Gems from Girshovich.

I’m slowly making my way through Leonid Girshovich’s 2001 novel Суббота навсегда [Saturday forever], which is very complex and allusive but also very funny, and I’ve run across several bits of Hattic interest that I thought I’d share. At one point he’s talking about old-fashioned Jewish families:

кто-то даже в пенсне, а кто-то по-русски (по-английски, по-испански, по-вавилонски) сказать двух слов не может: оф дем полке ин кладовке штейт а банке мит варенье.

even somebody in a pince-nez, and somebody who can’t say two words in Russian (English, Spanish, Babylonian): of dem polke in kladovke shteit a banke mit varenye.

That last bit is a distorted version of what is apparently a common example of Russo-Yiddish jargon, ин кладовке аф дер полке штейт а банке мит варенье [in kladovke af der polke steit a banke mit varenye], ‘in the pantry on the shelf is a jar with jam,’ where the words I’ve bolded are Russian stuck into a Yiddish sentence.

I was almost thrown by “в Степуне, этом почти что тезке Хайдеггера” (‘in Stepun, who had almost the same name as Heidegger’) — Stepun was Fyodor or Friedrich, Heidegger was Martin — until I realized that in Степун you can see степь ‘steppe,’ while Heidegger has Heide ‘heath.’ Clever!

He talks about seeing the big Soviet hit of 1962, Человек-амфибия (Amphibian Man — the teenage female lead, Anastasiya Vertinskaya, “was thinking of a career in linguistics” before she was cast in Scarlet Sails and became a star!), and quotes the film’s catchy song “Песенка о морском дьяволе” (Song of the Sea-Devil):

Нам бы, нам бы, нам бы, нам бы всем на дно!
Там бы, там бы, там бы, там бы пить вино!

Let’s all go to the bottom [of the sea]!
Let’s all drink wine there!

Which he says reminds him of another “мбы” of his childhood:

Был бы ум бы у Лумумбы,
Ему и Чомбе нипочем бы.

If Lumumba had had his wits,
Even Tshombe would have been child’s play for him.

I loved the Lumumba doggerel when I saw it before, and I still do.

But there are still a couple of things that puzzle me, and I’m hoping some reader might be able to enlighten me. In an extended passage about the 1950s (the time of his own youth — he was born in 1948) he says that decade was (for him) one of “peace and good will among men,” but:

Напротив, с первых же дней нового десятилетия поблизости от меня стали рваться снаряды: разрыв там, разрыв тут. Развод в последнюю секунду «расстроился» — а то бы сильно долбануло меня.

By contrast, from the very first days of the new decade shells started exploding near me: a blast here, a blast there. A razvod was disrupted (or “fell into disorder”) at the last second, or else it would have strongly impacted me.

The word razvod has many senses; presumably we want the military one, ‘relief, mounting, posting,’ but I don’t see how it works in context.

And still talking about his youth, the narrator says “С зубами у меня была катастрофа: я вполне мог позировать Роберу Юберу” (‘My teeth were a catastrophe: I could easily have posed for Rober Yuber’). Now, “Rober Yuber” must be the painter Hubert Robert (1733 – 1808), but he painted ruins and landscapes — I can’t find any paintings that show people with bad teeth. But I’m doubtless missing something.

And if you’re wondering how I happened to come by the book, the Donnell Library was selling off a lot of its foreign books, and it was on sale for a buck. I’d never heard of Girshovich, but the cover was so beautiful that I couldn’t resist it, and now I’m finally dabbling in it.


  1. Two metaphorical explanations:
    1. Maybe a divorce? Of his parents?
    2. The ruins of his mouth?

  2. By George, I’ll bet you’ve got it! The second is definitely right, and I feel dumb for not thinking of it; the first is probably right, and I’ll keep it in mind as I read — he’ll probably talk about the divorce.

  3. Here’s my guess. Razvod is a small military detachment as you have noticed. By military rules, even if 2 or 3 soldiers are on the way to perform their duties they must walk in an orderly, military fashion. I am not sure they must walk “в ногу” — in lockstep, but at least it shouldn’t look like a social event. However, sometimes it is necessary to relax this order and it is described by the word расстроится, literally “to brake ranks” рас-строи-тся. In civilian Russian the word means “to feel down” for people or “to get out of tune” for a musical instrument or some such.

    My knowledge of Yiddish being nonexistent, “ин кладовке аф дер полке…” sounds like a perfectly good Russian в кладовке на полке стоит банка с вареньем where someone decided to switch all service words (and стоит/shteytn) to Yiddish or Yiddish-like. GT tells me that that Russian phrase translates as “in di shpayzkamer aoyf der politse a sloy mit klem”. If I now take all Yiddish content words and put them together with the articles and the like from the original אין שפּייַזקאַמער אויף דער פּאָליצע שטייט אַ סלוי מיט קלעם, GT gives back the “original” Russian.

  4. 1. Definitely a divorce. Exploding bombs is an allegory of ill fate, a disruption in personal lives. A divorce there, a sickness here etc.
    2. ruin of a mouth, strangely this is how I perceive people with bad teeth.

  5. I would say that “razvod” here may mean “sending to different places” (ultimately the same meaning as in “divorce”) or maybe more slangy “a bad outcome caused by fraud” ( << classic Russian развести / провести на мякине) and together with “threatening explosions”, it refers to Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign of 1948-1953 which started from mass firings and trials of select activists, and culminated in the Doctors’ plot affair, but was widely expected to end up with mass hangings, pogroms, and expulsion of the surviving Jews to Siberia, had the boss not died.

