Yiddish humour and wisdom

Lipót Herman’s thoughts in words and drawings – from a collector in Győr

Little Prologue

Born on 24 April 1884, Lipót Herman was a popular painter and graphic artist of the 20th century Hungarian art. His oeuvre includes more than four thousand paintings and twenty thousand prints. He died on 1 July 1972.

The Herman family spoke Yiddish at home. Yiddish is a variant of medieval German interspersed with Hebrew, Polish and Russian expressions. Lipót Herman was fond of writing Yiddish sayings on his drawings, some of which are shown here.

Eleven drawings

“Ehrlich ist schwerlich”, the rhyming saying means: honesty is a hard road to go, especially when playing cards!
“An Yontef kenn man alles thon – noch Purim stellt sach eraus, wer e’ Asesponem wor”, meaning during Purim you can do anything, but after the holiday you find out who was impudent; a reference to the consequences of unbridled behaviour.
“Wenn scheile, schon trefe”, i.e., if (something) is questionable, it is no longer kosher. This also applies to all the fiddly bits outside kosher housekeeping.
“Besser e miess Weib für sich, als eine schöne für andere”, which means better an ugly woman who is mine than a beautiful one who belongs to someone else.
“Lieber e miesze Chasene, wie e schene Levaje”, i.e.: better an ugly wedding than a nice funeral – if there is a choice.
“Es gibt ka schlachten Bronfe, es gebt nur a besseren” – the saying of the optimistic drinkers meaning there is no bad brandy, only better.
“Geredt is geredt”, which means something like chatter is chatter, i.e. empty babble.
“E schön Ponem is e halbe Nedan”, which is a manly experience, i.e. a beautiful face, a half dowry.
“Der rechter Loschen ist was man mit Tate Mame redt”, i.e. the real language is what you speak to your mum and dad; this reflects respect for your parents.
“Man soll nicht erleben zu starben” – a wry and absurd joke on death: just don’t live to see you die!
“What did the Babe say? She won’t go to bed, no matter how sick she is.” (Written by H. L.) “The Babe was a primitive woman. Have you no shame?” (Written by H. L.’s wife)

Small Epilogue

The above self-portrait of Lipót Herman was drawn shortly before his death, on 12 June 1972. He was eighty-eight years old …  At the bottom of the drawing, a marital quarrel may have been immortalised.

The artist was much preoccupied with the idea of death. At funerals, one sometimes has the feeling that either the speaker has been replaced or the coffin. Lipót Herman wanted to avoid this when he wrote: “I therefore ask you to read these lines, which I hope to write down while I am still in the fullness of my strength, many years before my death”, like this: “Lipót Herman was a good-humoured painter who looked at the world with a rather cheerful eye. We don’t have to call him a genius, because he has nothing to gain from it anymore, but he was not a man without talent. He was a simple soul, with instinctive talent, not stupid, not quite uneducated, but lazy and comfortable. […] Lipót Herman was amiable towards his fellow men. He was glad to see them enjoying themselves…”

“How many people can say that about themselves? And how many people care at all?”

Images of original drawings: from a collector in Győr

Partial explanations of some of the original drawings and quotations in the Small Epilogue from Mária Ember, “Wanders up and down, like pain in a Jew, illustrated with drawings of Lipót Herman”, Origo-Press, 1988

Featured image: Lipót Herman (unknown photographer)