Burdens, Shoulders, and President Carter
To the Editor:
Lucy S. Dawidowicz [Letters from Readers, September 1982] says that President Carter was mistaken when he quoted a Yiddish proverb, “God gives burdens, also shoulders,” in his concession speech to Ronald Reagan. According to her, “There was and is no such proverb.” Tsk, tsk, Mrs. Dawidowicz! If not a kosher proverb in the strict sense, President Carter’s Yiddish reference certainly came from good Jewish sources: “Gimpel the Fool,” Isaac Bashevis Singer’s creation via Saul Bellow’s translation. Shortly after his ill-fated marriage to the town harlot, Gimpel says, “God gives burdens, also shoulders.”
I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that President Carter, an avid reader, personally came upon that phrase while reading Singer.
Ruth V. H. Lack
Lucy S. Dawidowicz writes:
Ruth V. H. Lack’s phenomenal memory deserves to be rewarded. I wish I could say that she had indeed found the true source for President Carter’s putative Yiddish proverb. But, alas, however close she came, it’s not the real thing. (In Saul Bellow’s translation of Singer’s Yiddish, Gimpel says: “Shoulders are from God and burdens too.” Singer’s Yiddish text diverged even further from Carter’s version.) I’m sorry Miss Lack isn’t right, not only because I appreciate her attentiveness as a reader, but also out of sheer malice. What fun it would have been to speculate on the notion that Jimmy Carter, in his sanctimonious self-pity at having lost the election, identified with Gimpel the Fool.
I never intended to track down the source of this bastard proverb, but it turned out that the mystery of its origins and its presidential association had aroused international curiosity. The Yiddishists in Israel were intrigued. Apparently having no more pressing business, a journalist for Maariv, Israel’s largest daily newspaper, pursued the search. His detective work paid off. In a column published on November 21, 1980, he disclosed that the proverb came from a collection called Quotations of Wit and Wisdom, put together by John W. Gardner and Francesca Gardner Reese (Norton paperback, 1975; p. 91). The Gardners erroneously identified it as a Yiddish proverb, which it is not. But how were President Carter’s speechwriters to know that it was in fact a German proverb? And consequently, dear Miss Lack, definitely not kosher.