Rabbi’s Commentary

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Man Plans, God Laughs

November 15, 2016

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein

Dear Friend of The Fellowship,

Around a thousand years ago, a new language emerged in Germany's Rhineland. An amalgam of German and Hebrew, the language, Yiddish, eventually became the remarkably expressive lingua franca of most European Jews and their descendants. As European Jews moved around the world, they brought the language with them. At the turn of the last century, New York City had dozens of Yiddish theatres and newspapers; great Yiddish writers like Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer were translated into English and their wit and character became a part of the American pantheon.

During the course of the 20th century, the use of Yiddish as a mother tongue diminished (many Yiddish-speaking communities were obliterated during the Holocaust) and, today, only a tiny percentage of world Jewry speaks it fluently. Its richness and vitality remain, nonetheless: Wonderful words like shlep, shlock, nosh, mensch, klutz, and even bagel live on in mainstream English. In the last few decades, scholars and many Jews have rediscovered the language, which is both beautiful and remarkably expressive.

Yiddish is particularly rich in proverbs, snappy sayings that sum up fundamental wisdom about life, often in a sly and humorous way. My dear friend George Hanus, a leader in the Chicago Jewish community whose writings have encouraged reforms in the funding and accessibility of Jewish education across the U.S., has edited a delightful and beautiful coffee table book, “Man Plans, God Laughs…And More Wisdom from Our Grandparents,” which collects around 100 of these proverbs.

Each proverb is presented in English translation, Yiddish transliteration, and the original Yiddish, and accompanied by a stunning photo illustration. It’s a book that will touch you, amuse you, and make you think.

Proverbs, Hanus writes, are too often dismissed as clich?s, but the reality is that these sayings impart real wisdom: Ven a nar shvaygt, veyst men nisht tsi er iz narish tsi klug—"When a fool keeps quiet, you can't tell whether he is foolish or smart." Or Az es kumt a tseynveytik fargest men dem kopveytik—”When a toothache comes, you forget your headache." Or Di gor rayche zaynen di vos zaynen zat mit dos vos zey hobn—"The truly rich are those who enjoy what they have.”

Hanus compiled this book to re-introduce Yiddish to the world, to provide a glimpse into a unique facet of Jewish culture, and to share with the world some of the short but enduring life lessons contained in these Yiddish proverbs. This is a big, gorgeous book that offers pithy bits of wisdom that shed light upon essential and unchanging aspects of human nature.

He is right that we too easily dismiss folk wisdom: Our modern infatuation with the new can cause us to dismiss the wisdom of the past—a critical (and very human) error. As one ancient repository of wisdom, the Bible, puts it, “Is there anything of which one can say, 'Look! This is something new'? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.” (Ecclesiastes 1:10) What Hanus calls the “basic inescapable features of the human condition” remain the same from generation to generation; when we focus exclusively on what is novel and unusual, rather than on what is timeless and enduring, we cut ourselves off from knowledge that is as relevant today as it was centuries ago.

That world of knowledge is beautifully on display in Man Plans, God Laughs. Whether you are Jewish or Christian, I know you will enjoy and be enriched by these moving and often whimsical photos – not to mention the timeless Jewish wisdom – found in this book. You can purchase a copy at your local bookstore or online here – it is a book that makes a perfect gift for Christmas or Hanukkah, and is one that you will pull off your shelf and revisit frequently.

With prayers for shalom, peace,

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
President and Founder, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews® of Canada


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