Your RDA of Irony

A Tale of Pales

With my form of pedantic Tourettes, I have been known to start historical lectures in crowded elevators.  I am not one to miss a captive audience.  Recently, however, I was invited to speak at my synagogue.  (Unlike the late St. Stephen, who also did not first clear the topic with the Temple’s Adult Education Program.)  My topic was the life of European Jews in the 19th century, and I had 90 minutes to discuss it.  Fortunately, being in public relations I am trained to be superficial and glib. 

In fact, let me give you a summation of the various countries’ policies toward the Jews:

England and Germany:  Shut up and assimilate.

Russia:  Die, or go to America.

Austria-Hungary:   Get rich, have fun and, if you’re in the neighborhood, drop by the Palace. 

(About those rumors that I am a lobbyist for Austria-Hungary, at the advice of my lawyer I will not comment about my Swiss bank account with 1000 pounds of marzipan in it.)

However, as always, I digress.  The Jews in the Russian Empire were obliged–by the Tsar’s cossack subtlety–to live only within restricted areas.  This confined area was known as the Russian Pale.  A member of the audience asked me the meaning of that term.  “Russian Pale” does sound like a cosmetic by Max Factor; it could have covered up his bruises from the Tsarist police.  Ironically, Factor claimed to be the court cosmetologist for the Tsar and Tsarina.  I am trying to imagine Nicholas and Alexandra–the Anti-Semitic Dagwood and Blondie–arranging designated parking at the Winter Palace for Mr. Factor’s pushcart. 

But “Russian Pale” has nothing to do with Max Factor’s delusions.  Pale is not merely a deficiency of color but also a deficiency of Latin.  The Roman word for pallid was…well…pallid, and the Roman term for a wooden stake was palus.  Of course, with their Mediterranean complexions and their stone walls, the Romans were not terribly concerned about homophonic confusion between pallid and palus.  The French, with their hand-me-down Latin, maintained some distinction between pallid and palus.  They curtailed pallid to pale, and referred to a wooden fence as a palissade.  The Normans, with their hand-me-down French, imposed their rule over England but not their complete vocabulary.   The Angle-Saxons were told the French word for their complexion, but they certainly wouldn’t be given any ideas for defending themselves. 

By the 14th century the Angle-Saxons and the Normans had grown inured to each other, and discovered a common delight in attacking France.   If the harried French forces could not find the sanctuary of a castle, they would build a rampart of wooden stakes:  the palissade.  It was a useful defense against a full-frontal assault; of course, only the French were reckless enough to use that tactic.  The English longbow archers simply shot over the palissade.  However ineffectual the structure, the English liked the word and incorporated it into their evolving language.  So, to keep the livestock in–or the Irish out, a settlement would have a palisade; the extra French “s” seemed unnecessary.  In fact, so did the last two syllables.  The word soon was shortened to pale.

As early as the 15th century, the English enclave in Ireland was known as the Pale.  Outside that perimeter was “beyond the pale.”  And four centuries later, when describing the Russian territory where Jews were permitted to live, historians referred to the area as the Russian Pale.

And, on March 17th, you have learned something else the Jews and the Irish have in common.

p.s.  Let’s not forget the historic significance of this day, other than it being my birthday:

  1. Leah says:

    Happy Birthday! Now you’re as old as I am.

    What about the French? “Soyez amusants ou invisibles”?

    The Italians: Even though you taught us how to deep-fry, we still reserve the right to steal your children and buildings from time to time.

    The Spanish: Jews? What Jews? But please pardon me, I have to get home now because it’s Friday night and for some reason my mother wants us here when she lights candles.

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      Thank you. I already had my first piece of my first cake during lunch. (You didn’t think that I would have just one cake.)

      In fact, the French were the heroes of the first few minutes of my lecture on the 19th century. They took ‘Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite’ quite seriously, tearing down the ghetto walls and ending one thousand years of repression. The Jews of Italy and Germany were emancipated. Unfortunately, as Heine said, the recurring oppression was due to the fact that no one had told Napoleon about Russian winters. With the fall of Napoleon, the old restrictions were applied in varying degrees. For instance, Prussia and Bavaria reinstated the laws, but a number of smaller German states and muncipalities kept some, if not all, of the emancipating laws. In Italy, the Ghetto was restored, but not that of Venice. Northern Italy was now under the control of the Hapsburgs–who since Joseph II had been quite tolerant of the Jews. By the time of Franz Josef, the monarchy would seem–to both Jews and Anti-Semites–as philo-Semitic.

      Speaking of Hapsburgs, the last Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary is still alive. Otto von Hapsburg will be 99 next month. Think about this: Franz Ferdinand was his Godfather (well, if only for Otto’s first two years). And I know someone who has met Otto von Hapsburg! It is my tenuous connection to royalty.


  2. Dennis Pennington says:

    Happy Birthday Eugene . Don’t forget to have ice cream with the cake .

  3. Rafferty Barnes says:

    Happy Birthday Eugene. Ad multos annos!

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Thank you, Megan.

      And in case you were wondering, I now am a prime number: 59. Until yesterday, I was 29 for the second time.


  4. Kate says:

    Nice way you Factored in Max.
    Happy birthday again!! But you had pizza last year ~grin~
    And I so appreciate your ‘superficial and glib’.

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