Having been raised in a home where Yiddish was spoken as often as English, I can say with some confidence that I understand mamaloshen quite well. But I have to admit that the first time a friend, “Chaya” in a tentative, hushed voice, stated that a mutual acquaintance had “yene machlah,” I was confused. I knew that she unfortunately had cancer, so why was “Chaya” saying in Yiddish, THAT illness? Why the reluctance to use the actual medical term for the disease. Why not just say it – like when someone has a stroke or a heart attack.
I quickly realized that when referring to cancer, many people are afraid to say the word out loud – and so they use a euphemism in Yiddish that translates to meaning, “the sickness”.
I found myself being very annoyed, even saddened by this refusal to say the word “cancer.” I understand that there are certain bubba-meises (the English equivalent of old wives tales) ingrained in our collective psyche that warns us that vocalizing something bad is like opening a locked door, and releasing the evil, which can then envelope you. It’s almost as if people think saying “cancer” makes it contagious, with the one uttering this dreaded word becoming its victim as well.
In a very recent column, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis wrote about a shidduch she was instrumental in making between a young man and woman whose mothers had both died of cancer. I was so gratified that she had used the word “cancer” instead of saying they had succumbed to “yene machlah” or a “debilitating illness” or some other phrase that was unspecific and avoided mentioning the actual illness.
What’s the big deal, you may ask, if someone alludes to something that is difficult for him or her to express? I asked myself the same question – why does someone’s preference to “beat around the bush” regarding cancer disturb me so much? Who made me the word police?
I came to realize that not being frank about a serious or unpleasant topic or situation such as cancer was indicative of an unfortunate mindset that is prevalent in our community – one that I believe can and has led to serious consequences. This way of thinking is an across the board unwillingness, even a resistance to being upfront and open about problematic issues that have beset various members of our community.
For many years, grave problems like spousal abuse, various forms of child abuse by parents and teachers and immoral behaviors werefor the most part swept under the rug; or at best furtively whispered about – but never brought to the fore. The attitude was that it was shameful to admit that the distressing social issues that affected “yenem” – the secular communities outside our pristine, Torah observant ones, had surfaced amongst frum Yidden. By not acknowledging that there were ruinous, soul-destroying machlahs in our midst, we could fool ourselves into believing that it couldn’t and wasn’t happening to us. Drug addiction – oh, that’s yenem’s problem. Cancer? That’s yenem’s machlah.
By not being truthful about a debilitating crisis – whether physical, emotional or spiritual in nature, and willfully putting our “heads in the sand,” individuals and the community as a whole denies itself the opportunity to learn about “the nature of the beast,” and to acquire the crucial information and tools necessary to empower and protect ourselves from being torn apart by its cruel claws. Awareness is the first crucial step to resolving a problem; educating yourself as to what it is all about is the next important step, both of which will lead to your ability to network and brainstorm with others which can lead to a possible solution.
When you refuse to name the problem – when you avoid its reality because you are afraid that acknowledging its existence or presence will somehow taint you, or stigmatize you – or make you vulnerable to “catching” it too, then you fortify its negative hold. Darkness prevails if your eyes remain shut. And darkness permeates everything if you refuse to open the light.
The fact is there is no such thing as “yenem.” There never was. It has always been you, me, your neighbor. We are all vulnerable to life’s woes and disasters. That is why we daven and cry and tremble during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But as we all know, Hashem, for reasons that are unfathomable to us, will inflict us with burdens, both individually and as a community.
Cancer is one of those peckels that the Master of the Universe created and has decreed on young and old alike. Refusing to call this test – as harsh as it may be – by its real name, trying to camouflage its existence with a vague description, just might be a mockery of G-d’s inscrutable judgment.
In addition, when you are scared and can’t bring yourself to say the word “cancer,” you unwittingly make it seem as if having it is something to be ashamed about – much the same way as in the old days when people would whisper that an unwed girl was “in the family way” as opposed to saying she was having a baby. It seemingly minimized the shame of it all. People coping with cancer have a heavy enough load to carry, without having to also feel stigmatized – after all, they have something so bad that most people can’t bring themselves to say the actual word.
No one knows if and when Hashem will choose them to undergo this nisayon. But like any “test,” being open about it, talking about your reality, asking questions and sharing answers, and generally educating yourself and others, will help you get a “better grade” – no matter what the outcome.