Language – At a Loss for Words

By Mordechai Schiller

Before there was fake news, there were bobe mayses.

Hold your fire.

To our grandchildren, my wife and I are Bubby and Zeidy. So I join you in being offended by any disrespect to grandmothers. Sol Steinmetz defined bobe mayse in his Dictionary of Jewish Usage: “a fairy tale. A pure fantasy.” He added that “the assumption that the literal meaning is ‘grandmother tale’ … is false. The original Yiddish phrase was have myse.” It referred to a popular Yiddish poem called Bovo Buch, composed about 1507. The confusion was caused by the similarity to the word bobe and the offensive expression “old wives’ tales.”

So why am I telling you this?

Ever since the joy of Simchas Torah turned into the darkness of October 7, I haven’t been myself. I don’t know who I have been. I’m neither a psychologist nor a detective. But I’d guess you’re having the same kind of feelings.

I mentioned bobe mayses because I was thinking about the fact that I compulsively follow the news, and the image occurred to me of a deer frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car. But it’s a bobe mayse that deer are frightened by headlights. They can’t even see the car. They are active at night and their eyes dilate in the dark far more than human eyes. So, they become temporarily blinded by headlights and they freeze. There’s another belief that cobras have magical power to hypnotize their prey. It’s also a bobe mayse. Faced with a swaying cobra, most animals are simply petrified.

Lately I feel like that about the news from Israel. I don’t know whether “attraction/repulsion syndrome” is a real thing or just pop psychology. But it describes how I feel about the news. I can’t listen to it. But I can’t not listen to it.

I was in Yerushalayim in 1967 and I remember an odd local custom. The buses had radios and — every hour on the hour — passengers stopped talking and the driver would turn up the volume for everyone to hear the news.

In 2011, Steven Pressfield was researching his oral history of the Six-Day War, The Lion’s Gate. He interviewed Eli Rikovitz, a platoon commander whose outfit was the first to reach the Suez Canal. Pressfield noticed Rikovitz’s “habit of turning on the car radio at the top of the hour. Every hour. He listens to the news for 20 or 30 seconds, then turns the radio off. ‘Why do you do that, Eli?’ ‘This is Israel,’ he says. ‘You have to be ready.’”

I’m no soldier. My service in ’67 was helping HAGA (Israel’s civil defense) at a home for the aged. (One man refused to let me take him down to the dining room, which we had sandbagged as a shelter. “I’ve been in wars for 50 years. I’m not going to sleep in a cellar now!”) Like Eli Rikovitz, though, I still obsessively follow news headlines. Only now, I listen in dread.

Among the casualties of the war are the very words used to describe it. As the words get repeated, the meaning drains out of them. Even words like brutal, heinous, horrific, monsters and atrocities have become anemic, feeble, lifeless …

Webster’s New Dictionary of Synonyms grapples with the vocabulary of violence. Under the heading massacre, it says, “Slaughter, butchery, carnage, pogrom are comparable when they mean a great and often wanton killing of human beings. Massacre implies [indiscriminate] and wholesale slaying, especially of those who are not prepared to defend themselves and can make little or no resistance.”

Perhaps the closest term is pogrom. It “applies especially to an organized massacre of helpless people carried on usually with the connivance of officials. It is often applied specifically to such a massacre of Jews, especially in one of the European countries.”

Slaughtering Jews has always been popular, ever since Balak hired Bilaam to curse Bnei Yisrael, “saying, ‘Behold, a nation has come out of Egypt. Behold, it has covered the surface of the earth’” (Bamidbar 22:5).

But it was in Russia, the Ukraine and Poland that pogroms became a national sport. The breeding grounds of pogroms were the riots of tach v’tat (5408-9/1648-9), led by Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnicki. (Interestingly, the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry for Bohdan Khmelnytsky somehow missed the fact that his revolution against Poland resulted in the massacre of more than 300,000 Jews, Hy”d. I guess the editors don’t find that fact significant.)

Some historical descriptions of pogroms now sound eerily familiar. They read like news reports of the Hamas attack. Sheb’chol dor vador omdim aleinu lechaloseinu — in every generation they try to destroy us (Haggadah). The Holocaust began with a pogrom known as Kristallnacht. Soon it descended into the ultimate depravity of the Nazi “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”

So, how do you speak about the unspeakable?

How do you think about the unthinkable?

In 1960, Herman Kahn, a nuclear physicist, wrote On Thermonuclear War — in which he calmly analyzed the possibility of atomic warfare. A review in Scientific American attacked Kahn for his “deplorable book,” sarcastically questioning his very existence, because “no one could write like this, no one could think like this.”

As a rebuttal, Kahn wrote another book: Thinking About the Unthinkable. He claimed that “thermonuclear war may seem unthinkable, immoral, insane, hideous, or highly unlikely, but it is not impossible.”

Since that day in October, we have been speaking about the unspeakable, thinking about the unthinkable … and living the unlivable.

Dovid Hamelech said it best. May we soon see the day “when Hashem will return the captives of Tzion,” when we will look back at the unspeakable, the unthinkable, and the unlivable, as “dreamers.”

“On that day” we will awaken from our nightmare, “and our mouths will be filled with laughter.” n

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to

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