There are several “fishy” Yiddish words and phrases associated with the month of Adar.
I went as a fish this year for Purim. People had diverging ideas when they looked upon me shimmering in my aquatic array: shark hat that could be illuminated with the flick of a switch, big-eyed sunglasses, green-and-black striped tights left over from when I played a witch in the Yiddish theatre. I draped a fishing net around me, and a plastic goldfish dangled from my shoulder.
At a Purim feast, a Chabad rebbetzin, her toddlers cavorting at her feet, cried, “Ah, you are Baby Shark!” Before I went on to do twenty freeform minutes of fish-themed Yiddish song and comedy at a Yiddishist Purim concert (see video above), the creator of the new Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary, using a word from her magnum opus, guessed that I was a “yam-meydl” (mermaid), leading me to conclude that there is something missing from her book — it lacks a word for merman! And a rather splendid fellow reveler at a Purim masquerade approached me and pronounced me “the catch of the day.”
That one I rather liked.
But no, I was just a fish. Still their profusion of ideas did not bother me. Beser gefilte fish eyder gefilte tsores, as we say in Yiddish. Better stuffed fish than stuffed troubles.
And why was I a fish? Well, to honor the month of Adar, of course. The month of Purim. The month of fish.
Like every other Jewish month, Adar has an astrological sign traditionally associated with it. And just as Pisces reigns over this season for English-speakers, so does mazl-dogim, the fish constellation, for Yiddish-speaking Jews.
It is why, if you look at antique Purim illustrations from Yiddish texts, along with the casks of wine decorating the image, and masks, and hamantaschen, there will often be fish, swimming around the scene and smiling to each other across banners hanging from opposite corners of the page.
As fish are abundant, so should our joy and blessings be abundant in this season, the tradition dictates: “Mishenikhnes oder, marbim besimkhe” (“When Adar arrives, happiness increases”). (And indeed, the month of Adar came in wriggling with audacious joy this year, Purim giving us our last taste of undiluted merriment before all turned to calamity and fear.)
And the Sages make another connection. As God goes unmentioned in the Megillah but His divine providence is “hidden” throughout, and as Esther’s Jewish identity is concealed from the king, so are fish invisible from the surface of the water, their lively movements and vivid colors concealed beneath the waves and the foam.
So are traditions like Adar’s fish symbolism hidden underneath layers of accumulated custom — beautiful, and present, but in need of being dredged up, shaken off, and their loveliness shown anew. So, too, is Yiddish, which lives still, vibrantly, among hundreds of thousands of speakers, a great many of them in our city of Detroit, and which has many joys in store for us, if only we look into the deep.
So shall I endeavor to do in this regular column: gaze into the sea of Yiddish with you, see what we can catch…and how we might feast upon it, joyously.
Some words and another expression to put into your net for now:
mazl-dogim — Pisces
yam-meydl — mermaid
fish — you know this one
Bemokem sheeyn ish, iz a hering oykh a fish. — In a place where there is no person, a herring is also a fish. (A typically irreverent Yiddish parody of the Mishnaic dictum, “In a place where there is no person, strive to be a person.”)
Watch the video above to learn more Yiddish from Mikhl!
Mikhl Yashinsky is a teacher, translator, and theatre artist. Having studied modern European history and literature at Harvard, he later directed operas at the Detroit Opera House, starred in the title role of The Sorceress with the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and in that company’s Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof, co-wrote the Yiddish Book Center’s forthcoming Yiddish textbook, and taught the language at the University of Michigan. His hobby is provoking passive aggressive notes from roommates reprimanding him for his sporadic bursts of uninhibited song.