HUMAN EVOLUTION, LANGUAGE AND
BY: ELIYHO MATZ
Knish Me, I’m Jewish!
[As Taken From the Internet]
The documentary, If Knishes Can Talk, by Heather Quinlan, has just débuted at various places around New York City, as well as around the country. In her film, Quinlan wanders throughout New York City to explore the English accents and dialects of its residents, and through her exploration of the boroughs she finds a diversity that brings the audience to what Marshall McLuhan was saying all along, that “the medium is the message.” And what exactly this message is I will try to explain. In her documentary, Quinlan’s subjects, a variety of diverse and engaging New Yorkers, serve to represent the unique way in which the New York region speaks, talks, and expresses itself in New York English. The documentary is funny and educational. The filmmaker has done an interesting job filming and exploring New Yorkers in their use of a common lingo, English.
I personally like accents. Anybody who speaks to me immediately recognizes that I am not from New York City. I was born in Israel, near Tel Aviv, and American English is my third foreign language. In the early morning I take a Gypsy taxi to the subway station. The driver, Pedro, is from Argentina and speaks to me in a special dialect of English. It is exciting to see how he manages, with his unique American English, to navigate the streets of metropolitan New York. The person who sells me my NY Times every morning is from Pakistan. He stands on the corner near the subway entrance, clad in Pakistani dress, and welcomes me every morning. His English is completely incomprehensible to me, but he has been there for a number of years and manages to sell the New York newspapers to a variety of customers.
The subway conductor, who is from Guyana or India, makes announcements in “funny” English. Thus the NY passengers look at each other wondering, trying to figure out what is he actually saying? But it does not matter; the “E” train is already moving quickly to Manhattan.
Upon arriving in Manhattan, my first stop is the neighborhood Puerto Rican restaurant, a long-time establishment, well kept, that offers authentic Puerto Rican food. The workers fall into two groups: native Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans. I have managed for years to have a wonderful breakfast there – how I order my breakfast I will explain later.
The superintendent of the building adjacent to our office, whom I have known for fourteen years, was born in Puerto Rico. Now in his mid-sixties, he came to New York about 45 years ago, and he speaks a dialect of American English that after fourteen years of “conversations” with him I still cannot figure out what he says.
A homeless man whom I used to buy breakfast for once in awhile, who I think was a Jewish New Yorker, once, on a cold winter day, told me that his blood “does not ‘circumcise’ in his body.”
Most New Yorkers speak with some sort of unique accent, and in contrast even “pure” born-and-bred Americans sound a bit out of place in the City. It has always been my interest to try to explain the phenomenon of language. I regularly ask people who enter our stationery store, “What is the value of knowing a foreign language?” Most immediately answer: communication, exploring cultures, help in traveling, etc. I prefer my own interpretation, and I most often explain with the story I once read that originated in England, and goes as follows:
A mouse observes a slice of cheese in the corner and wants to grab
it, but it hears “meow” and says to himself, “It’s too dangerous, I’ll wait.” On the second day he observes a large chunk of cheese. Again he wants to grab it, but once more he hears “meow” and says to himself, “I’ll wait.” On the third day he observes a very large chunk of cheese, but this time he hears the sound of a barking dog. It is well known that cats and dogs do not get along, so he reasons that it safe for him to go and grab the cheese. But as soon as he gets close to the cheese, the cat pounces on him and eats him up.
When the cat finishes eating the mouse, she turns to her little kittens
and says, “See, it’s good to know a second language!”
Most people laugh when they hear the punch line. Then I ask people what did the cat do? Most are confused, and then I explain that the cat was using language as a trick. For, as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein explained many years ago, in reality, not well known to most people, is the fact that language is “a game of words.” Of course, scientists up to now have not figured out how our brain processes thoughts and how thoughts are related to speech or writing. This fact notwithstanding, language can be understood as some sort of a trick that we use to explain, speak, explore, make love, make war, etc.
I used the cat and the mouse story at the Puerto Rican restaurant many years ago, but the workers failed to understand it at first. It was only after I had the story translated into Spanish that they caught on, and they all laughed! Consequently, every morning when I arrive at the restaurant, I open up the door and say, “Meow;” my breakfast is then prepared, amidst the “meows” of the workers who call me el gato!
