Elie's Expositions

A bereaved father blogging for catharsis... and for distraction. Accordingly, you'll see a diverse set of topics and posts here, from the affecting to the analytical to the absurd. Something for everyone, but all, at the core, meeting a personal need.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

JUL Jewels

I have long been interested in Urban Legends - those modern myths that everyone has heard from a "friend of a friend" but never witnessed in person. Once I discovered the Snopes web site, I was able to learn the unblemished truth about some of the ones that had bugged and intrigued me for decades. However, many of my favorites are not found there, being too distinctly and obscurely Jewish in nature to be of much general interest. A while back, I complained about the lack of a Jewish Urban Legends (JULs) website to fill in these gaps.

Well, apparently someone heard me! Today I came across Jewish Legends, a site modeled after Snopes, which has made an excellent start in collecting these specifically Jewish bits of lore. They already include a few of my pet JULs:
Finding this site has gotten my creative juices flowing on this subject. So here are a few jewels from my JUL vault. I'll send these in to Jewish Legends too, but you heard 'em here first!

Legend: Mordecai from the Book of Esther was, of course, Esther's uncle.

Truth: They were first cousins, not uncle and niece, as clearly stated in Esther 2:7. The persistence of the uncle-niece misconception never ceases to amaze me, as I ranted last Purim-time.

Legend: The Yiddish word "yarmulka" comes from the Hebrew "Yorei Malka", fear of the King (i.e., God).

Truth: "Yarmulka" most likely derives from a Russian word meaning "small cap", which can be found in Russian literature from the 1800s - e.g., Turgenev. Other etymological theories are found here.

Legend: The High Holiday piyyut [liturgical poem] "Unesaneh Tokef" was composed by a dying martyr named Rabbi Amnon, who then appeared in a dream to payyetan Rabbi Kalonymus ben Meshullam and taught it to him. Full story here, among many places.

Truth: As Birnbaum points out, Rabbi Kalonymus published Unesaneh Tokef in the eleventh century, while the first version of the Rabbi Amnon legend didn't appear in print until two centuries later. It's quite unlikely that if authentic, this story would not have been known contemporaneous with the piyyut itself. Nor is it believable that Rabbi Kalonymus himself would have kept quiet about his alleged source. Still, it's a powerful story, and certainly in keeping with the mood of the day.

Legend: Paul Simon used his grandfather's tune for the zemer [Sabbath table hymn] "Dror Yikra" as the tune for "Scarborough Fair"

Truth: Scarborough Fair - aka "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme" - is a traditional English ballad dating back to medieval times, to which S&G added a second set of new, anti-war lyrics, interspersed with the original. So though Paul was certainly Jewish, he didn't chop this tune from Zaydee. However, the tune does fit Dror Yikra quite well, and in deference to this JUL, our family uses it for that zemer each week!

Legend: And speaking of S&G, didn't they first meet as chavrusas [learning partners] in their Yeshiva day school?

Truth: Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel did become friends back in high school, but it was a public school, where they first met as actors in a school production of "Alice in Wonderland". Though they were both Jewish, neither was brought up observant or attended yeshiva.

I will probably follow up with some more JULs soon. Meanwhile, feel free to submit comments with your own favorites!


At 11/2/06, 9:30 PM, Blogger benning said...

Nice! I can learn a few things I didn't know before! LOL

I did know about Scarborough Fair, and about Esther & Mordecai. The rest ... nope!


At 11/2/06, 10:49 PM, Blogger Chana said...

Well, now, which website shall I believe? LOL...

re: "Hebrew came within one vote of becoming the national language of the United States":


At 11/2/06, 10:57 PM, Blogger Chana said...

Sorry... that article is too long... here's the money quote:

So popular was the Hebrew Language in the late 16th and early 17th centuries that several students at Yale delivered their commencement orations in Hebrew. Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Pennsylvania taught courses in Hebrew -- all the more remarkable because no university in England at the time offered it.

