s Mary? Abie shrugs. She’s good. Abie nods. You had, kineahora, a nice visit? Abie looks at me and says nothing, and for Abie, I should tell you that’s something. Always about everything Abie has something to say. A regular encyclopedia he was. Abie, I say, is this you? On his face I see he remembers. Who else, he says, John D.? This, by us, was an old joke. Then he looks at me and says, we was right, Herbela, right about everything in our analysis only we couldn’t live what we believed. You know what this means? I’ll tell you. About this I know something about. Used to be Abie and Mary were lovers. In those days, I should tell you, we believed in that. Smash the family, we said. Kill monogamy. Nobody should belong to nobody. Marraige and family are the backbone of the bourgeois state. So all of us then had many lovers. On principle. Rosie too. Only when she found her Abie with Mary and heard him call her his Wild Irish Rose, she stopped. No more, Abie, she told him. No more. I can’t do. It’s me or Mary O’Sheen. So from that day on, he should now rest in peace, Abie never spoke to Mary again. But always I know he felt bad. Always I know he wanted to say something, but Rosie, God bless, wouldn’t let. So when Abie said we never could live what we believed, this is what he means, and when he said he wants to go to Jersey, I know why he wants to go. After this, Abie, God bless, says nothing. On the ride home he sits quiet like a clam, holding in his hands his beret.
The next Friday, like always, I’m going to his room to play chess. Only Abie, God bless, calls me and says don’t come. This, I should tell you, is a first. I’m too busy, he says, come next week, we’ll play. Too busy? I say. What’s to be too busy about? The revolution is here and I’m missing? But Abie don’t hear. Already he’s hung up the phone. Then that night he gives me a call. Herbela, he says, come over, I’m sick. My Abela I know. About illness he don’t complain. So quick as a whistle I come. Abie, God bless, is in bed. On his face I can see he is dying. Now, about this we had many talks. No doctors. No ambulance. No hospital. Whatever money we have we leave to the poor. Abela, I say, you want something? Sure, he says, thirty years. Then he points with his hand to his desk. I want you should mail those letters. Three days, I see, he’s been writing again, to the President, to Congress, to Botha, Ortega, Mandela, Peres, the Pentagon. My Abela, he’s telling them what they should do. You’ll mail? he says. I’ll mail. There’s no stamps, he says. I’ll buy. Good, he says, this way I get the last word. Then he looks at me and whispers, shalom.
All night I sit with him. I don’t want he should be alone. In the morning I go and buy some stamps. Sixty-five letters, can you believe? Then I mailed them and came back here and called you.