Jewish Sexuality, Such As It Is: Volume One
Author’s Note: This was published years ago in the pre-Web era, when all these folks were still alive. Someone suggested I put it online, so here it is. Years later, I put my research skills to work on another important, tangentially related topic for Electric Literature, which you can read by clicking here.
Around the world, Yiddish is recognized as the international language of love.
The scenario is easy to imagine. A man and a woman embrace in front of a fireplace in a warm cabin that overlooks a sweeping mountain vista. The lovers press together, feeling the heat of each other’s bodies as they watch snowflakes pelting the cold window glass. She raises her chin and he moves his mouth slowly down her smooth white throat, alternating soft kisses with playful, gentle bites. She is aroused as he releases the snaps of her black bustier, and as he loosens the garment she digs her fingernails into his neck and moans with almost unbearable expectation: “Speak it! Speak the Yiddish!”
And so he says: “Hey, shayneh maidel! Ich vil dich kishen, und du vest shrein far fargineegen.” (Hey, pretty girl! I will kiss you and you will scream with pleasure.)
There is a serious problem with the language of love, however, that was revealed to me soon after my non-Jewish girlfriend and I started dating. Amazed by the seemingly endless variety of Yiddish words to designate the male member, she — as I discovered only a gentile is likely to do — asked about the word for its female equivalent.
I had no idea. While the Jews have more words for penis than the Eskimos have to describe different kinds of ice, I could not remember having heard the word for a woman’s private parts. What was more disturbing was that even though I love Yiddish words and phrases and have lived in a sexually open area, I had never before thought to ask.
So I went to my father, who is, after all, my parent, and thus one of the first persons to have confused me about sex. Born in Romania and raised in New York City, my father learned Yiddish as his first language.
When I asked him for a translation, a haunted expression settled on his face. He thought for a moment, then told me he had no idea.
I said, “Dad — you grew up on the Lower East Side. You were one of the guys. Surely you talked about it and you knew about it.”
“Albert,” he answered sadly, “we did not talk about it…we did not know.”
My father has always been something of a prude, and so I sought help elsewhere. Luckily, I lived in Miami Beach, a city with a large population of feisty Jewish senior citizens. I began asking every Yiddish-speaker I knew for a translation. From the condo lobbies to the folding chairs along the ocean, the reactions were nearly identical. The senior citizens would listen to the questions and then given me a strange, faraway look that said: “You know, I never thought to ask.” Many of the older people adamantly insisted, some to the point of veins popping out of their foreheads, that there is no such word.
Several times, I came tantalizingly close to an answer. A friend’s grandmother said that she knew, but would not tell him. One porch sitter said that he was certain that there was such a word, but that he “forgot it many years ago.”
Al Resnick, who is perhaps the greatest of Miami Beach’s oceanside sages, offered a parable to explain why the Word (which clearly warranted higher-case distinction) was not commonplace.
“Harry Epstein has a physical breakdown. Comes very close to death. When he’s in the hospital, his doctor examines him and makes a diagnosis. The doctor calls Mrs. Epstein into his office for a private consultation. He says to her: ‘Your husband is very sick, Mrs. Epstein. His system is too weak to handle drugs. What he needs is sex to invigorate and relax him — four times, five times a day. As many times as you are able to accommodate him, you must do so. Or else your husband is a dead man.’
“Mrs. Epstein returns to her husband, who is waiting anxiously. ‘So — what did the doctor say?’
“‘Harry,’ Mrs. Epstein tells him, ‘the doctor says you’re going to die.’”
Al Resnick put the word out along his extensive network of contacts among the melanoma set. After a few days, he reported only one lead: the word loch, which means hole. The person who suggested loch was unsure of its correctness. Al Resnick advised me to continue my research and collect my findings in a book titled, “Jewish Sexuality, Such As It Is: Volume One” and subtitled, “There Ain’t No Volume Two.”
