May 01, 2008
Mama loved to read. Although she was busy running our household, sewing our clothes, and attending adult education courses, she always set aside time to read to us from her carefully chosen poems by famous Yiddish poets and stories by Yiddish writers. I can still recall one of her favorite love poems. Loosely translated, it reads,
How handsome is my beloved.
His love is so tender and warm
I did not know this
He told me with each kiss
An angel in heaven is born!
Actually, this poem is more lyrical in Yiddish. Leo Rosten once said that translating the Yiddish into English is like kissing a lovely woman through a veil.
My sister and I always asked Mama to repeat our favorite story by Jacob Adler whose pen name was B. Kovner. It was one of a series of stories about Yenta Telebenta published in The Forward.
Yenta was a common female name and it is said that it was derived from the word “gentile.” The name was Americanized and turned into Yetta. With time it was also used to describe a gossip, a shrew.
Mendel Telebenta was Yenta’s poor henpecked husband and he was rarely able to get a word in edgewise. Yenta was a busybody who schemed and plotted and talked incessantly. One morning, she awakened with a sore throat and a deep cough. Her forehead felt hot and her cheeks were flushed. Mendel summoned the doctor. (In those days, doctors made house calls.)
The doctor arrived and took her temperature with an oral thermometer. He told her to be quiet for five minutes while she held the thermometer under her tongue. This was the length of time doctors required for a reading. This was the first time Yenta and Mendel had seen a thermometer. Mendel could hardly believe his ears. Such heavenly peace and quiet he had not known since he first met Yenta. The unaccustomed silence was deafening. The doctor wrote one prescription for the fever and another for her cough and assured them that Yenta would be fine in a week.
Mendel grabbed the prescriptions and followed the doctor into the hallway and down the stairs to the street. He asked the doctor about this small glass instrument that had the power to keep Yenta quiet for five minutes.
“Doctor,” he implored, “where can I buy this magic glass stick?” The doctor told him he could purchase it at the local pharmacy. Mendel ran all the way to the drug store, gave the clerk the prescriptions, and purchased the thermometer.
From that day on, Mendel was a most solicitous husband, taking Yenta’s temperature whenever he wanted some quiet. He convinced her that it was good for her throat. In this way, he saved his hearing and probably prolonged his life.
Lillian Bressman, author of Tales of Mama and Other Reminiscences and a frequent contributor to NJ Jewish News, lives in Palm Beach, Fla.
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