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This expression illustrates how Jews lived and saw their city--free, rather immoral, full of possibilities. They compared Odessa to Paris, another wide-open city.

The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature & Language

Contents of Vol. 04.018

Date:  12 December 2000
From:  Leonard Prager  <¦¦>

In my experience it is rare to find a novel by an American Jewish writer which does not have some, albeit sparse, reference to Yiddish or which does not use an occasional Yiddish-origin expression. In Saul Bellow's most recent novel, _Ravelstein_, an explicit reference to what seemed to be a Yiddish saying caught my eye.

The titular hero of _Ravelstein_, a confirmed francophile, plans a trip to Paris even though he is deathly ill. The narrator, his close friend, unwisely questions this course: "...there was nothing I couldn't tell Ravelstein.  Partly this meant that there was scarcely anything he wouldn't have detected on his own. So he would have understood also that I looked down on Paris, rather. There is a Jewish freethinker's
saying about Paris -- _wie Gott in Frankreich_. Meaning that even God took his holidays in France. Why? Because the French are atheists and among them God himself could be carefree, a _flaneur_, like any tourist." [Saul Bellow. _Ravelstein_, Viking, 2000. p. 171.]

Bellow does not mention Yiddish; he speaks of the saying as characteristic of "Jewish freethinker[s]." Moreover, he writes the expression in German and not in Yiddish. There is certainly a Yiddish expression "Er lebt vi got in frankraykh." ['He lives like God in France.'] Ignaz Bernstein records it in his classic _Juedische
Sprichwoerter und Redensarten_ (Warsaw 1908), where it is item no. 16 under _leben_ -- Bernstein gives it in Yiddish on the right-side page and on the opposite page in a germanized transcription of the Yiddish together with explanation in German: "Er lebt, wi Got in Frankreich" and "D[as] h[eist] sorglos." Harkavi's Yiddish-Hebrew-English Dictionary gives it and defines it as 'zorgloz; to live in clover'.  Bellow gives only the simile, writing "wie Gott in Frankreich" --i.e. he employs German spelling, which would be identical to Bernstein's transcription if "wie" were altered to "wi" and "Gott" to "Got". After questioning a number of German Jews who knew no Yiddish and who all recognized "Er lebt wie Gott in Frankreich," I concluded that the saying
was originally German and probably passed into Yiddish via Galicia.

Bernstein points the reader to a comparable expression: "A lebn vi bay got hintern oyvn" ['like living at God's house behind the stove'].  Bernstein's comment here is "Wen jemand ein sorgloses, behagliches Leben fuehrt." ['When someone lives a carefree life.'] Bernstein and Harkavi agree that "Er lebt vi got in frankraykh" means 'to live a carefree life'. In the Yiddish of many of us this idea would more likely have
been expressed by the parallel saying "Er lebt vi got in odes" ['He lives like God in Odessa'] -- a calque of "vi got in frankraykh".  Though not found in Bernstein, Harkavi gives it and defines it exactly as he defined the saying with _frankraykh_, namely _zorgloz_ 'carefree'.

But why Odessa? Ignaz Bernstein has two expressions under "Odessa," both emphasizing the town's imputed immoral state: 1) "odeser sharlatanes" ('Odessa charlatans'); 2) "tsen mayl fun odes brent dos gehenem" ('Hell burns ten miles from Odessa'). Bernstein explains the latter: "Die Einwohner von Odessa gelten als irreligioese Leute un wer in ihre Naehe kommt, verfaellt der Hoelle." In Yiddish he explains that "Odessa residents are regarded as great heretics."  They are, that is to
say, libertines like the Parisians and the expressions are parallel. Krueger-Lorenzen uncovers the origin of "Er lebt wie Gott in Frankreich" precisely in a historical moment marked by irreligiosity. Here is his gloss: "Ihm geht es besonders gut, er geniesst zein Leben sorglos und in Freuden -- entstand in der grosser Franzoesischen Revolution von 1789, in der Gott abgesetzt wurde und der Kultus von der Vernunft an die
Stelle der Christentum trat. Man stellte sich Gott gleichsam pensioniert vor, der nun in Frankreich so besonders sorglos und gluecklich leben kannte." ('He fares especially well. He enjoys a life without worry. Created during the French Revolution of 1789 when God was 'dismissed' and the cult of reason replaced Christianity. God was
imagined as being retired and able to live in France, where he was particularly happy and content'.) [Kurt Krueger-Lorenzen, "Er lebt wie Gott in Frankreich," _Deutsche Redensarten und was dahinter steckt_, Muenchen: Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, 4th ed., 1986, p. 114.]

