Sunday, June 30, 2024

"Shoteh Ben Pickholz" Revisited

About four months ago, I received a note from Joel Maxman, with whom I had correspondence some years ago about our mutual connections to Zalosce, in east Galicia. This time he had something different in mind.

I'm reading a book by Itzik Manger called "The Book from Paradise" (in Yiddish, "Dos Bukh fun Gan-Eden"). He uses the expression שוטה בן פּיקהאָלץ, which I've never heard before. As you're the only person I've ever known with the name Pickholtz, I was wondering whether you have any idea what this means.

"Shoteh ben Pickholz," literally "fool the son of Pickholz," is used to mean dunce or knucklehead. It is a phrase I first heard fifty years ago or more, probably when I was on Kevutzat Yavneh, and never since. Eleven years ago, I blogged about finding it in Hebrew newspapers in 1920, 1954 and 1960 but I never heard of it in literature.

From the long-defunct newspaper HaZefirah 1920

Well, it turns out that not only the Yiddish writer Manger (1901-1969) used this rather disparaging phrase, but Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991) and Solomon Rabinovitch (better known as Sholom Aleichem 1859-1918) did as well.

Rabinovitch is considerably older than the others so he may have been the person who coined the phrase - certainly neither Singer nor Manger certainly did. Or was it in use before Rabinovitch? It sounds very Galicianer and Shalom Aleichem was Russian, so I would not be at all surprised to see that someone else used it first.

These published authors used the phrase "Shoteh ben Pickholz"

My curiosity piqued, I asked my mother's second/third cousin (her great-grandparents are uncle-niece), a retired professor of literature at Tel-Aviv University if she knew the phrase and its origin. She has a vague recollection of hearing it, but nothing specific and no idea of its origin.

The man behind the Facebook page Yosl Teaches Yiddish knows the Sholom Aleichem usage, but again, no origin.

I tried contacting a well-known American Yiddish professor and although I know she saw my question, I have not (yet?) been favored with a reply.

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