Striking out in Miami Beach, I tried my cousin in Israel. He responded that everyone he asked in the Holy Land was, predictably, confused by the question, but eventually he came up with two possibilities. The first was knish, after the cement-filled Jewish pastry; however, knish sounded too cute to be used by adults in a moment of passion. The second possibility was the word shmoonke, which seemed more plausible in that it sounds somewhat like the Yiddish word for penis.
My next step was the library. Uriel Weinrich’s Modern English-Yiddish Dictionary offers as its preferred definition the transliteration into Hebrew characters of the English word “vagina.” This is something of a cop out, and makes me think of my grandmother in her later years, after her Yiddish (and maybe a few cogs in the noggin) had slipped somewhat. We’d ask for a translation of a word, say “window,” and she would reply “vindeh!” in a strong Eastern European accent.
The Weinrich dictionary also offered a second option, mutterscheid or “mother’s sheath,” an unfriendly word that is not likely ever to have much currency either in the bedroom or as street slang. In any case, scheid is the German word for the female sex organ.
None of the suggested words save shmoonke have the descriptive, onomatopoeic flair of most Yiddish obscenities. A shvance, for example, could be nothing other than the homely golem hanging between every man’s legs. Words like shmuck and putz have become part of the American vernacular. In contrast, even Jews are not sure of the word for vagina.
Obviously, steps had to be taken, the world had to know. And so a plan of action quickly crystallized: start my inquiries with Nobel Prize laureates and work my way down to Joey Bishop.
The questions that needed answering were: What is the Word? Why do so few people know it? Of those who do — why do they?
And so the letters went out. The first response only made things a bit more confusing. Answering on behalf of her husband (who was quite ill at the time), Mrs. Isaac Bashevis Singer politely replied: “The word is s[illegible], I believe. Mrs. Isaac Bashevis Singer.”
That the word in question is the only one that I could not make out strikes me as mysterious indeed. It might be sdward or skmuuk, but not conclusively shmoonke. Maybe her hand failed her as she wrote the Word, I don’t know. The stage was set for controversy.
In a letter dictated to his secretary, Saul Bellow responded that “the word you are seeking does exist. It is pirge (pronounced pir-geh).”
Having already won his Nobel Prize, Bellow felt no need to join the fray and answer the deeper questions raised by my inquiry. However, as the author’s secretary conveyed: “Having answered your question, Mr. Bellow hopes that your quest for enlightenment will not stop.”
Well, it didn’t. The answers received from the Nobel laureates put the two great novelists at loggerheads. While Bellow says the Word is pirge, Mrs. Singer believes it starts with the letter “S.” Even if Mr. Singer had not been consulted, wouldn’t she have at least received the Word from him? Wouldn’t that word — whatever it might be — exchanged during moments of intimacy with the greatest Yiddish writer be the preferred terminology, or at least the word that packs a bit more punch?
Clearly, I had to press on.
Bruce Jay Friedman wrote: “I ran into an actress once who, distastefully I might add, referred to the said private parts as her kugel (potato casserole). All other references, in my experience, were the traditional ones in English.”
Questioning the methodology of my research, Friedman added: “Good luck as you work your way ‘down’ to Joey Bishop. I would have thought that was working your way up.”
Friedman’s contribution vaulted knish back into the running by establishing a tenuous baked goods linkage. Linguistically, likening a woman’s private parts to a potato casserole is consistent with a frequent tendency in both Yiddish and Hebrew to refer euphemistically or ironically to a distasteful object or place. For example, a toilet would be called “seat of honor.” Speakers of both languages did this in order to keep the vocabularies pure.
This was not always the practice, however. The word for “womb” in the direct, vital language of the Old Testament is rechem, a derivation from the same root as the words “mercy” and “compassion” (racham). More prosaic Hebrew language literature and religious works, however, refer to the vagina simply as “that place.” My Israeli cousin pointed to a passage in the Shulhan Orukh, the authoritative code of Jewish law, that forbids a man to look at the genital organ of his wife, also warning: “One who kisses that place…violates Leviticus 11:43: ‘Ye shall not make yourself detestable.’” This prohibition is also elucidated in the Talmud, Tractate Nedarim.
