There are a few names that can be rough to grow up with. At one of my former places of employment there was a Steve Wiener who sat not far from, I shit you not, Dick Carver. Usually you survive the inevitable childhood tormenting and as an adult you get used to the occasional wisecrack from random assholes such as myself.
That’s why it’s so amazing that someone with the last name Schmuck somehow managed to get through most of her life without being teased relentlessly over it:
It was not until Sister Mary Schmuck left her home state of Kentucky for the Sisters of Mercy convent in Brooklyn, N.Y., a borough that operates under the influence of Yiddish, that she was confronted full force with the knowledge that a person with her family name faces certain regrettable challenges. “People would do double takes on the phone,” she said. “They were deciding whether to laugh or say something or not.” Many New Yorkers were forthright in asking whether she was playing them for fools. “I went to the terminal at LaGuardia one day, and there was a nice-looking ticket agent named Carlos-something—not a Jewish person—and he took my ID and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’” She said she told Carlos, “Young man, schmuck is German for ‘jewel.’ It is fine that you grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. I live in one, too, near Williamsburg. Please give me my boarding pass.”
Sister Mary acknowledges, obviously, that schmuck, in Yiddish, a language derived from German and Hebrew, refers to what she calls “the dirty male part.” And she recognizes that schmuck serves as a broad-spectrum insult as well, corresponding, more or less, to “idiot” or worse. Not as much, however, in Kentucky. It was idyllic, growing up a Schmuck in Kentucky, Sister Mary said. “It is my understanding that Grandfather Schmuck came from a Lutheran family, but there had been some sort of move to or from the Catholic Church.” She does not know if the Schmucks among her German ancestors were jewelers, though it’s possible, and she’s proud that the cathedral in Cologne is home to the Schmuck Madonna, which many believers have adorned with jewels in gratitude for answered prayers.
The whole article is worth reading if only for the amazing accomplishment on the part of the author of not making any Schmuck jokes along the way. I mean, seriously, it’s full of lines like this:
“At one point, there were 400 Schmucks in America,” she told me. “I’ve done some genealogy research on this.” She does not know the number of Schmucks in America today, however. “Whenever I go to another city, I look in the White Pages for Schmucks, but I don’t run across any.”
It may be a sign of my immaturity, but I couldn’t help but laugh at that. But that’s not to say that I am unsympathetic to her cause, which is to reclaim the word Schmuck from its usage as a obscene reference to the male anatomy. I don’t think she’ll succeed, but I’m sympathetic because I can only imagine how hard it must be for the folks of that family tree.
Though, as the author points out, there’s plenty of Putzes in the world as well:
I noted to Sister Mary that hers is not the only challenging surname in America. June Putz, Thomas Putz, Cornelia Putz, Erik Putz, Wolfgang Putz—indeed, an apparently unending procession of people named Putz—are listed on Facebook, and seem emotionally whole (to the extent that one can assess such things online). “Schmuck seems to be a very popular insulting term, though,” Sister Mary noted, correctly.
I’ve used both even though I’m about as far from Jewish as you can get. There’s something about Yiddish insults that just feels good. They’re very solid words with a good weight to them that don’t tend to cause people to freak out as much as when you drop an f-bomb on them in public.
Yeah, sorry Sister Schmuck, but I’m going to continue to take your name in vain. Could be worse, though. You could be a Jenkins. Then you’d be guilty-by-association with me.