Leah Garrett, a native of Newton, Mass. and currently a professor of Jewish culture at Monash University in Australia, is working on a book about Mad magazine and Jewish culture. For that project, she recently paid a visit to the magazine’s eminence grise, 94-year-old illustrator Al Jaffee.
Jaffee was born with the first name Abraham, but changed it to something that sounded less Jewish. During Garrett’s visit to his Midtown studio, he stressed the imprematur of Yiddish on the way his mind operates, the beginnings of the magazine and a famous bit of Mad vocabulary. From Garrett’s piece for Jewish Daily Forward:
The iconic Mad word furshlugginer was derived from the Yiddish word shlogan (to hit), while the meaning of the word potrzebie has been debated by Mad readers and academics for years.
The word was first introduced in the Letters to the Editors section called Mad Mumblings in response to a query from a soldier (many if not most letters during the early 1950s were from men in the military ): ‘Please tell me what in the world ‘furshlugginer’means. – Larry E. Lengle E.M.F.N – c/o F.P.O, New York, New York.” The answer from the editors to this was “It means the same as potrzebie. –ed.”
The adamant refusal of the editors to explain the made-up word became a running joke. Today, Mad scholars theorize that potrzebie was in fact based on a Polish word that [editor Harvey] Kurtzman discovered on a jar of aspirin. According to Jaffee, though, this is not the case: “There was an expression in Lithuania when I was a kid – “putz-rebbe.” Harvey must have heard that. Putz is genitals and it is applied as an insult to the rebbe. It’s like saying, ‘Oh that stupid teacher’ or ‘putz-rebbe.’”
Garrett writes that meeting her childhood hero Jaffee (and his wife, Joyce) earlier this month was a dream come true. She is here until April to work on her latest book; her most recent previous tome is Young Lions: How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel.