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I was talking the other day with a friend of mine who grew up in London. Discussing a hi-tech company he has invested in, he said: “If it doesn’t go m’khúleh before it’s bought in an acquisition, I’ll be rich.”
The Hebrew-Yiddish word m’khuleh—in proper Hebrew it’s accented on the last syllable, in Yiddish on the next-to-last—literally means “finished” or “used up.” But it can also mean “bankrupt,” as it did in my friend’s sentence. “Is that a word British Jews use?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “Don’t American Jews?” As far as I knew, I told him, they didn’t.
When it comes to Yiddish expressions for defaulting on one’s debts, being m’khuleh is just one of many. Some of the most colorful—and seemingly arcane—are concentrated in a few lines of a single literary work: Sholem Aleichem’s play Yoknehaz, a four-act comedy set in the author’s favorite city of Yehupetz (a fictional version of Kiev) with a cast of Jewish nouveaux riches and stock-market speculators.
At the center of Yoknehaz’s plot is the newly wealthy Pasternak family, consisting of Shmul Pasternak, his wife, and their daughter Isabella, and Isabella’s fiancé, the suave young banker Wilhelm Feifer. Persuading Pasternak to advance him before the wedding the 40,000-ruble dowry promised him, Feifer proceeds to swindle his future father-in-law and other characters in the play, and absconds after leaving behind a fake suicide note. Here, puzzling on first sight, are the lines in question:
Madame Pasternak (taking Feifer’s note from Isabella’s hands and waving it in her husband’s face): Here, have a look at this! You’ll love it! Your darling son-in-law has just poisoned, hanged, and shot himself!
Pasternak: Shhh, calm down! Who, where, when, how? He’s done nothing of the sort. Feifer is alive and kicking with all he’s made off with, I should only have as much! I’ve just heard the lowdown. Feifer has said the verse from the Bible [Feifer hot gezogt dem posuk].
Madame Pasternak: What verse? You’ve got verses on the brain!
Pasternak: I mean Feifer has stood upright [Feifer hot gemakht koymemiyus].
Madame Pasternak: I’ve asked you a thousand times not to speak Hebrew to me! I’m not one of your educated women.
Pasternak: All right, I’ll get to the point. How should I put it? He’s wiped our noses [er hot undz opgevisht di noz], stuck out a fig [aroysgeshtelt a fayg], said “Let him kiss me” [gezogt yishakeni], made an “And he fled” [gemakht a vayivraḥ]. In a word: Feifer is bankrupt.
Not all of these expressions, most of which play, in a manner unique to Jewish humor, on a knowledge of the Bible, refer exclusively to declarations of bankruptcy. Some denote a stance of defiance in general. Yishakeni, “Let him kiss me,” for instance, which comes from “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” in Song of Songs 1:2, is Yiddish slang for “Kiss my behind” and can be used in any situation. When alluded to in Pasternak’s “Feifer has said the verse from the Bible,” however, it becomes bankruptcy-specific, and in its variant form of zogn dem tsveytn posuk fun Shir ha-Shirim, “Saying the second verse from the Songs of Songs,” it is a Yiddish equivalent of “filing Chapter Eleven.”
So is makhn koymemiyus, “standing upright,” on the face of it an even more baffling idiom. Koymemíyus, Hebrew kom’miyút (from the root kum, to rise or stand on one’s feet), occurs only once in the Bible, in Leviticus 26:13, where God tells Israel, “And I have broken the bands of your yoke and led you upright.” The word is better known to observant Jews from the morning prayer service and the grace after meals, where it is recited daily in the phrase “And You [in the grace, He] will lead us upright to our land.”
What does this have to do, you ask, with bankruptcy? The answer lies in the expression shteln zikh koymemiyus, “to rise koymemiyus-like,” whose original meaning—once again in a deliberately humorous misreading of the Bible—was to rear up on one’s hind legs like a balking horse. Just as, in other words, the yishakeni/kiss-me sayer is the person who says, “Sorry, you’re not getting a cent from me, and you know what you can do if you don’t like it,” so is the koymemiyus-sayer. In its shortened form of shteln zikh, without the koymemiyus, this phrase also means to go bankrupt.
Pasternak’s gemakht a vayivraḥ, “[Feifer] made an ‘And he fled,’” is another comic biblicism. This Yiddish idiom harks back to such verses as “And Moses fled [vayivraḥ Moshe] from the face of Pharaoh” (Exodus 3:15) and “And Jacob fled [vayivraḥ Ya’akov] to Sdeh Aram” (Hosea 12:13) and denotes making a getaway of any kind, not necessarily via insolvency. Similarly, to “wipe someone’s nose” (i.e., to take someone to the cleaners) and to “give someone a fig” (in American English we would say “to give someone the finger”) can also be used in a wide variety of situations. Showing the “fig”—a fist with the thumb inserted between the index and middle finger—has traditionally been a common gesture of contempt in many European countries and is the source of the English idiom “not to give a fig” for someone or something.
There are still other Yiddish expressions for going bankrupt that Pasternak does not use, the most common of which, makhn a pleyte, is biblically inspired, too. Pleytah is Hebrew for a remnant, part of something that has escaped destruction, as when Jacob, dividing his family in two on the eve of his feared encounter with his brother Esau, says, “If Esau comes to the one camp and strikes it, then the camp that is left will escape [nish’ar li-fleytah].” Declaring bankruptcy insures that a part of one’s property will escape the hands of one’s creditors.
In plain, unadorned Yiddish, to go bankrupt is onzetsn. Perhaps Jewish Eastern Europe had so many vivid words and expressions for the act because, in a society with a high percentage of financially hard-pressed small businessmen and fly-by-night entrepreneurs, going bankrupt was both common and considered worthy of a measure of sympathy. Most of the Yiddish idioms for it reveal a hidden admiration for the person who has the wit and the grit to get away with it.
Yet what, going back to its origins, could be more vivid than the word “bankrupt” itself, which comes from the medieval Latin banca rupta, “broken bench”? Ancient and medieval moneychangers and moneylenders, the ancestors of today’s bankers, traditionally worked at benches or tables in the marketplace; hence our word “bank,” and hence, too, talmudic Hebrew’s shulḥani, a moneychanger, from shulḥan, “table,” and modern Greek’s trapeza, meaning both a table and a bank. When your money ran out, your bench was said to be broken.
Is this image the ultimate source of our English expressions “to break the bank” and “to be broke”? It could very well be. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest attested date for “broke” in the sense of “Reduced or shattered in worldly estate; bankrupt” is 1593, while bankrupt as a noun first appeared in print not much earlier, in 1566, at a time when bankruptcy was also referred to as “bankrupture.” If your bench was broken, you were broke, and whoever wanted his money could go read the Songs of Songs.
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