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The Curious History of a Load of Crap

August 28, 2011 – 7:30 pm2 Comments

Velvel explains to Reb Traitle Groshkover (or a dybbuk) about a boba-ma’aseh his wife heard. Scene from "A Serious Man"

By Simon Holloway
Yiddish speakers are very polite. While English speakers might tell you to get stuffed, a Yiddish speaker only directs you to do a poo in the sea (גיי קאקן אויפן ים). While English speakers might tell you to drop dead, a Yiddish speaker will bless you that you should be like a lamp (זאלסט זיין ווי א לאמפ): hanging in the daytime, and burning through the night. In fact, even when you are speaking a load of crap, a Yiddish speaker won’t tell you so. Instead, they will most likely call it a boba-ma’aseh (באבע מעשה): an old wives’ tale.

Literally, the phrase boba-ma’aseh is understood to mean “a grandmother story”, the word ma’aseh meaning “story” and the word boba (or buba, etc) meaning grandmother. Some gender-sensitive people have even taken the added step of inventing a new genre of nonsense: the zayde-ma’aseh (זיידע מעשה), or “grandfather story”. After all, they reason, old women are not alone in their ability to spin webs of utter inanity. Unfortunately, however, this too is nonsense.

To understand the actual origin of this delightful Yiddish phrase, we instead need to cast our thoughts back to the beginning of the 13th century, with the composition of an Anglo-Norman metrical romance known in English as Sir Bevis of Butthead Hampton. His adventures, which are related in “Alexandrines” (whereby each of the 3,850 verses is comprised of lines with exactly twelve syllables), has much in common with older legends concerned with Beowulf, as well as later legends concerning Hamlet.

The son of a murdered Count, Sir Bevis finds himself an exile, sworn to avenge his father’s murder, in love with an Egyptian princess. As with the Hamlet legend, the murderer of Sir Bevis’ father is now his mother’s husband, but unlike the Danish tragedy, Sir Bevis’ mother was instrumental in facilitating her late husband’s death. Sir Bevis acts with purpose and direction, excels himself as a man of a valour, and even conquers the giant Ascaparte, whom he appoints to be his squire. He dies in the end, as all good heroes must, and there was no sequel.

The 14th century English translation of Boeve de Haumtone (“Sir Bevis of Hampton”) was made from various French versions of the epic, themselves written in decasyllables and with over 10,000 verses. The most popular version, however, was the Italian, which was titled Buovo d’Antona, and which went through over thirty editions in the 14th century. Focusing largely on the romance between Buovo and the princess, there named Druziane, it is fair to say that there is little about the story that might be deemed Jewish. Its protagonists are Christians, they pray both to God and to Mary, various individuals get baptised, and there is nary a herring in sight. And so it is a mystery, and perhaps one of the most curious things in all of Jewish literature, that this chivalric romance should have been translated from Italian into Yiddish.

Born in the second half of the 15th century, Elia Levita is best remembered today as a grammarian. He wrote a dictionary of the Talmud and Midrash (תשבי), a dictionary of Targum Onkelos (ספר מתורגמן), an alphabetical presentation of technical Hebrew words (שמות דברים), and a translation of the Torah, the haftarot and the five megillot into Yiddish. His version of Buovo d’Antona, entitled באבה ד’אנטונא, was the first non-religious text published in the Yiddish language, preceding the first Hebrew novel by almost 300 years. Known by many as the באבה בוך (Bovo Bukh, or “Bovo Book”), it is considered by some to represent the finest poetry in the Yiddish language. If you can read it, it is available as a free download here.

In Levita’s version of the story, in which he supplanted various Christological references for subject matter that would have resonated with a Jewish audience, it is the princess of Flanders with whom the exiled Bovo falls in love, and the wicked king of Babylonia who constitutes his nemesis. The Babylonian prince, Lucifer, is promised the beautiful princess, the King of Flanders is taken into Babylonian captivity, Bovo rescues him with the assistance of a magic horse, and the wicked Lucifer is put to death. Twice in the story do Bovo and his lover think the other dead, twice is she almost married to another, and in the midst of all of this excitement he finds the time to return to Antona, banish his mother to a nunnery, kill her murderous husband and become the new king. It’s a real page-turner, I am sure.

And yet, such tremendous excitement notwithstanding, it didn’t take long before many became critical of these sorts of stories. Already by the 17th century, Cervantes found much to ridicule about the chivalric urge, and while Sir Bevis’ giant might have really been a giant, the sober windmills of Quixote have received greater literary attention. Are we so fearful of the fantastic that we need to ground it in realism? Is it truly necessary for a story to be predicated on reason and logic for us to accept its premise? Cannot profound truths be disported within a nonsensical carriage?

For many, perhaps not. And so it is not entirely surprising that the very name by which Levita’s Yiddish translation came to be known in the 18th century – the Bovo Ma’aseh, or Bovo Tale – should have come to denote a piece of foolish nonsense. For my part, I think it time that its original nuance be restored. Had an exciting weekend? Found yourself subject to forces beyond your control, over which you managed to assert yourself in a manner deserving recount? Feel free to embellish it with all manner of extra, fantastical details, and be sure to hold your head up high. Let your listeners know that “it was a real boba-ma’aseh, I assure you”.

[Addendum: It is worth noting the phonological shift between באבה (= bovo) and באבע (= boba). Until a Yiddish expert can correct me, I am under the impression that Yiddish today disallows the representation of a non-aspirated /b/ with anything other than two waws (ie: bovo would be באווה). At the time when Levinas’ באבה דאנטונא was first published, the typesetter employed a rafe (a horizontal stroke) above the second ב, thus indicating that it is not to be aspirated. I expect that the reference to this text being a באבה מעשה (bovo ma’aseh), spelt with a ב, contributed towards it being relexicalised as באבע מעשה (boba ma’aseh), on analogy with the English expression, “old wives’ tale”.]

This article was first published in Davar Akher.

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