Rob Rinder

They say we Jews argue for the sake of it… but they’re wrong

Davka has been part of the driving spirit of Jewish people for millennia


An ultra-Orthodox Jew is confronted by secular Jewish workers in a downtown Jerusalem restaurant as ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews from the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem come downtown on 19 April 2008 to protest against stores that remian open on Saturday, the Shabbath, and also cafes and restaurents that sell foods containing leavening, or 'hametz,' during the Passover Jewish high holida. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** ??? ???? ????? ????? ??? ????? ??? ??????? ???? ??? ?????? ????? ?? ???? ?????

February 23, 2023 10:55

Anybody who has listened to one of my lectures will know that I love Yiddish. Why? In part, it’s the immeasurable richness. Yiddish words and phrases carry entire universes of meaning.

The sense can shift based on who’s speaking, who’s listening, how long there is till lunch and whether there’s a gimmel in the month. It’s said the Inuit have 50 words for snow… what does it say about Jews that Yiddish has twice that number of adjectives for the state of a person’s neurosis? If anyone can explain the difference between meshugener and tsedreyter please get in touch.

Not only that, but Yiddish reflects ideas that simply can’t be articulated in any other language.

Back in my barrister days, dealing with a case in the Youth Court, the kid I represented couldn’t be more guilty, but his heart was clearly the right place. Instead of wasting everyone’s time with a long speech in mitigation, what I really wanted to say to the magistrates was, “this is not a bad kid, he’s just a bit of a lobbes.”

As Jews, we know these words on some deep, genetic level, even if we can’t always understand them.

Years ago, I stood with Ben Helfgott at a gravesite outside Piotrków — there to consecrate the ground where his mother and sister had been murdered — when somebody beautifully recited a Yiddish poem.

I couldn’t have translated any of it, but felt every word resonate in my soul, like someone was plucking the strings of some internal spiritual violin.

That’s what Yiddish can do. And from all that infinite linguistic luxury, for me, one word shines out like no other: davka.

Like so much in Judaism, it holds a dazzling multiplicity of meanings. Of course, at its most basic, davka simply means contrarian. It’s a type everybody knows, the sort who, when you announce “the sky is blue”, says “it’s green”.

Who insists up is down and right is left, not necessarily because they believe it, but just because… davka.

Yet, as a refusal to take the first answer, it gets results.

Once, doing my Judge Rinder show, I spotted an older woman sitting at the back of the courtroom. She looked like some magical blend of all my bubbe’s friends, and was (and there’s no other word) farbissen.

Something had displeased her on some galactic level. As if she’d just bitten into a rancid fishball (and I was the one who’d given it to her).

At the end, she beckoned to me and uneasily I tiptoed over.

“So,” she said, “you can do UJIA but you can’t do WIZO?”

It’s davka to the core: they tell me he can’t do our talk? He can. And, of course, I did.

You see it in the Torah where Jews carve out their astonishing, unique relationship with the Almighty, an ongoing negotiation where repeatedly we turn back to Him and say, “really?”. What other religion doesn’t just accept on faith alone but begins this sort of discussion with the divine?

It doesn’t always go well — there’s a fair amount of correction on the path — but it’s been part of the driving spirit of Jewish people for millennia. It’s the light in our shared human spirit. Some call it free will, but davka sounds better.

I’ve worked alongside survivors of the Shoah and other genocides and always see it shining from them. The world decided that they were done for… yet, davka. Who are the oppressors to decide?

In the face of so many working for our destruction, they wouldn’t accept the state of play and instead pushed back, held their own against a narrative others tried to write on their behalf.

Because we hold our own pen, and tell our own story.

It’s the lesson about the Jewish people that I most like to take into the world (and what a joy that I need to use Yiddish to do it).

In fact, if somebody were to say to me, “stand on one leg and tell me everything about Judaism”, I’d skip the Hillel “do unto others” stuff (I hope they’d know that anyway).

I’d simply say “davka”. Because we’re still a people despite every attempt to extinguish us and what better summation of our spirit can there be?

Of course, if you disagree with me I couldn’t be happier. After all, the more davka the better.

February 23, 2023 10:55

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