Many of the population, including a significant number of the Founding Fathers of America, were products of these American universities -- for example, Thomas Jefferson attended William and Mary, James Madison Princeton, Alexander Hamilton King's College (i.e. Columbia). Thus, we can be sure that a majority of these political leaders were not only well acquainted with the contents of both the New and Old Testaments but also had some working knowledge of Hebrew. Notes Abraham Katsh in The Biblical Heritage of American Democracy (p. 70):

"At the time of the American Revolution, the interest in the knowledge of Hebrew was so widespread as to allow the circulation of the story that "certain members of Congress proposed that the use of English be formally prohibited in the United States, and Hebrew substituted for it."

At 11/3/06, 2:21 AM, Blogger Jack's Shack said...


At 11/3/06, 3:17 PM, Blogger Alan aka Avrum ben Avrum said...

Dear Reb Elie,

Rather nice ... this!

I remain ...

Very Sincerely yours,

Alan D. Busch

At 11/4/06, 4:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't buy your theory about the orgin of yarmulka. It has to be
יראת מלכות קה or as an acronym ירמל"קה
It also makes sense for the reason we wear yarmulkas. The Gmara in Mesechet Kiddushin Daf 29 says that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi would not walk four "amot" without his head covered as a way of Yirat Hashem. I think this is the source of why we keep our heads covered today.

Best wishes for a Shavou Tov.

At 11/5/06, 3:12 PM, Anonymous www.jewishlegends.com said...

Hey! Thanks for the write-up about our site! We are looking forward to hearing from you and your readers, as we hope to build up our database of Jewish Urban Legends! If you haven't yet, please drop us a note with any stuff you've got to add!

At 11/5/06, 4:55 PM, Blogger Elie said...

Anon: As per the Mendele Yiddish language and literature site (http://shakti.trincoll.edu/~mendele/), the association of Yarmulke with "Yoreh Malka" was from a 1884 story by Sholem Aleichem and is regarded as a joke on that author's part. Here's a further quote from that site:

"...on the etymology of 'yarmulke', I should like to remark that I don't believe there is much that is obscure or controversial about the topic. The word is fairly obviously cognate with the many slightly varying forms to be found in the coterritorial Slav languages, e.g. Pol. 'jarmuLka/ jamuLka', Belorus. & Uk. 'yarmolka', Bulg. 'ya(g)murluk' all designating some sort of 'head covering lacking a peak'. The ultimate origin is to be found in the Turkish 'yagmurluk' meaning 'raincoat'..."

On a related note, the Turganev story that my dad had shown me long ago and that I referenced in my post is "Yermolai and the Miller's Wife" from "A Sportsman's Sketches" (1852). This contains the exact word "Yermolka" and defines it as "shooting cap".

Even without that corroboration, "Yoreh Malka" seemed like an obvious folk etymology to me; linguistics just doesn't develop that way!

At 11/5/06, 4:57 PM, Blogger Elie said...

Jewish Legends.com: I sent a note in earlier to your "cholent" section with a link to this post.

At 11/6/06, 8:14 AM, Blogger socialworker/frustrated mom said...

Learned alot of new stuff very interesting.

At 11/6/06, 6:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I met a recent immigrant from Poland. I was the first jew (at least one wearing a Yarmulka) that she had met and was (politely) curious. Her first question, in broken english, as she pointed at my head was: "What is that ... um... Yarmulka?"

Me: "Yarmulka? Yes."

She: "Yes, Yarmulka, what is it called? "

And so on. Turns out that in everyday spoken polish it is called a yarmulka and she was asking me what I called it.

So I agree with Elie.

At 11/7/06, 10:02 PM, Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Thanks for the info. Neat! I'll bookmark that website.

As a "language mavin" (B.A. in French), I particularly appreciate the explanation of the origin of the word "yarmulka." I always thought that the "Yorei Malka" explanation was a bit of a "reach."

At 11/9/06, 2:55 AM, Blogger Kylopod said...

I have been also fascinated by urban legends, and I wrote a post about it here.