The original expression, according to Krueger-Lorenzen, has God pensioned off by those who no longer require his services, but it is later understood as saying God is on vacation, presumably having on his own initiative chosen the most agreeable land for the purpose. Paris for the Western European and Odessa for the East-European Jews conjured up images of pleasure equally well. However, Jews from all walks of life used both "Er lebt vi got in frankraykh" and "Er lebt vi got in odes" in a humorous manner to express the idea of maximum freedom from restraint, maximum access to comfort and self-indulgence. Their origins notwithstanding, these sayings have long lost any possible anticlerical taint. The parents of Jewish children who said "Got krigt zikh mitn vayb" ['God is fighting with his wife'] when they heard lightning strike, also had wit and imagination.

Date: 12 December 2000
From: Marjorie Schonhaut Hirshan <>
Subject: "Konkurentn" fun Yoyne Roznfeld
[We are pleased to present a romanized version of "Konkurentn."  Romanized Yiddish is Yiddish, Latin-letter graphemes notwithstanding. We assume that there are people who would like to read a Yiddish text but have not yet mastered the Hebrew/Yiddish alphabet. A romanized Yiddish text can be helpful in a number of ways even for those who read Yiddish well -- for aid in the pronunciation of words of Hebrew-Aramaic origin and, yes, in learning the Standard Yiddish Orthography. At the
same time, we recommend that readers who are comfortable with the Yiddish alphabet read the story in Yiddish letters at the Onkelos site ( An English
translation of the story can be found in the Howe and Greenberg _Treasury of Yiddish Stories_ anthology: Jonah Rosenfeld, Competitors'. There is no better way to distinguish the special
qualities of Yiddish generally and the particular stylistic turns of an individual author than by comparing the original with a translation. Readers have requested that unfamiliar words and expressions be annotated. We hope to do so eventually. -- ed.]

yoyne rozenfeld


tsvey ayzerne betlekh, an opgekrokhener shpigl on a ram, a limene-kestl far a shafkele, a por benklekh mit oysgedreyte fislekh un a tish vos hinkt oyf eyn fus, -- dos iz mayn mebl.

a groys moyl, bloye lipn, a kvitshediker kol un nase, tomid trerndike, eygelekh -- dos iz mayn vayb.

a meydele, a tsenyoriks, a piskele vi oyf shrayflekh, un eygelekh vi bay a fuksl, un dar iz dos vi a shpendele, un shvistke vi a hindele -- dos iz mayn tokhter.

un a yingele -- klug vi der tog, dar un trukn vi a matseyve-shtekn -- dos iz mayn zunele, vos zen zet es oys vi a yor finf, ober alt iz dos zibn yor.

dos drite kind iz alt tsvey yor. groys iz dos vi a vokhenik, ober veynen veynt es un shrayen shrayt es shoyn gornisht nokh der greys nokh.

a kleyn mentshele, mit a kleyn, shiter berdele, mit kleyne, shvartse eygelekh -- dos bin ikh, ikh aleyn, ikh -- der man fun der vayb un der tate fun di dray kinder. vos ikh tu? ikh tu gornisht, ikh tu bloyz dos, vos mayn vayb darf ton.

