LAKBOIMELAKH.

I’m now on the third (and final) part of Grossman’s Life and Fate (Russian text), and I’ve finally hit a mystery even Sashura can’t unravel, so I turn to the wider world for possible elucidation. A former Cheka officer named Katzenellenbogen is making conversation in his Lubyanka cell; after the very funny line “два еврея, оба пожилые, проводят совместно вечера на хуторе близ Лубянки и молчат” (“two Jews, both elderly, share evenings on a farm near Lubyanka”—a parody of Gogol’s Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka—”and are silent”), he says “Почему он не хочет со мной говорить? Страшная месть, или убийство священника в ночь под Лакбоймелах?” ["Why doesn't he want to talk to me? A terrible vengeance, or the murder of a priest on the eve of Lakboimelakh?"] This word Лакбоймелах doesn’t look in the least Russian, nor does it look like anything else in particular, although it occurs to me that the last part, boimelakh, has a Yiddish ring to it, not that that’s much help. There appears to be absolutely nothing about it online, either in Russian or English (and Chandler simply omits it from his translation, as he does both references to Gogol). So: anybody have any ideas?

Comments

  1. Samuel Michon says:

    I believe ‘lakboimelakh’ is Yiddish, referring to the day of Lag B’Omer, the yahrzeit of the Rashbi. Also, the surname ‘katzenellenbogen’ is Yiddish, meaning “the elbows of a cat”.

  2. And a damn fine surname it is, too.

  3. “Lakboimelakh” sure sounds like Yiddish.
    Boimeleh or baimeleh means little tree; cf German Baum (Yiddish, written in the Hebrew alphabet, cannot express the German sound “au”).
    Lag Ba-Omer is a minor Jewish holiday, the 33rd day in the counting of the Omer, which begins at Passover and concludes at Shavuoth, the Festival of Weeks, or Pentecost in English. Shavua, week in Hebrew, is based on Sheva, seven. The period of the Omer lasts seven weeks or 49 days, hence the English Pentecost, from the Greek for 50.
    “Lag” is from the traditional Hebrew method of counting that uses letters, much like Roman numerals. The letter Lamed stands for 30 and the letter Gimmel stands for 3.
    I’ve never heard the term Lakboimelakh. The connection with a tree doesn’t make sense. Entering the term in Google returns only a very few hits, none relevant.

  4. oh, thanks, Samuel, I thought it must a rare version of a russified Yiddish word. In modern references it is spelled Лаг Бомер or Лаг ба-Омер. I haven’t heard about it before and read up to understand its meaning. Is it about breaking the gloom of the plague with a feast and a bon-fire?
    And what could the last bit mean? melakh – craftsman, or salt? or is it melekh – king?
    And then, only the first part of the phrase makes sense. In Gogol’s novella, two brothers quarell, one is killed by the other and lives a villainous life, killing a monk, when he finally dies God asks the righteous brother to think of ‘a terrible vengeance’, which he does – the brother has to gnaw eternally on his own body. But how does Lag B’Omer enter into this?

  5. Pretty sure it’s just “Lag Boimer” with the final “r” mistaken for an “l,” plus a prepositional case ending.

  6. While Katzenellebogen does indeed mean cat’s elbow, it is also the name of a former principality on the Rhine. So i’s use as a Jewish surname is like so many others, a reference to an ancestor’s homeland before migrating to the east.
    Katzenellebogen was on the Rhine, not too far from Holzappel, another principality with an intriguing name. According to Wikipedia, the title Countess of Katzenelnbogen (current German spelling) is still used as a minor title by the Dutch monarchy.

  7. Thanks very much, Samuel—it must be based on Lag B’Omer!
    Yiddish, written in the Hebrew alphabet, cannot express the German sound “au”
    It’s not a matter of the alphabet; in Yiddish, German /au/ has become /oi/ (though presumably a diminutive of Baum would start with Bäum- in German anyway). There’s also a Yiddish word boymel ‘(edible) oil,’ but that doesn’t seem any more relevant than ‘little tree.’
    Pretty sure it’s just “Lag Boimer” with the final “r” mistaken for an “l,” plus a prepositional case ending.
    But под in this sense takes the accusative.

  8. I freely confess that my Russian is mostly made up; still, I thought this was worth a shot (I figured those with better Russian could confirm or deny, which is indeed what happened).
    I’m still convinced it’s somehow connected to Lag Boymer. Some thoughts: (1) It could be a pun on boymer/boyml, and even though boyml is a mass noun, for some speakers it can be pluralized (as in the idiom “pishn boymelekh”). Or perhaps (2) Grossman garbled it; though he was from the most Jewish city in Eastern Europe, his family was apparently Russian speaking and not very observant, so he might have been unfamiliar enough with the holiday and its name to confuse it with the word “boyml.” Or (3), since this novel was prepared posthumously from photos of a draft, there is ample room for the introduction of error or reproduction of a typo.
    In any case, I’m convinced it’s somehow a form of Lag Boymer. Of course, just because I’m convinced doesn’t mean I’m right. I was pretty sure about that “akh” being a prepositional case ending, after all.

  9. There’s also a Yiddish word boymel ‘(edible) oil’
    Sheesh! I haven’t encountered that word in decades!
    Boymel could have come from German Baumöl (‘tree oil’). Though my Oxford Duden doesn’t have an entry for it, http://www.dict.cc/german-english/Baum%C3%B6l.html says it means second-pressing olive oil. Cf German Baumwolle = cotton.

  10. Or perhaps (2) Grossman garbled it; though he was from the most Jewish city in Eastern Europe, his family was apparently Russian speaking and not very observant, so he might have been unfamiliar enough with the holiday and its name to confuse it with the word “boyml.” Or (3), since this novel was prepared posthumously from photos of a draft, there is ample room for the introduction of error or reproduction of a typo.
    Yes, those are my current working hypotheses. Too bad; the passage is full of clever puns and references, and it would be great if this were a topper instead of a crux.

  11. It seems to me that killing a priest on the eve of a Jewish holiday, however minor, is the sort of thing that might well trigger a pogrom.

  12. Jon Streaty says:

    Could this be, in some way, referring to Mel’ah, a city in the Judean desert, near the Dead Sea where David slew 18,000 in a battle (boi)?

  13. Grossman’s transcription could simply be the Berdichev local idiolectism. His text is peppered with words that hardly exist in modern Russian or Ukrainian. And remember, the Jewish population of Berdichev, Grossman’s hometown, was practically totally extinguished in the Holocaust, including his mother. With them many of their local words must have disappeared.
    On the phrase, I have a simple theory: what if it is all a long pun on Gogol’s titles, beginning with A Terrible Vengeance and ending with another famous novella On Christmas Eve (Ночь перед Рождеством). Grossman replaces Christmas with Lag b’Omer because it’s the day when the grief (and isolation, not talking?) of the plague is ceremoniously broken. How is that?

  14. The general idea may well be correct (although why change перед to под if you want the allusion?), but Лакбоймелах is simply too far from Лаг ба-Омер or Лаг Бомер to work without an intermediate stage, which is not available to us.

  15. Bruno van Wayenburg says:

    FWIW: In the (very good) Dutch translation by Froukje Slofstra, there is a note explaining that it’s probably a name for a Jewish holiday invented by Grossman, referring to another one of Gogol’s stories.

  16. ЛАГ БА-ОМЕР (Hebrew in Russian translit) = ЛАГБОЙМЕР, sometimes ЛАГБЕЙМЕР (Yiddish in Russian translit), that’s 33rd day of Omer in memory of Rabbi Akiva and the beginnings of Kabbalah, marked with a night of bonfires.

  17. ЛАГ БА-ОМЕР (Hebrew in Russian translit) = ЛАГБОЙМЕР, sometimes ЛАГБЕЙМЕР (Yiddish in Russian translit)
    Yes, that’s exactly right. In Berdichev, it would have been “boymer,” but in Zhitomer, a mere thirty miles away, it would have been “beymer.”

  18. Samuel Michon says:

    @Paul Ogden:
    “Lag Ba-Omer is a minor Jewish holiday”
    Not for devout Ashkenazi Jews, especially those who are Chassidic. It marks the death of Rabbi Shimeon Bar Yochai (the Rashbi), who is believed to have written down the Zohar, the most extensive work of the Kabbalah. For that reason, the 18th day of Iyar is still a big, big deal – in Israel as well as in haredi communities around the world.
    @Sashura:
    “it must [be] a rare version of a russified Yiddish word”
    I believe it is. It’s Lag BaOmer, the ‘-lach’ ending just makes it more affectionate. Alternately, blending Lag BaOmer with the word ‘melach’ (King) would increase its importance.
    @Gary:
    “While Katzenellebogen does indeed mean cat’s elbow, it is also the name of a former principality on the Rhine.”
    The German principality is called Katzenelnbogen. ‘Katzenellenbogen’ is the Yiddish version. It would’ve been odd if it were not derived from a place name, as ‘katz’ is also an abbreviation for ‘Kohein’. “A priest’s elbow” would’ve been a silly surname.
    @language hat:
    “in Yiddish, German /au/ has become /oi/”
    There are several forms of pronunciation within Yiddish, even though Litvish is most prevalent nowadays. Western Yiddish (Holland, Germany, France, etc.) did have the ‘au’ sound, but in Litvish it’s pronounced as ‘oy’.
    @John Cowan:
    “It seems to me that killing a priest on the eve of a Jewish holiday, however minor, is the sort of thing that might well trigger a pogrom.”
    Exactly, given the context, I think the author was referring to one of the most profound of annual celebrations. Killing a priest in the beginning of that 24 hour period (Hebrew days run from evening to evening) would be a major provocation.
    @Bruno van Wayenberg:
    “it’s probably a name for a Jewish holiday invented by Grossman”
    I don’t believe so. It follows grammatical rules of the time and region, ‘lagboimelach’ simply sounds more affectionate and intimate than ‘lagboymer’. Like ‘mamele’ and ‘mamelech’ sound more affectionate than ‘mame’.
    NB: My previous comment was my first one on this site, even though I’ve been reading articles here for quite some time. I don’t speak 13 languages, I’m proficient in just a few: English, Dutch, German, Yiddish and Hebrew (in that particular order).

  19. Thanks, Samuel, I had no idea that Yiddish worked like that.
    On the variation of перед (before) and под (just before) they are semantically close and used intermittently. It hardly breaks the allusion, I think.

  20. A Terrible Vengeance is the novella that contains the famous poetic passage: Wonderful is the Dnieper when the weather is quiet… (Чуден Днепр в тихую погоду…)
    It used to be in textbooks and often learnt by heart. One of the most popular phrases from it is ‘rare is the bird that can fly to the middle of the Dnieper’ – “редкая птица долетит до середины Днепра”). The phrase itself and its construction is often used in jokes and puns. After Chernobyl accident they said ‘rare is the bird that can fly to the middle of the Pripyat’, river near the nuclear station. During the Chechen war it ran: ‘rare is the helicopter that can fly to the middle of Chechnya’.
    Grossman’s passage is another confirmation of that popularity.

  21. Sashura was right: “Lakboimelakh” is just a pun from the Gogol’s titles “beginning with A Terrible Vengeance and ending with another famous novella On Christmas Eve”. However the exact meaning of the mysterious word is probably different than proposals presented during the discussion. “Boimelakh” it is just transcription (or rather one of possible pronunciations) of the Yiddish word “ביימעלעך” meaning “little trees” just like in the popular Yiddish song Moyshelekh, Shloymelekh that starts with the words: “Unter di poylishe grininke boymelakh shpiln zikh mer nit…”. Therefore significance of the whole expression should be read as “thirty-three little trees”. “The trees” are here in strict connection with Russian (or rather Soviet) synonym of Christmas – especially in the times when Grossman was writing his book – i.e. with “ёлка”. Putting togehter “Lak” (from the Jewish festival Lag Ba-Omer or Lag Boymer) was just a part of the pun but not necessarily: “lak” (or rather “lag”) meaning thirty-three could be connected with Jesus i.e. his years of life. Best regards for your avid reader Pawel from Krakow.

  22. Wow, many thanks to Samuel and Pawel for their learnèd contributions to the thread—the range of potential references has been widened and deepened, and I no longer wonder if there may have been a typo!
    There are several forms of pronunciation within Yiddish, even though Litvish is most prevalent nowadays. Western Yiddish (Holland, Germany, France, etc.) did have the ‘au’ sound, but in Litvish it’s pronounced as ‘oy’.
    Yes, but I didn’t feel the need to go into the details of Yiddish dialectology, since Grossman wouldn’t have been using any Western Yiddish forms.

  23. I should really post about Yiddish more often; it seems to bring especially interesting commentary.

  24. I always kill priests in the middle of the week, on a Wednesday or a Tuesday, sometime during the dead spot between President’s Day and Memorial day. It’s just safer.

  25. Samuel Michon says:

    I like Pawel’s explanation. It being a pun sounds right, combining Lag Boymer and little trees. (‘Boym’ is tree, ‘boymele’ is a little tree, ‘boymelach’ are little trees.)
    I don’t quite understand the connection to the Christian holiday of Christmas or to Jesus of Nazareth. But that could just be the Russian influence.
    @language hat:
    “I didn’t feel the need to go into the details of Yiddish dialectology”
    Fair enough. I do need to correct my earlier statement that Litvish is the most common dialect: I found out that worldwide, Poylish and Ukrainish are spoken most. Most of the communities that I visit speak Litvish, that’s how I got that impression.

  26. And Standard Eastern Yiddish is basically Litvish, at least with respect to its vowels, so that’s what second-language speakers learn.

  27. Samuel Michon says:

    @John Emerson:
    “I always kill priests in the middle of the week, on a Wednesday or a Tuesday, sometime during the dead spot between President’s Day and Memorial day. It’s just safer.”
    Surely, you were joking, but as soon as 2020, Lag BaOmer occurs on a Tuesday (the 12th of May), between President’s Day and Memorial Day. Better skip a year then.

  28. Samuel Michon says:

    @language hat:
    “I should really post about Yiddish more often”
    Please do; that way, we’ll have more to kvetch about ;)

  29. Thanks for the stereotype… With Yiddish “we’ll have to kvetch”…

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