My Five Levels of “OY”

4 Nov

I recently realized that in my mind there are actually five levels of Oy. These five different levels provide me the ability to express sorrow or sadness with an oy-statement.

The first, of course, is the simple ‘oy.’ This mean ‘oh’ or ‘ouch.’ I use OY when my cat jumps on my stomach or I drop something. Sometimes I use oy when someone is telling about an embarrassing experience they had. A response of “Oy” is always appreciated.

I never use oy when something bad has happened. It is usually used for events that are a little bit funny. I guess someone slipping on a banana peel without getting hurt would be an oy moment.

It sometimes has an “I cannot believe I did that,” feeling. After you do it, you think, “Oy! Why did I do that!”

But when I say “Oy Vey” I have amped up the response. Now I have feelings of woe, which is exactly what “oy vey” means, “oh woe!” I think the following is a good example of an oy vey experience.

The summer of 2013, on Fathers’ Day, my husband and I were at a party. During the party a storm blew in to the area. It was tornado weather in Kansas. We all took shelter in the house. Although the wind blew and the rain came down, it was not too bad where we were.

All those branches on the ground should be in the tree.  Oy Vey

All those branches on the ground should be in the tree.         Oy Vey

However, when we got home, OY VEY!!!   Our beautiful Sugar Maple was destroyed in a microburst of rain and wind. Branches and limbs were all over our front yard. Part of our fence was crushed.   It looked like a disaster zone in our neighborhood. And our house seemed to be the epicenter.

But it was only an Oy Vey, the second level of oy, because no one was hurt. No homes were damaged. Yes, the tree was going to have to be taken down, but in the long run it was just a second level oy experience.  My son and his friends came over and helped my husband collect all the branches and to get the big branch off the fence. Those branches were big and heavy!

The next day I called the tree service we use. Luckily they had trimmed that tree just six months before, which probably lessened the damage. I will admit watching the tree service actually take the tree down was a second oy vey experience. It was a very large tree! But they took care of everything, while I watched and took photos…all the time chanting, “Oy Vey!”

“Oy Vey Iz Mir” is a much stronger, “Woe is ME! “ When I say the entire sentence, then I am really worried. When I say, “Oy Vey IZ Mir,” something horrible has happened.   Someone I know is sick. Or an elderly parent is in hospice or has passed away. Sometimes I say that when someone has lost a job. It is a statement for a calamity, but not for a tragedy. Or maybe something scary has occurred.

When I was a child in the Catskills, the boys who lived in the house next door were shooting BB guns and aiming at a target made of wood. The BBs ricocheted into our yard. All I remember was the leaves rustling and my Dad, who had served in Korea, jumping on us yelling, “Get Down!! Get Down!!!”

One of my grandparents said “Oy Vey iz mir.” I think both because of the guns and because of Dad’s reaction. He stormed over to the house and yelled. After that there were no BBs for a while. Then I think they built a target with straw behind it. But that “Oy Vey iz mir” has stayed with me!

I think the English saying, “Woe is me” is an example of Yiddish phrasing in English. I have woe. I feel woeful. I am sad. Those are all English. But in Yiddish, Oy Vey iz Mir. Oh woe is me!!!

For a tragedy I have my fourth level of Oy. That is seven oys in a row followed by Vey Iz Mir.   “Oy oy oy oy oy oy oy vey iz mir.” That is when I feel absolutely terrible about what I have just heard: when some one has had a true tragedy. What could that be? A young person has passed away.   Someone’s son or daughter has been in a serious car accident. During my children’s teen years, there were unfortunately several times when the fourth level of oy was invoked.   A suicide is a definite fourth level of oy. Where I might forget why I used the first three levels of oy, when I have a fourth level of oy moment, it lives with me forever.

When I reach this level I usually need a piece of chocolate and a glass of tea. When I say this I know that I would love to speak to my Mom or Dad and debrief. The fourth level of oy moments are the times when I end up making phone calls or sending out emails to let others know, so that we can band together and help.

But I said there are five levels of Oy. So what could be worse than level four? Well there is level five, when I say, “Oy, a Bracha.” With this I am saying “woe is me, we need a blessing.” With the fifth level of oy I am calling on God to help.

When war breaks out in Israel, it is an “oy a bracha,” moment. With a daughter living in Tel Aviv and many family members throughout Israel, the threat of weapons, rockets, war, and destruction makes me very anxious.

For me 9/11 was a fifth level oy moment. We needed all the blessings we could get then. And so for me, it was saying “Oy, a Bracha!” Help us, bless us.

My five levels of oy have been part of my life as long as I can remember.   I am glad that most of my oy moments are level one and level two oys. But I am also glad I know a bit of Yiddish so I have a way to express exactly how I feel.

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