Horse Sense

My grandson Yaakov Chaim — aka Yankel — is in his ticklish twos. He loves to laugh and takes his giggles verbally or manually … and quite seriously. He’ll walk into a room and start laughing — anticipating or instigating a figurative or literal rib tickler.

Yankel came Stateside from Yerushalayim for Pesach (with his parents). Usually my wife handles toy supplies for the grandchildren. But this time I was delegated. Frankly, my expertise in toys faded out when they started requiring batteries. So, what did I buy Yankel? A horse. It’s not electronic, but it does kick its forelegs when you pull its back legs. And I do have some expertise in pulling legs.

Now, I am aware that calling a person a ferd is an insult. Ferd is Yiddish for horse. But it’s more than that. Calling someone a ferd is the equivalent of calling the person an animal. To be human is to aspire to something greater. But I saw no insult in naming Yankel’s horse Ferdel.

Sure enough, before long, in walked Yankel, laughing, together with his new-found ferd, and started saying … “Moo. Moo.”

We had to talk.

I patiently explained that, while horses do have a historical connection to cowboys, they are not bovine. Horses don’t say “moo”; they say “neigh.” Soon the two of us were neighhhhing in fond equine amity.

The neighs had it.

Or so I thought. The next day, in walks Yankel with Ferdel, who — under Yankel’s tutelage — was now saying, “Nu, nu, nu …”

I was stumped. I didn’t know if this was good nus or bad nus but I nu enough not to object. This took things to a new level of discourse. Nu is the all-purpose Yiddish power word. It’s the Yiddish counterpart of OK, imbued with the scent of pickled herring (and sometimes heartburn).

Nus pundit Michael Wex quotes — and in part agrees with — the grand lexicographer of Yiddish: “According to Uriel Weinreich, nu means ‘Go on! well? come on!’ And it does. But it can mean so very much more, depending on context and tone of voice.”

So when it be-hooved Yankel’s Ferdel to tell me the nus, I nu better than to try to bust the bronco.

Every horse has its day.

Yes, I know that’s supposed to be “Every dog has its day.” But I’m an equal-opportunity animal welfare advocate. And horses enjoy a special place in English idioms. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “horse sense” as “Strong common sense; ‘a coarse, robust, and conspicuous form of shrewdness often found in ignorant and rude persons; plain, practical good sense.’” (In this sense, “rude” means uneducated, not ill-mannered.) raises an interesting question as to whether horse sense refers to the innate wisdom of the horse or its owner:

“If your teacher tells you that you have horse sense, consider it a compliment. People with horse sense are smart and practical and can be counted on to make good decisions.

“Word experts aren’t certain if the expression horse sense comes from the typical personality of horses themselves, calm and prudent, or from the idea that people who are very skilled in working with horses have a kind of horse sense. Either way, it’s a colloquial phrase from the late 1800s that’s still used fairly often today.”

I decided to take this unique opportunity to get some first-hoof horse sense about the current political horse race — straight from the horse’s mouth. So I asked Ferdel his opinion. With two such disfavored figures now the presumptive candidates of their respective parties, does Ferdel think either or both parties might change horses in midstream?

He mulled it over a bit. But all he’d say was, “Nu, nu …”

With Ferdel not talking, I turned to Wizard of Oys Chaim Werdyger for some Yiddish horse sense from his Yiddish study program archive.

He sent me a stable of proverbs and stories. And one of them perfectly explained my failure to communicate with Ferdel.

The Mitteler Vorker Rebbe, zy”a, Reb Menachem Mendel of Vorka, was the younger son of Reb Yitzchak of Vorka, zy”a. Even as a child, he loved horses. Another Rebbe, seeing him take over the reins of his father’s wagon, asked Reb Mendel’s father “Who taught your Mendel maaseh Merkavah (the Kabbalistic secrets of the Divine Chariot)?”

Reb Mendel was also known as “the Silent Tzaddik.” He rarely spoke. And even then, often in hints.

Reb Mendel knew that all things were not equine. As Chaim ­Werdyger told me, Reb Mendel said, “A horse is extremely quiet. It doesn’t let an extra word out of its mouth. Yet, after all, it’s only a horse. To be truly quiet, you have to know how to be silent … even as you speak.”

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