Ruth Mason
Writer, mother, parent educator, activist, gardner

Life in the Sixties: Machatunim

Renee and I
Renee and I

Dedicated to Renee (Renya) Krakowski (Nana). Thanks for the introduction, Renee. Happy birthday.

Imaginary scene: I’m in a café, meeting my son’s girlfriend’s mother for the first time – though we’ve whatsapped here and there, especially when the young couple was travelling in the Far East. We are doing this behind our kids’ backs. They haven’t come out and said so but clearly, they don’t yet want us to meet. What if, God forbid, as we’re sitting there over our café hafuchs, the M word comes up? Or even the E word? Would we be more inclined to bring up the subject after meeting? “Hey, I like this woman. Could you marry her daughter?”

Yiddish – and Hindi, it turns out – has a name for this (potential) relationship: machatonim: Your son-in-law’s or daughter-in-law’s parents. If I take apart the word –with my YIVO Zummer Program Yiddish — I see the root chatan – groom, same as in Hebrew (though in Yiddish, it’s pronounced chosen.) In Hebrew, the prefix mem (מ) means from. And im, of course, connotes the plural. So machatonim are “(people) from the groom.” (Why not from the bride? Yet another vestige of the patriarchy.)

Here we have to pause: If you know a little about me, you might be wondering: What’s a Bukharian like you doing in a Yiddish ulpan? Full time, yet: four hours of language instruction at Columbia U from the best teachers in the morning; in the afternoons, enrichment: films, trips, songs (40 years later, I still have the song sheets and I still sing Sheyn bin ich sheyn and Oyfn Veg….) I have to credit my love of languages, which in turn I can probably credit to lengthy childhood sojourns in Israel and Switzerland. Or perhaps to Renee Krakowski, my own lively machatainista — my sister-in-law’s mother — who introduced me to Yiddish when I was nine and whose thick Yiddish/Polish accent was a regular feature of my childhood. I learned from her that when you want to curse someone in Yiddish, you say, Voks vi a tzibeleh mit dein kop in der erd. You should grow like a little onion with your head in the ground (and your feet in the air.) Who can help loving such a language?

After the first day of class in dem Zummer Program, I got on the #1 train, fresh textbook open on my lap, completely engrossed. The subway, the screeching stops, the whoosh of the doors opening and closing melted away. I had never lost track of myself on the New York subway before. But I was in love. It was so much like Hebrew! I already knew the letters and there were only a few differences – and they were fun. ע   is a eh. A kamatz under an aleph is pronounced oh. By the time I looked up, I was in Harlem, the only white person on the train.

But back to our word. Google says it’s actually spelled machatunim. But that might have to do with the fact that there are two dialects in Yiddish – Litvak and Galitsianer.

In wanting to learn more about the word, Google tells me I can choose between:

Yiddish Dictionary – Bubbe Gram – which doesn’t give me a definition

Jewish words and meanings/about Jewish life — there’s matza, mechitza  and megillah but no machatunim.

The Yiddish Handbook – 40 words you should know. Here we have maven, mazel tov and mentsh, but again, gurnisht for machatunim.

Yiddish, Yinglish Dictionary – There it is! Machatunim. But all it says is the prosaic “in laws.” And this after long, descriptive explanations of words like chazzerai  — (khaz-zer-rye) literally, pig slop. Any kind of garbage, whether it’s junk food, shoddy merchandise or stuff of little or no value. “No wonder my grandson is fat! All my daughter-in-law feeds him is chazzerai!” “I went to that big estate sale, but all they had was chazzerai.” “I never watch TV any more. All they play is chazzerai.”

There’s the promising-sounding, The Untranslatable and culturally specific / Language Library but the site is dormant. You can revive it, if you are so inclined, by adding a comment.

And then there is WotD: c-mother-in-law – The Death of Imagination (Note to the site’s author: that hyphen should be a dash. Just sayin’.)

This one piqued my curiosity. What does death of imagination have to do with one’s in-laws?

Here, I get: “Son’s mother-in-law and daughter’s mother-in-law, respectively. May mean daughter’s mother-in-law only; further investigation needed.”

And this site digs a little deeper:

“I guess no one is surprised to find terms for this in the East Asian languages, whose kinship terminology is the stuff of legend, but it’s interesting to see what European languages follow suit. I, for one, would not have guessed that such a term existed in German. (And lest you think it’s just some academic construction, Googling turned up a Swabian dialect equivalent, Gegenschwiger.)”

There follows a long discussion by various readers about whether the word can be singular, links to how the word is used in Hebrew, how plural endings can change the root, the word in various Philippine languages and even in Greek. I still don’t get the death of imagination connection, but this site turned up the best information.

So machatunim, however you spell or define it, are a potential for connection, a new relationship in life that can enrich if you are lucky enough to click.

I have three grown kids, but no machatunim yet. No pressure, kiddos. Really. Just sayin’.

About the Author
Born to Bukharian parents in Los Angeles, Ruth Mason immigrated to Israel with her family in 1993 after a long stint in Manhattan. She is a veteran journalist and columnist who now writes for Shatil, the action arm of the New Israel Fund. A lifelong baby lover, she teaches parent-infant classes based on the RIE and Pikler approaches.
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