I was in the recreational van with the teenage residents from the behavioral health program I work in. My job is providing wraparound clinical therapeutic services in a residential setting for children with severe emotional and behavioral disturbances. My clients hail from all across the great state of New Jersey, but this particular bunch were mostly kids from Newark, Patterson, Atlantic City, and Camden.
The music was earsplitting and thumping insistently above the noise of the engine, and the kids, being kids who grew up mostly around this kind of music, were fervently mouthing along with the lyrics and let’s just say, they did not suffer an immediate expansion of mind or vocabulary once engaged in this pursuit. The singer was Fetty Wap and the song was Trap Queen and even though the daytime radio station played a clean version, these kids knew exactly how to fill in the blanks of every second word in those lyrics.
I guess I was bored or the movement of the wheels made me feel sleepy and I drifted a bit as I somnolently began to translate the lyrics of Trap Queen into Yiddish, in my mind.
I remembered when I was in the tenth grade at Bais Chanah School for girls, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and the teacher was rapidly spitting out her handwritten notes in Yiddish, I think it was Historia or possibly Chumash which we never called Chumash because we were not allowed to read inside a sacred text, being of the female gender, and with minds light as Nashim Kalos… the Klausenberger Rebbi himself enacted rules to prevent our Hebrew studies education from being too taxing for our limited capacity brainpower.
On and on goes massively pregnant Mrs. Buxbaum, reading verbatim and with mind numbing lack of expression, stories, and excerpts from notes her Kollel husband helped her transcribe the night before, and I was busy challenging the vast unused portions of my lax brain into translating her words into English. It was not my Mama Loshen that is true, however it was my language growing up… as voraciously, my siblings and I read everything that was allowed into our home from the classics to the backs of cereal boxes in lieu of a television.
So here I am back in the van, with visions of pimps and their hoes dancing in my head on our way to a recreation trip with the adolescents from my program, I think we were heading to a local greyhound rescue shelter to walk the dogs and give them some love. Walking a great big greyhound? This too, was not an activity I was familiar with in any way shape or form. Dogs and Chassidim are not a good combination, and I did not grow up around animals at all. But that is a story for another day.
The Sunday after this incident, I was drinking coffee with my own teenagers in the kitchen of our home in Cherry Hill, NJ, when my 17 year old son, the one with the kraselte payos and the Express hipster skinny jeans, had an idea. He said, “Ma, why don’t you record yourself rapping 21 Savages’ Bank Account in Yiddish and I will turn you into a You Tube sensation.”
Well, this intrepid Chasidic social worker is always up for her next challenge and this was it. So over warm delicious rugalach made exactly how my Hungarian bubby did, Nate and I got to work. We ran into problems in the very first line, because I did not seem to recall a proper substitute word in Yiddish for b*tch. Then we ran into multiple problems in the next several lines because I also did not recollect a useful replacement for the word sh*t. This is probably because my dear mother, may she rest in peace, would run the inside of my mouth with a large slab of kosher soap any time we even thought of getting away with mention of our private parts or their functions.
I still remember the bitter sting of the soap on my sensitive gums and lining. But I used the word, groisa hint, to describe a big dog which the rapper used to refer to himself and a froi’isher hint to describe the aforementioned b*tch which he used in place of every third word in each sentence, if you could call that sorry jumble of letters sentences. Then I used the word bamachatz to describe sh*t which seemed to be in place of a sentence ender after each and every line; for example: “I have an automatic gun that I shoot, and sh*t”.
My efforts seemed to have paid off, as my little video traveled hastily on Whatsapp, Facebook and Snapchat to the delight of all the ex-Chasid Yiddishists on my friend lists, who populate these honorable venues with their thoughts and reflections. My version of Bank Account also made it to the senior class Snapchat group of Cherry Hill West High school where Nate is enrolled, and Soshie, Maddie and David were thrilled to pass this little treasure along.
At work, there was a fascinating discussion between myself and the Quality Assurance Coordinator, because just as I had a past life coming of age in Jewish ‘Amishtown’ in Brooklyn, she did as well, because as a teenager, she was one of the first female members of one of the original hip hop groups signed to a professional label in the 80s. Alice told me that she thought I did a fine job, once I explained in great detail the struggles that I encountered turning street slang into a coherent narrative to enjoy in Yiddish. “Now,” Alice said “I need to figure out a way to turn this newfangled sh*t into real music in recognizable English, so when I get to that, I’ll let you know”.
True confession, I am really good at covering up the almost constant panic and confusion I experience at being confronted with this whole other level of discourse that has become the new reality in the English language. It’s not just that every single sentence includes some profanity that takes the place of a perfectly useful, existing adjective, verb or noun, it’s also that grown up adults are starting to sound like the Smurfs, if you catch my reference, and whole versions and dialects are being buried beneath this ever more simplistic and animalistic sounding verbal expression.
I’m not an angel and have in my day let rip a profanity or two or three, for example, when I am actively involved in trying to swerve while driving to avoid a collision. But so much of what passes for discourse these days leaves me baffled; and let’s not even get into grammar. I feel like a 1950’s schoolmarm wincing at the use of “too” to describe “two,” and other frustrating exchanges for perfectly good alternatives.
In the meantime, I will slog along with my brain filled up with vocabulary I picked up as a child, in my nightly forays into great big yellowing children’s classics, books like: Anne of Green Gables and Tom Sawyer, Pride and Prejudice and The Little Princess, and I will wait this madness out.
Who knows, maybe sanity will return with the generation after this one, who might as well become sick and tired from the constant reduction of their basic human expression into a suffocatingly limited vocabulary of maybe four or five grunt-like curse words.