Tag Archives: obscenity

Is “Schmuck” a Dirty Word?

One of the points I make in my book is that what’s dirty in Yiddish isn’t always dirty in English, and vice versa. Here’s one example that I didn’t have space to include in its entirety.

At Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trial in Los Angeles, in February 1963, a Yiddish-speaking police sergeant named Sherman Block translated, for the jury’s benefit, a few of the Yiddish words Bruce had used in his act. What Sherman said, among other things, was that “throughout his narration, suspect [Bruce] interjected the terms ‘shmuck’ and ‘putz,’ which are Yiddish, and mean ‘penis.’”

Bruce disagreed. On the 1965 album Lenny Bruce Is Out Again, he countered:

Shmuk! The word shmuk is a German word. And it means literally in German a man’s decoration. Emes, a boutonniere, a lapel watch. I don’t think, uh—in a Yiddish dictionary, the Harkov [sic] dictionary, it says shmuk: ‘A yard, a fool.’ So there we have the literal—I don’t think the colloquial—any Jew gave it a different inference: ‘You’re acting like a man’s penis.’ I’m not going to be a penis anymore, let Nate be the penis from now on. So shmuk don’t mean shmuk, except to some putz who digs it.

Bruce was a comedian, not a linguist, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this is funnier than it is, uh, true. Here’s the relevant entry from Alexander Harkavy’s 1928 Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary:

To native speakers of Yiddish, “shmuk” still has just as much power to offend as “cojones” does in Spanish, or as “cock” or “prick” do in English. But that didn’t stop the word from becoming increasingly prominent in all sort of English-language publications since the 1960s. Here’s the Google n-gram:

You can say “shmuck” in English now on the radio, on billboards, even on a television station as squeaky clean as QVC. So, is it a dirty word or a clean word? Simply depends on who’s listening.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on December 19, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Can We Print “Motherfucker” Here?

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curb your enthusiasmThere’s a little experiment I’d like to try, knowing that this blog post will be published by the Jewish Book Council and a MyJewishLearning blog.

The following is a passage from the conclusion of my book, describing the third season finale of Larry David’s television show Curb Your Enthusiasm, which aired in 2002:

The episode centers on the grand opening of a restaurant in which David’s fictional character, also called Larry David, has invested. In the middle of the meal, the chef, who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome and cooks in an open kitchen, involuntarily shouts a string of taboo words: “Fuck-head, shit-face, cocksucker, asshole, son-of-a-bitch.” A strained silence descends, and David recalls a group of high school students he saw earlier in the episode who had all shaved their heads in solidarity with a classmate undergoing chemotherapy. He decides to act on the students’ example, showing his support for the chef by mimicking his behavior, bellowing, “Scum-sucking, motherfucking whore!” David’s assembled friends and loved ones follow suit: “Cock, cock, jizzum, grandma, cock. . . . Bum, fuck, turd, fart, cunt, piss, shit, bugger, and balls. . . . Dammit, hell, crap, shit. . . . Fellatio, cunnilingus, French kissing, rimjob.” David’s father on the show, played by the veteran comedian Shelley Berman, chimes in to add a set of Yiddish taboo words—“Shmuk, putz, tukhis-lekher”—to the episode’s catalog of obscenities before the camera zooms in on David’s satisfied face, and the episode comes to an end.

What I’d like to know is whether the two websites who are scheduled to publish this post will reproduce the taboo language in the post’s title and in that quotation. Will they bowdlerize this with dashes or stars or other symbols? Will they euphemize words like “motherfucker” and “cunt,” but leave in words like “bum” and “fart” and “putz”? Will they print a warning at the top of the post, alerting readers that taboo language follows (and, if so, how will they phrase that warning)? Or will they refuse to publish the piece entirely, to avoid having to make finer decisions about taboo language?

I don’t mean to be disrespectful to two publications who have been kind to offer to publish my writing (and for whom I’m written before). Not at all. But one of the conversations I’m interested in starting with my book is precisely about what is fit to print now, today, and how Jews feel about that.

I’m not exactly a free-speech absolutist, thought I often feel that it’s pretty silly when The New York Timesbends itself out of shape to avoid printing four-letter words, or when This American Life makes an announcement every time one of its radio stories with even “mention the existence of sex.” But I now have a three-and-a-half-year-old at home who is linguistically precocious, and I understand better than I did when I started writing my book why some people might feel uncomfortable when taboo language spews forth from a newspaper that shows up at the front door, or a radio program that goes out to millions of homes on weekend afternoons. I understand that every publication has to make decisions—not just once, but continually—about what is appropriate to publish, and what isn’t.

That’s why I think it might be interesting to see how the taboo language above is reproduced.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on December 18, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

How Did You Come to Write That Book, Anyway?

unclean-lipsIt’s a completely reasonable question, though generally people have been asking it a little shyly: “Why did you want to write a book about Jews and obscenity?” The implicit question, I think, is “I know you’re Jewish—are you also some kind of perv?”

I don’t quite accept the terms of that second, implied question—I’m sex-positive, and don’t cotton to the stigmatizing of responsible, thoughtful people who are into, say, polyamory or BDSM—and I’m also quite sure that the last thing I’d do if I did have some outlandish and/or shameful sexual tastes would be to announce them in the Q&A after an book event at a JCC or synagogue. Or here.

But the real explanation as to why I wrote Unclean Lips is simpler: I discovered the works of Philip Roth as a teenager, loved them, eventually read all of them, imitated them, and then went to get a PhD in English with the intention of writing about them. When I got to grad school, my advisor, hearing that I’m Canadian, recommended that I read Adele Wiseman’s 1974 novel Crackpot, which turned out to be the brutally frank story of an obese Jewish prostitute in Winnipeg.

As I kept reading, I found myself asking, “Why are so many of these great writers so obsessed with both Jewishness and sex?” And, wondering about that, I decided to read up on the history of the representation of sex in American literature in general. In books like Edward De Grazia’s magisterial Girls Lean Back Everywhere and Walter Kendrick’s brilliant The Secret Museum, I quickly came across cases including Rosen v. US (1896), Roth v. US (1957), Ginsberg v. NY (1968), and Cohen v. California (1971). And, naturally, I wondered about all those names, which were more or less identical with the names of the kids who had gone to Jewish Day School with me.

Who were these people, and why did they keep ending up on the wrong side of the law of obscenity? Were there any connections between these legal defendants named Roth, Ginsberg, and Cohen, and the literary writers named Roth, Ginsberg, and Cohen whose works I had been reading? It was hard to tell. The historians, literary scholars, and lawyers who wrote about obscenity in American culture, like De Grazia and Kendrick, didn’t say much about who the namesakes of those cases were.

I wanted to know more. That’s what got me started on the reading and research that led me to write Unclean Lips: Jews, Obscenity, and American Culture.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on December 16, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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