Misconception: The term bobemayse refers to bobes, Jewish grandmothers.
Fact: A bobe-mayse is an old wives’ tale or incredible story. While in Yiddish, bobe is an affectionate name for grandmother, and mayse means tale or story; the term bobe-mayse probably derives from a sixteenth-century Yiddish classic Bove-Bukh.
Background:One of the first (chronologically and in pride of place) published works of Yiddish literature was the frequently reprinted chivalric romance Bove-Bukh, which was written in 1507 by Elijah Levita (ben Asher haLevi Ashkenazi “haBocher”; 1468?-1549). Bove-Bukh is a Yiddish adaptation of a romantic fifteenth-century novel, The Story of Buvo or Buovo, which was an Italian reincarnation (entitled Buovo d’Antona) of the Anglo-French Sir Bevis of Hampton cycle of romances of the early fourteenth century. The stories were originally in English, translated into Italian and then adapted into Yiddish. In Yiddish, Bove-Bukh became popular among Jewish women and the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe. The Italian version has no less than thirty known editions and the Yiddish edition was reprinted in Venice (1540), Prague (1660), Frankfort-on-the-Main (1691), Amsterdam (1721) and other cities. It was written in the now almost forgotten Western Yiddish—a dialect that may not be familiar to the modern Yiddish speaker—and contains many Italianisms. Originally, bobe-mayse meant a story that could actually be found in Bove-Bukh or the type of tall tale that was likely to be found in the famous novel. There was no reference to a grandmother (except that Bove-Bukh was the sort of literature that many bobes liked to read and talk about). Over time, the book lost its popularity, and the original meaning of the popular phrase was lost. The use of similar terms for old wives’ tales in other languages, particularly Slavic, probably aided in the popularization of the Yiddish phrase. Today bobe-mayse connotes an unbelievable story or grandmother’s tale and has no connection to the original romance novel. It is thus a bobe-mayse that bobemayses are related to bobes.
1. For more on this see Jean B. Jofen, Yiddish for Beginners, 1st revised ed., (New York, 1998), 3; Max Weinreich, History of the Yiddish Language (Chicago, 1980), 273, 616; Yudel Mark, “Yiddish Literature” in The Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion, vol. II, 3rd ed., ed. Louis Finkelstein (New York, 1960), 1191-1231; Jewish Encyclopedia 2:391-2 (Baba Buch); Encyclopedia Judaica 4:1155 (Bobe-Mayse). I thank Gilad J. Gevaryahu, Jim Marchand and Dr. Paul Glasser, associate dean at the Max Weinreich Center in New York, for information on this topic. 2. There is a critical edition (1949) and an edition with translation by Judah A. Joffe (1873-1966; see Encyclopedia Judaica 10:141-142). In 1969 Jerry Smith wrote an unpublished Cornell dissertation on it. See also Encyclopedia Judaica 4:1276 (Bove-Bukh). The first extant version is from 1541, but it is believed to have first been published in 1507. It was written in ottava rima, a stanza of eight iambic lines containing three rhymes, a style it introduced into Yiddish literature. The work consists of 650 eight-line stanzas. 3. For details about this talented author and grammarian, see Encyclopedia Judaica 11:132-135. He was born in Germany but spent most of his life in Italy. Despite all his travels and worldliness, including living in a cardinal’s house for twelve years, he remained an observant Jew, although two of his grandchildren converted to Christianity. 4. Whether it is the story of Bevis of Southampton or Buovo d’Anc(t)ona, depends on whether one accepts the continental or insular origin of the story. 5. Yiddish has two major dialects: Western and Eastern. In gross simplification, Eastern is composed of the following major dialects: Polish (or Central Yiddish), Lithuanian (or Northeastern Yiddish) and Ukrainian (or Southeastern Yiddish). The most widely spoken dialect today is that of the Chassidim who use Hungarian Yiddish, which is generally classified as a sub-dialect of Polish Yiddish. However, knowledge of Yiddish is also fairly common among Jews from the former Soviet Union, most of whom speak Ukrainian Yiddish. Much of sixteenth-century Yiddish literature, including Bove Bukh, is in Western Yiddish where the word for grandmother is not bobe. For more on this, see Jack Howard’s University of Illinois dissertation, ca. 1972. Also, see Max Weinreich (see note 1) on Yiddish dialects in general.
Reprinted from JEWISH ACTION Magazine, Spring 5763/2003 issue