    (As the author states, whatever bad thing was looming fell apart at the last moment … and indeed, every Soviet Jew of the early 1950s remembers the feeling of divine relief when Stalin croaked just as the gallows were about to be erected at the Red Square, and soon, the imprisoned doctors had charges dropped and were knocking at the doors of their homes where their dear ones expected only the worse …. the uniform feeling of a magic intervention is across the memoirs)

  6. Forgot to add that “ин кладовке аф дер полке штейт а банке мит варенье” isn’t the author’s invention, it’s a old joke about the sore state of Soviet Yiddish, whose speakers can’t remember half of the words. It wasn’t about poor command of Russian, not at all. Rather, it was about the loss of the mother’s language.

  7. SFReader says

    Guys, I take it, you didn’t serve in the artillery*.

    Razvod or razvedenie stanin means moving sides of a gun carriage into firing position (boyevoe polozhenie).

    If sides of the gun carriage move from the firing position (razvod rasstroilsya), accuracy of fire will suffer.

    *I also didn’t, but I had to read some practical books on the subject. Don’t even ask why.

  8. Billy Crystal had a great bit about Yiddish that he used to do in the 1980s. (Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find it online.) He said that the elders in his family did not really know much Yiddish, but it was important to their cultural identity that they be perceived by their children and grandchildren as having a wide Yiddish vocabulary. So there were times when Crystal was a kid that that one of his grandparents, or great uncles, or such, would use a purportedly Yiddish word while talking to him that he was convinced they were just making up, having forgotten the actual Yiddish word.

  9. Dan Milton says

    A bit surprised that Russian children would recite doggerel about Lumumba and Tshombe but the names do flow off the tongue. There was a story at the time in America about an alien who landed his spacecraft in the Congo:
    “Take me to your leader.”
    “Kasavubu or Lumumba?”
    “Just take me to your leader. We can dance later.”

  10. David Marjanović says

    A bit surprised

    Not me. Lumumba made a few glances politically leftward, and the Cold War was on.

  11. SFReader says

    doggerel about Lumumba and Tshombe

    Tshombe is 1960s old news and completely forgotten, but Lumumba’s name was given to leading international university in Moscow – Patrice Lumumba University. Now it’s

    So, like everybody knows the name even though few can tell who he was.

  12. AJP Crown says

    I was a bit surprised, years ago reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, just how ignorant 1960s Americans were about Africa (going to Africa was all part of Malcolm’s discovery of Islam). Mr Lumumba, Mr Tshombe and Mr Hammarskjöld were often in the first item of the BBC radio news in the early 1960s, the first decade I can clearly remember. Everyone in Britain would have known their names then, perhaps fewer today of course.

  13. AJP Crown says

    Tshombe is 1960s old news and completely forgotten

    A Wiki footnote:
    A derivative of Tshombe’s name, chombe, was incorporated into the Shona language as a word for “sellout”. Kuchomba is the verb form.

  14. Of course we new Lumumba, he was our guy killed by the Americans and reincarnated as Lumumbarium. Somewhere out there with Angela Davis…

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    killed by the Americans

    Hey! What about the Belgians and what about MI6? People keep ignoring us just because we don’t have empires any more. No respect.

  16. We take full credit for the overthrow of Mosaddegh, too. Suck it up, losers.

  17. “Even Tshombe would have been child’s play for him [Lumumba].” In this context, и means “even”. “Передайте Ильичу – нам и десять по плечу.”

    Even now, the university sometimes gets called the Lumumbarium in colloquial Russian. Unlike the typical darling of Soviet propaganda, Lumumba was not a murderous thug and his martyrdom made him a sympathetic character even to some of those Russians who mistrusted all reports by the official media. But would could resist the temptations of wordplay?

  18. Corrected, thanks!

  19. On the subject of ‘mumba-yumba’ (or mumbo-jumbo if you will) rhymes, there is a wonderful children’s story by Boris Zakhoder of Russian Winnie the Pooh fame.
    In it, father bear tricks the pudgy little bear into getting fit by by devising a series of rhyming ‘magic words’ with a secret task hidden there.
    It goes like this:

    Я на мемба не топчумба,
    Я и бемба научумба,
    Намба томба захотемба
    Шевелюмба да потемба!

    (Ya na memba ne topchumba
    Ya i bemba nauchuchumba,
    Namba tomba zakhotemba
    Shevelyumba da potemba)

    Every real ending is replaced by -mba, e.g. memba should be mesto.
    Deciphered it should go like this:

    I don’t shuffle around on one place,
    I could learn running too,
    We should just want to get going,
    Move about and break some sweat.

    I remember when the story came out, my sister and I kept chanting ‘namba tomba zakhotemba’ for days.

  20. An excellent addition to the “мбы” canon!

  21. I’m reading Nikolai Klimontovich’s Дорога в Рим (1994), translated as The Road to Rome: Naughty Reminiscences about the Late Soviet Years (not available in the US, apparently! — but it’s at Amazon UK), and I just came across this, a reference to the same song from Amphibian Man:

    […] a certain simulacrum of rock-‘n’-roll could be extracted from the music for the film Amphibian Man — also, of course, of foreign origin — where they sang “Let’s all go to the bottom,” which imitated the riotous life of some hypothetical non-Soviet foreign country.

    […] некое же подобие рок-н-ролла можно было извлечь из музыки к кинофильму «Человек-амфибия», тоже, разумеется, здешнего происхождения, где пелось так: «Нам бы, нам бы, нам бы, нам бы всем на дно», — что имитировало разгульную жизнь некоей гипотетической несоветской заграницы.

  22. Thus GT: “In the pantry af der shelf state in the jar mit jam”, which is really pretty good first-generation Yinglish.

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