By Hannah Reich Berman
As a kid, I occasionally wondered if some of the things that my mother and father told me were peculiar, or if other kids had parents who shared the same bizarre thoughts with them. I no longer wonder. As I age, I’m learning that I was not alone. Far from it! Some things are universal.
The other day, when I was visiting my friend Amy in her hat shop, Sunflowers, she happened to spot a small tear in my shirt. Ever ready with a needle and thread—and very handy with them, I might add—Amy offered to repair my shirt, while I was still wearing it. I took her up on the offer and, as I did, I wondered how I was going to tell her that I needed an extra piece of thread—to chew on! Otherwise, there was no way I was going to let anyone sew anything “on me.”
My mother always told us that unless we took off the garment she was going to sew, chewing on thread was a must. While I was trying to figure out exactly how to let Amy know that I couldn’t allow her to sew unless I chewed on thread, she was reaching for her supplies. Needle in one hand and thread in the other, she approached me. Midway, she suddenly stopped and looked quizzically at me. Unsure of why she was hesitating, I decided to use the opportunity to tell her that I needed a small piece of thread.
But even before I got the chance to open my mouth, Amy said, “Hannah, did your mother ever tell you that you have to chew on thread if someone sews anything while you’re wearing it?” Relief washed over me like warm water. “Yes!” I shrieked. “I was just about to ask you for some thread.” We both cracked up. We laughed at our mothers, and we laughed at ourselves; but, laughter or not, neither one of us ever forget the lesson we learned as children.
My mother used to tell me that chewing on thread was to prevent my brains from being sewn up. What my brains had to do with a garment that was being sewn, I never understood. Amy’s mother gave her a different bubbe meisa. But it seems that I obeyed my mother and she obeyed hers. And we still do.
Why my sister and I got the “sewing up of the brains” story, I have no idea. Had we received a more plausible explanation for why we needed to chew on thread, I might have been less reluctant to share the information with others. As I got older and became more knowledgeable, it occurred to me that a more logical explanation would have to do with its association with tachrichim. I now understand that the Jewish custom is to sew up the burial shrouds around our deceased. If my mom had shared that information with me, it might have afforded me a better understanding of the superstition. I guess if someone is chewing, it will be obvious that she is still alive and kicking and nobody will be burying her alive! I never knew any of that back then, but it mattered not. As I considered my brains to be a relatively important part of my anatomy, I chewed for all I was worth. And I do it to this very day! Mom would be proud.
While Amy sewed and I chewed, we got into a discussion about some of the other things we learned at our mothers’ knees. Amy was able to contribute more to the conversation, as chewing limited my ability to speak. But ultimately we both came up with the conclusion that we’d had a similar type of upbringing. Our parents never allowed us to go “with boorvisser feess”; we were never allowed to walk barefoot, or even to wear only socks. We had to wear shoes, even in the house, because to “go boorvis” was, and still is, a sign of mourning.
There seems to be a lot of preoccupation with death and mourning. Today, although I’m not totally comfortable doing it, I do occasionally walk around my house without shoes. But here it is my father’s voice that comes back to me, since he was the one who always vehemently objected to it when I was a kid. I can hear him say, “Hannah, put on your sheeich (shoes). And do it now!”
My parents had a list of warnings and directives that was longer than my arm. If anyone asked a question that did not have a pleasant answer, they always said “freig nisht,” which is Yiddish for “don’t ask.” And if there was something sinister afoot, such as illness or any type of bad luck, they always said “meh zull nisht vissen fun dus,” which translates to “you shouldn’t know from it.” When my mother wanted to let someone know what the illness was, she went with something that was more obvious: she would say “deh richtiger,” or “the real thing.” The person she was speaking to knew just what she meant and, after a while, I did too.
But the one that always grabbed my attention was when one of my parents would say to the other, “Red Yiddish. De kinder iss du.” That was one I always paid attention to; it meant that my parents were about to stop speaking English and switch to Yiddish, because one of them realized that my sister and I were within earshot. I can’t speak for my sister, but, as for me, anything they didn’t want me to hear was something I desperately wanted to know!
Amy and I both decided that, due to our desire to know what was being said, we managed to pick up a good deal of Yiddish as we were growing up. My parents never quite knew how it was that I came to understand as much of that language as I did, since they never took the time to teach it to me. But that old expression about necessity being the mother of invention has some merit. As I felt it was necessary to understand what was being said, it appears that I found a way to learn the language. Mom and Dad would be proud—maybe! v
Hannah Berman lives in Woodmere and is a licensed real-estate broker associated with Marjorie Hausman Realty. She can be reached at Savtahannah@aol.com or 516-902-3733.