The Jews have a historic tradition of not knowing exactly what might be the right thing to do with their genitals, a confusion begun at the dawn of the faith as part of the Almighty’s covenant with Abraham. Following the example of Abraham, Jewish law commands that the foreskin of every male child’s homely golem be snipped eight days after his birth. In light of the treatment the male organ has received over the millennia, perhaps Jewish women have demurred on naming their organ in fear of calling unwanted attention to it.
As the months dragged on, finding the conclusive definition of the Word developed into a pathological pursuit, a strange obsession — to mix a metaphor, my Moby Dick.
The litany of befuddlement continued.
Mordecai Richler had no idea.
Comedians Jackie Mason, Robert Klein, and Richard Lewis declined to answer. Lewis’s agent went so far as to explain that “Richard is trying to get away from his image as a neurotic Jew.” (And, from what I hear, Mr. T is trying to get away from his image as a Negro.)
When asked if he knew the Word, Philip Roth confessed: “I come up blank.” If the author of “Portnoy’s Complaint” never thought to ask, then the problem is larger than I ever imagined. “You better ask Joey Bishop,” he wrote, an affirmation of the correctness of my initial approach to the problem.
When I posed the question to Joe Nevel, then owner of Miami Beach landmark Wolfie’s Restaurant, he initially had no answer. Nevel is an amateur linguist who together with his wife translated several of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories in the late seventies. He was at first unsure that the Word existed, commenting that “there are no Yiddish words for many things. For example, there is no Yiddish word for ‘ceiling.’ Why? Because in Eastern Europe villages, houses never had low-hanging ceilings like they do in America.”
Presumably, however, the women had vaginas. “Strangely enough,” Nevel added, “there is no Yiddish word for ‘disappointment.’”
When presented with the proposition that if a Yiddish word for vagina existed, Jewish men would have coined a word for disappointment, Nevel’s memory was suddenly jarred. He offered two possibilities — shmushka and shtalt, the latter translating as “slit.”
There are twenty-five Yiddish words for vagina to be exact, according to Dr. David Gold, co-editor of Jewish Language Review and a professor at University of Haifa in Israel. I learned about Dr. Gold through an editor to whom he had once written about his two “exhaustive studies on the Yiddish word shmok,” both of which were published in that august journal, Comments on Etymology.
I wrote to him with a partial list of my own findings, asking him for a definitive translation of the Word. What follows is his response in its entirety:
Dear Mr. Stern,
I can offer you nineteen more Yiddish words for “vagina” (and perhaps twenty) — at $3 per word, payable in advance by check (made out to Elsie Gold).
Of the five words you give, three are misromanized and a fourth one may be. I can give you the corrections (all of them) for $5.
While I respected Dr. Gold’s obvious erudition, I refused to knuckle under to lexicographic extortion. (For readers who know little Yiddish, here’s a word to add to your vocabularies: Dr. Gold’s request for money is what’s known as chutzpah.)
Mrs. Dee Weinreif, a teacher of Yiddish at New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (YIVO is an abbreviation for Yiddisher Viesenshaftlikher Institut), asserted that she did not know the Word, and made it clear that my inquiry had offended her. She said that the Institute, the principal world organization conducting research in Yiddish, might somewhere possess dictionaries that had various slang words for vagina, but added that she wouldn’t look them up for me. (And this prudery from a woman who works in a place that has the word visenshaftlikher in its name.)
Yet persistence on my part enabled me to get through to YIVO’s director, Dr. Alan Nadler, who, predictably, did not know the Word, but offered a thought about why it was widely unknown: “The word is not a matter of regular concern, because that part of the body is no longer particularly active to those people who still speak Yiddish.”
