It seems a little strange to discuss wildly incorrect views of Jesus so close after Christmas, or maybe it’s entirely appropriate, or probably December has nothing to do with anything anyways. In any case, I promised, so here goes:
Yiddish arose, at least in part, to give voice to a system of opposition and exclusion that we will be referring to throughout this book. The opposition was made flesh in the person of Jesus. To the Jews, Jesus was, in the words of the early medieval Toldot Yeshu (Life of Jesus), a Jewish antigospel written in Hebrew, a mamzer-ben hai-nidoh, the bastard son of an unclean woman. Official Jewish opinion has nothing in common with, say, the Muslim view of Jesus as a prophet. Jesus was considered so loathsome that Jewish legend views St. Peter, of all people, as a frumer yid, a pious and heroic Jew, who deliberately set out to effect a complete separation between “real” Jews and Judeo-Christian traitors by establishing the Catholic Church, which thus becomes good for the Jews because it saved us from having to pray with goyim.
Unless otherwise specified, a goy is usually assumed to be a Christian, the kind of goy with whom almost all Yiddish-speaking Jews were living. No one who ever described an argument or excuse that doesn’t hold water as mamoshes vi der goyisher got, as much substance as the god of the gentiles, thought that the god might be Zeus. The only goyisher got who matters is Jesus, and an expression that means “It’s as close to the real truth as the notion that the blood of Jesus has set us free,” tells us a good deal about the oppositional nature of a language like Yiddish, and why it could not rest content with German as already spoken.
We have to start by asking why it’s mamoshes–substance–rather than truth or power that Jesus is said to lack. Mamoshes, reality or substantiality, derives from the adverb mamesh, which means “really, truly, literally,” but is used most often in a strictly figurative sense. Its Hebrew original, mamash (note the difference in pronunciation), developed from a verb meaning “to feel, to touch,” and the basic meaning of mamesh is comparable to that of the English “palpable.”…
The mamoshes in a mamoshes vi der goyisher got is merely the noun that derives from mamesh, and in the phrase we’re looking at, the idea of substantiality is closely connected with the person whose divinity is being denied. We’ve seen that goy in Yiddish refers primarily to Christians, but this qualification can be narrowed down even further. The overwhelming majority of the Christians among whom Yiddish-speaking Jews used to live were members of either the Orthodox or Roman Catholic Churches. Despite the many differences between them, both Churches believe that when the priest takes the host and wine and says, in one language or another, “Hoc est enim corpus meum, this is mamesh my body,” the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ. … Although it’s unlikely that very many Eastern European Jews were experts in the minutiae of Catholic theology, the idea that Christians believed that a piece of ersatz matzoh could become Jesus’s body was far from unknown among them. Whoever first described somebody else’s excuse as having a mamoshes vi der goyisher got was intending a dig at Catholic doctrine as well, a denial of one of the fundamental tenets of the religion.
Something that has a mamoshes vi der goyisher got can also be said to be nisht geshtoygn un nisht gefloygn, it didn’t climb up and it didn’t fly. Any Jew who grew up in a traditional Yiddish-speaking environment will interpret the phrase in pretty much the same way: what didn’t climb or fly was Jesus, who didn’t climb up into heaven, and who sure didn’t fly there. There’s a variant interpretation, according to which it’s the cross onto which Jesus didn’t climb, but this has no effect on the meaning — the climax of all four gospels, the point of the whole New Testament, has just been reduced to a joke, the Yiddish equivalent of “and pigs can fly.”
…[Some Jews] still take a holiday from Torah study on Christmas Eve, or nitl nakht, as it is known in Yiddish. Since studying Torah in the name of a deceased person is a common way of praying for his or her soul, Jews were afraid that studying on Jesus’ birthday might somehow work to Jesus’ benefit, so they abstained from study on Christmas Eve. Instead of learning Torah, they tended either to play cards — something that pious Jews almost never did, or prepare toilet paper for the coming year. They did something insulting and they did it at home — Jews were afraid to go out on Christmas Eve.
…In North American Yiddish slang, Christmas is commonly called Krats-mikh, scratch me, and I’ve even heard Easter called Yeaster (from the English “yeast”), because “er hot zikh a heyb geton, he raised himself up.”
From Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods, by Michael Wex.