gants fri, vi ikh shtey nor oyf, tseleyg ikh a fayer un kokh oyf a tshaynik vaser. dernokh vek ikh oyf mayn vayb, gib ir oystrinken a gloz tey un provade zi aroys in mark arayn. dernokh nem ikh zikh ersht tsu der khevre, tu zey on, vash zey arum un hodeve zey on. ober nisht ale mol git zikh es mir azoy gring ayn. es treft, az dos pitsl tsegezget zikh: s'vil nor tsu der mamen, un der elterer nokh ir. khap ikh dos pitsl oyf di hent, loyf tsu tsum fentster un heyb on pikn in di shoybn, klapn in tish, kling in a gloz, knak mit der tsung, un azoy, haltndik dos pitsl oyf di hent, nem ikh ayn mayn yingele oykh: ikh shpil zikh mit im in ferdlekh, a mol iz er der ferd un ikh der kutsher, a mol farkert. a mol shpil ikh zikh mit im in soldatn. er komandevet mit mir, ikh mit im: "kru-om, na-lyevo marsh! az-dva, az-dva!" un az ikh shtil zey ayn, farbet ikh di betn, ker oys di shtub un shtel tsu varmes. un vi es vert nor fartik, khap ikh bald un gis arop in a kleyn tepele, makh reyn a shisl mit a lefl -- un poshol! ikh loyf on an otem (kayn zeyger iz dokh bay mir nishto, vayzt zikh mir tomed oys, az ikh hob farshpetikt). un dos harts klapt: ot ze ikh shoyn di budkelekh un di taptshanes tsvishn di budkelekh un arum di budkelekh. oyf di taptshanes lign ongeleygt gantse berg tsibeles mit retekh, burakes mit kroyt, petrushke mit merelekh, kartoflyes mit khreyn un nokh azelkhe minem kraytekhtser, bitere un zise, zoyere un vaynike. ot lebn aza taptshan mit azelkhe shar-yerokes derken ikh shoyn dos vayb mayns.

un s'treft zeyer oft, az azoy loyfndik fargis ikh mir di kapote mit zup, un ven bamerk ikh es, ven zi git a startshe oys di kelbershe oygn ire oyf mir un bagegnt mikh mit a shtil ayngehaltenem "brokh".

- vos iz?

- ze nor!...

do her ikh, vi men shtikt zikh shoyn mit gelekhter. eyne a grobe yidene mit a farbrent gezunt ponim, vos zitst antkegn mayn vayb, vaklt zikh azh fun eyn zayt in der tsveyter, halt zikh mit beyde hent bay ir boykh -- azoy geshmak lakht zi. mayne tsupt dort hintn fun di fis, fun mayne,

ober nisht ale mol kum ikh op mit ot der tsupenish. es treft nisht zeltn, az nokh dem vi zi hot mikh dortn hintn genug ongekneypt, khapt zi ersht a burek baym meydl un varft mir in kop arayn. un az s'endikt zikh mit dem, dank ikh nokh oykh got. a mol iz zi mir ersht mekayem-psak, ven
zi kumt aheym fun mark, vayl zi dankt dokh got, az zi bakumt a gelegnhayt zikh tsu tshepen tsu mir. bin ikh, ober, oykh nisht keyn frumak un entfer ir op, un take keyfl keflayim, un s'dergeyt a mol tsu
an emeser milkhome: zi mir a shtup, ikh ir a shtoys; zi mir a fayg in di tseyn arayn; makht zi a gvald un di khevre mit ir tsu glaykh; un ikh -- puts in droysn aroys oyf ale fis. nor tsu bislekh, nisht bamerkndik
far zikh aleyn, heyb ikh on geyn pamelekher un pamelekher, blayb endlekh shteyn un kuk fartrakht oyf der erd, oyfn himl, oyf di hayzer, oyf di mentshn, vos geyen oyf un op.