Dr. Nadler, however, referred me to Dr. Mordkche Schaechter, Senior Lecturer Emeritus in Yiddish at Columbia University, who was shocked that I could find so few people who knew the word. “I could give you the name of hundreds of people in New York who know many words for vagina,” he said, “although I guess it wouldn’t pay for you to call them.”
Nevertheless, after speaking with Dr. Schaechter, I had no need to look elsewhere, for the man possessed a trove of Yiddish knowledge. “How one would refer to the organ would depend on many things,” he explained. “A scholar would say mutterschied or vageena, both technical words borrowed from other languages in the 20th century.
“However, the middle class, bourgeois Jews — who we refer to as ballebatish — would by and large be ashamed to pronounce a word that actually meant vagina. Their preferred usage would by oysemocken, which means ‘that place.’ Interestingly, the euphemism refers only to the vagina, not the penis or anus or any other unpleasant body part.
“Other middle class terms include der vayberifher, or ‘the female part,’ and die mayse, which means ‘the story.’ As with most euphemisms, it’s best not to ask why about that one.”
According to Dr. Schaechter, pirge is the preferred vulgar usage, the equivalent of “cunt.” Of Slavic origin, pirge is a centuries-old word that can be used when speaking Polish, Russian, Byelorussian, Ukrainian, and other Eastern European languages and dialects. So rack one up for Saul Bellow.
The Professor directed me to some source material that enabled me to come up with some other words: beis kibbel (home of the bucket), ervah (an unseemliness), spiel (game), zach (thing), dorthen (there), shmoiya (a derogatory term applied to many contemptible objects), ainhil (wrapper), and byoah (buoy — it’s best not to ask). Another term is makom ha-turpah (“the place of weakness”), which, in addition to denoting the pudenda, is also the equivalent of “Achilles’ heel” in both Yiddish and Hebrew.
Finally, two terms that are perhaps related: shandeh flaisch (shame flesh) and schmandeh. Yiddish speakers cut highfalutin people down to size by using the mocking prefix “sch-.” For example: “Boss, schmoss — who is he to treat me that way?” As no separate definition for schmandeh exists, it is tempting to think that the word spoofs the mortifying epithet shandeh, as in: “Shandeh, schmandeh — I’m going to kiss that place.”
Dr. Schaechter offered his theory of why I had trouble finding these words. “Those people you asked probably knew some of those words,” he said, “and I wouldn’t be surprised that if you tell them, they will remember knowing. Jewish people, especially of the older generation, tend to be sexually modest, and it’s very likely that the ballebatish people you spoke to would suppress their knowledge. A woman, in particular, would never use any of these words. It would be an absolute taboo.”
He also suggested that since parents were unlikely to have told their children these words, first-generation American Jews and their progeny would probably have no knowledge of them.
Although I was satisfied with the Professor’s translations and social theory, I still somehow felt obliged to press on to Joey Bishop.
As befits his stature as a national treasure, the king of the tummlers was not an easy man to find. The Los Angeles phone number in a celebrity directory was outdated by several years, and booking agents at the major hotels in Las Vegas and Atlantic City could not remember employing Bishop in more than a decade. The entertainer was no longer listed with the Screen Actors Guild. The Friar’s Club had no way to contact him, and when I asked their operator if he might be dead, she answered that with Joey Bishop, “it would be hard to tell” (ba-dump-ump!). I could not even find an agent to tell me that Joey Bishop is trying to get away from his image as Joey Bishop.
So although some questions have been answered, other mysteries remain — principally, why don’t people who are not repressed sexually think to ask about the Word (and what does this say about Jewish sexuality, such as it is)? And secondarily, why has Joey Bishop gone underground?
So perhaps there is enough material for Volume Two. But as evidenced by my girlfriend’s reaction to my research, I fear that I face a tough road ahead as a Yiddish sexologist.
“All very well and good,” she said after reading my findings. “By the way, what’s the Yiddish word for orgasm?”
A haunted expression settled on my face.
“There is no such word!” I shout, veins popping out of my forehead.