The Snarker and The Yente
Evil tongues, gossip and snark; who is not guilty of slithering into their seductive arms? I refused to see the movie “Mean Girls.” I was not, however, immune to its cultural reverberations and its ever-popular subject matter: catty girls destroying one another with vituperative snark, often in the cafeteria accompanied by sidelong glares and diet sodas. Jews and students of Judaism may be familiar with snark under its Talmudic pseudonym lashon hara – evil language/tongue.
Recently, I read David Denby’s “Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009). A 122-page essay in seven “Fits,” Denby traces the history of snark, “a strain of nasty, knowing abuse spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation,” from the ancients through Lewis Carroll, to the New York Times’ columnist Maureen Dowd. Denby is in favor of “true wit” but not snark. According to Denby’s definition, snark is “a teasing, rug-pulling form of insult that attempts to steal someone’s mojo, erase her cool, annihilate her effectiveness, and it appeals to a knowing audience that shares the contempt of the snarker and therefore understands the references he makes.” Snark destroys its target, tearing her limb from limb with rapacious, poison –tipped teeth. A lash of the tongue is easier than ever before across “the vast kindergarten of the Web.”
The snarker is not always a “he” attacking a feminine subject, though Denby furnishes many examples of male-driven misogynistic snark. What Denby fails to point out is historical/cultural/folk link between gossip and snark, and moreover, the snarky/gossipy reputation of women. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymological origin of “gossip” is the Old English godsibb – meaning a godmother or a godfather. In early modern England, “gossip” may have referred to a companion in childbirth, most often female. Over time, gossip’s reputation sifted into that of a nasty woman who enjoys relaying the fortunes (good and bad, but mostly bad) of others.
Trash-talking without a productive goal is a sin in Judaism, known as lashon hara. To my knowledge, lashon hara is gender-blind in Jewish texts: anyone can be guilty of it. But cultural applications of religion to living contexts often produce associations –perhaps unanticipated or unintended, but real nonetheless.
Remember Yente? According to Gene Bluestein’s Anglish/Yinglish: Yiddish in American Life and Culture, (University of Georgia Press, 1989) the first definition for Yente is “the generic term for a gossipy old woman.” The definitions for Yente become increasingly negative as the entry continues. One Yente that will be familiar to many is that of the 1971 film adaption of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Molly Picon, the Yiddish musical theater star, played Yente. In one scene, Yente raps on Golde’s door, relates all the new shtetl gossip and proceeds to take biscuit after biscuit from Golde. Yente is about to leave when Golde starts up, unable to contain her frustration for Yente has forgotten to tell anxious Golde about the match she has planned for one of the family’s daughters. Yente obligingly returns, patting Golde reassuringly on the hand.
As Molly Picon plays Yente, Yente is an endearing, if annoying gossipy old lady. She is essentially harmless, and her gossip, in the end, serves a productive purpose: Yente makes a good match for poor Golde’s eldest daughter (never mind that the daughter convinces her father to break off the match for a marriage of love). It may be a stretch, but Yente, the consummate gossip, is helpful, the town newspaper and relater of community goings-on. She does not fit into the snarky definition of a gossip, and she doesn’t even really seem to be guilty of lashon hara, at least, as we see her in “Fiddler.” On the other side of the coin, as Leah pointed out in this post, Jewish women in the television show The Real Housewives of New York City build their careers from the dreck of snarky “Mean Girls”-style spats, even describing themselves as Yentes.
Perhaps we have a problem of semantics, of definitions. We must, then, differentiate between productive gossip and destructive gossip; in essence, the difference between the Snarker and the Yente.
Can you think of any Snarky Yentes? Examples to fulfill either definition?