un azoy vi ikh bin shteyn geblibn aleyn, nisht bamerkndik, azoy fil ikh nisht, vi ikh loz zikh geyn tsurik, gey mit a shver-ongelodn harts, mit a fuln kop, gey pamelekh trit bay trit un, tsugekumen tsu mayn shtub, shtel ikh zikh avek hinter di fentster un kuk, un ze, vi zi, di kleyne mayne, s'heyst di groyse, di eltste, arbet azoy getray, helft der mamen irer oyston di kinder un baleygt eyns in bet arayn un dos tsveyte, un helft der muter aropshlepn di groyse, shvere, shikh fun di fis, un ikh
trakht mir, az dos vakst a konkurentin mayne. un s'iz in ir tsu derkenen, az zi iz zeyer tsufridn, vos ikh bin in shtub nishto; un ikh ze, az zi staret zikh tsu bavayzn far der muter, az m'kon zikh bageyn on
mir oykh. un ven dos fayer vert oysgeloshn, grob ikh ayn dos ponem in a shoyb un kuk. ikh ze gornisht un dokh ze ikh (in gedank), vi es ligt a froy, mit ir tsuzamen ligt a kleyn kind, tsufusns ligt a meydl fun a yor tsen, un in tsveytn bet ligt der man irer, a foyler hunt, epes a min
toygenikhts, vos toyg nisht -- nisht tsu got un nisht tsu layt. un lebn im ligt zayns, un irs, zeyers a yingele, -- ale dare un kleyninke, khotsh knet zey tsunoyf un makh fun zey eyn mentsh a rekhtn.

ikh ver mid tsu shteyn hintern fentster, drey oys dos ponem tsum droysn, bloz breyt op fun zikh un khap a kuk tsu di shtern. fartrakht zikh oyf zey un vil shtark epes derzen dort. der himl vert tsu mir nenter un nenter, un ot, dakht zikh mir, bin ikh shoyn lebn im, un ikh kuk shoyn nisht oyfn himl aroyf, nor oyf der erd arop. shoyn gor mayse groyser mentsh. ober vi ikh kum nor in shtub arayn, ver ikh mit a mol tsekrimt; mir dakht zikh, az ikh bakum a kleyn, shmol moyl, un vi a kleyn narish
ganevl shar ikh zikh tsu tsum broyt un es mit groys apetit. az mayn vayb hot, ober, aza gringn shlof, -- zi derhert bald un heybt mikh on bashitn mit shvartse kloles. ikh gey tsu tsu ir un zog ir tsu, az mer vet es shoyn bay mir nisht trefn un az ikh vel zikh oyffirn gut un fayn. zi vert antshvign -- moykhl, heyst dos. tu ikh zikh shoyn oys un ganve zikh pamelekh arayn tsu ir in bet. zi makht zikh gepeygert, un ikh zikh -- keleyode: vos art dos mikh? -- zol zi meynen, az zi nart mikh... un ot azoy, shleferdikerheyt, hob ikh shoyn dray kinder mit ir. mir shteyen oyf broygeze, glaykh mir veysn beyde fun gornisht.

eyn mol, donershtik in der fri, hob ikh tsugeshtelt a top vaser un gey, vi geveyntlekh, tsu mayn tokhter un vil ir onheybn tseflekhtn di hor, tsugreytn tsum tsvogn. plutsling git zi a shprung op vi a hoz un blaybt shteyn antkegn mir mit a royt-ongeblozn ponem. ikh freg zi: vos iz dos? entfert zi mir nisht. git oyf mir a beyzn kuk un blozt zikh nokh mer on. freg ikh zi vider: vos iz dos? entfert zi vider nisht.

- vilst zikh nisht tsvogn? -- freg ikh.

- ikh darf nisht, du zolst mikh tsvogn, -- entfert zi mir mit an aropgeloztn kop un shpilt zikh mit ire finger.

- vos heyst?

- ikh kon zikh shoyn aleyn tsvogn!

- vilst nisht, ikh zol dir tsvogn?

- neyn!

- far vos?

- ikh kon shoyn aleyn tsvogn.

meyle, iz nisht getantst. nisht -- iz nisht. gey ikh shoyn tsu der plite un ze, es zol zikh gikher onvaremen dos vaser, ikh zol oystsvogn di tsvey klenere khevre. un az es hot zikh shoyn ongevaremt dos vaser, gey ikh tsu tsu mayn yingele un heyb im on oyston. nor zi shpringt vi fun der erd aroys, git im a khap bay a hentl un rayst im avek fun mir.

- vos heyst dos?
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