Thanks for the Jewish legends site. I was looking for a site of that kind, especially because I have a question about some story I heard a few weeks ago. On Harry Maryles's blog, someone wrote the following:

I actually know of a person who this happened to while going to the bathroom on a plane. He was about to eat his kosher turkey sandwhich which he had opened but then rememebred this halocho. The woman next to him told himat the end of the flight that she always wanted to know what kosher food tasted like, so she had switched her turkey with his!

I had two reactions to hearing this story. First, it doesn't sound remotely plausible to me. Second, I feel like I've somehow heard the story before, somewhere. In any case, it has a distinct "urban legend" feel. But checking on Snopes, I couldn't find it, and I couldn't find mention of it by Googling either. I will make sure to take a look at the Jewish legends site to see if it's there.

At 11/9/06, 10:09 AM, Blogger Elie said...

Kylopod: I agree, that story has a UL feel to it. Like most ULs, it relies on several unlikely events all coinciding:
- The Kosher and unkosher sandwich options looking exactly alike
- An extremely insensitive and deceptive seat-neighbor (well, I guess that's not *so* unusual!)
- The protagonist forgetting the halacha so that he unwraps his sandwich and then immediately leave his seat before taking a bite, and then conveniently remembering it again.

But though implausible, it's not completely impossible to believe. But the Jewish Legends site doesn't have it - yet.

At 11/9/06, 12:05 PM, Blogger Kylopod said...

Yes, the tale is unlikely. But what's even more remarkable is that the person telling the tale doesn't seem to notice this. He's not saying "Listen to the weird, bizarre incident that happened to a friend of mine." He's saying "Something like this could happen to you if you aren't careful." That's what makes it sound especially ULish--not just its improbability, but its tone of paranoia.

At 11/17/06, 11:49 AM, Blogger joshwaxman said...

next week I will IYH talk about Mordechai being her uncle, and show how one *can* get that from the text. just a heads up because you might be interested.

in general, it is dangerous to claim that what is midrash is myth when contradicted by an explicit pasuk. it is quite possible that the midrash simply interprets that very pasuk differently.

Kol Tuv,

At 11/17/06, 11:58 AM, Blogger Elie said...


Huh?? Do you mean there's actually a midrash that states Mordechai is Esther's uncle? That's news to me! What's the source? I always thought the "uncle-niece" concept was a simple mistake, probably stated by some nameless hebrew school teacher, because of the perceived generational gap between the two.

FYI, I agree with you and would consider it disrespectful to call a midrash a "myth", even if I do personally take that midrash non-literally. I.e., I did not include the "Rivkah was three" issue in this JUL post (though it does happen to appear on the Jewish Legends site; not my doing!).

At 11/17/06, 12:27 PM, Blogger Elie said...

Josh: If you're looking for sources on the uncle-niece belief, I just found this one - quite comprehensive. Never knew that the mistake dates all the way back to Josephus!

At 11/17/06, 12:51 PM, Blogger joshwaxman said...

yeah, that was part of what I was basing myself on.
not exactly a midrash, but I was using midrash loosely.
I'm going to claim that the Vulgate translation, the Latin translation, and Josephus (who often bases himself on midrashic material) did not make a mistake but chose this translation deliberately, for reasons I will explain in the post.
Kol Tuv

At 11/17/06, 1:25 PM, Blogger joshwaxman said...

Just finished the blogpost.

Here's a link to it.

At 11/18/06, 6:34 PM, Blogger joshwaxman said...

But I realized as Shabbat came in that I made a brainslip about the Tzidkiyahu bit, and sefer Yirmiyahu actually boosts the standard explanation of dodo meaning uncle. I've updated my post there to match.

I would also like to see what the Vulgate does by other instances of dod.
Shavua Tov

At 11/24/06, 5:34 AM, Blogger Judith said...

I know that at least Art Garfunkel had a bar mitzvah, he mentioned in an interview once he sang the whole service.

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