It is well known to most anthropologists that human evolution is a complex subject to tackle. We definitely have developed: we speak, write, walk, study -- and multiply, that is, we have sex. How we have developed as humans is still a mystery. How and why we speak, act and function is not clear. It is by now general knowledge that we evolved as human beings, and like other species we have the urge to survive. It is in our genes. Women, who are half of the story of human evolution, have developed their own survival technique: approximately every thirty days they menstruate. The period, which is unique in human evolution, means that the woman loses protein and iron in large quantities. The iron and protein must be replaced, thus leading to the “Hunter-Gatherer” theory. The man uses a bow and arrow to hunt, brings the meat, and as a result of his action he receives sex, or love, or both. The invention and use of language are still a mystery. Is it possible to think or calculate that the rise of language correlated in one way or another with the basic needs of women during their period? Let’s say that the woman instructs Schmuel the hunter in a low-pitch voice: Schmuel, go hunting and get me some meat, otherwise I am starving and dying. The human relationship between woman and man has a long history of deep misunderstanding, in which language plays a large part. What is the modern hunter-gatherer symbol today? It is Cupid with a bow and arrow on St. Valentine’s Day, a symbol that we all cherish – a new version of an old story. And then we arrive at romance stories, but we will start with a New York story.
New York Jews became prominent in the City only in the last 100 years, between 1900 and 2000. One of their foremost writers, Henry Roth, in his renowned book Call It Sleep, explores the Jewish life of the immigrants. Roth’s work is probably one of the most explicitly portrayed American Jewish novels to bring us a clear depiction of one’s transition from an immigrant Jew to a citizen Jew, and the growing up of an American Jewish child in New York City. Furthermore, Roth brings us this fantastic dialogue that deals with “knishes” and is written in the New York English/Yiddish vernacular:
“Between de legs. Who puts id in is de poppa. De poppa’s god de
petzel. Yaw de poppa.” She giggled stealthily and took his hand.
He could feel her guiding it under her dress, then through a pocket-
like flap. Her skin under his palm. Revolted, he drew back.
“Yuh must! She insisted, tugging his hand. “Yuh ast me!”
“Put yuh han’ in my knish,” she coaxed. “Jus’ once.”
“I’ll hol’ yuh petzel.” She reached down.
Roth’s novel itself is saturated with a Yiddish-English mix. In any case, as is clearly stated here, the word knish is Jewish-Yiddish slang for the word vagina. I’m not sure that the maker of the documentary knew this fact, and it is ironical that she based her title on this word without understanding its deeper implication.
If we believe that there is, or perhaps must be, some sort of relationship between language and the female vagina, then it would be instructive to explore some other literary sources. For example, James Joyce, in his famous book Ulysses, presents his character Molly Bloom with a monologue that explores the vagina. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera, the author explores the narrative of the protagonist and his love of a certain woman that stretched almost seventy years until he finally touches her vagina. In Miriam at Thirty-four, Alan Lelchuk explores the sex life of his Jewish American heroine, about whom the late professor Gershon Shaked (my Israeli Literature professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem) commented that her ultimate sexual goal was a better orgasm. Further exploration in American Jewish writing is the famous book, played out on stage, The Vagina Dialogues by Eve Ensler. Tennessee Williams, in A Streetcar Named Desire, the play in which Marlon Brando became famous for his role as the character Stanley Kowalsky, mentions that “Stanley carries his bowling jacket and a red-stained package from a butcher’s” for Stella, thus the ensuing dialogue:
Thus is suggested the evolving relationship between the hunter and the receiver via the language of the kill. Is it possible that Quinlan’s film can change its name to If Bagels Can Talk, or If Blintzes Can Talk, or If Matza Balls Can Talk, thus avoiding the use of the word knish -- unless the author is definitely sure that there must be some connection between the knish and language.
It is sort of strangely illuminating that a Talmudic rabbi is quoted in the Talmud as saying: Kol b’isha erva. This ruling basically meant that Jewish men should avoid listening to the voice, sound, or speech of a woman, for, to translate, this Talmudic ruling says “the voice of a woman is in the vagina,” a warning meaning that it might lead to sex. It is sad that this ancient Talmudic ruling is creating confusion in the Israeli military even today, as well as in the general society. For when a female singer appears before a military audience, religious soldiers leave the room.