Harvey Gotliffe knows a good sense of humor can keep spirits high.
When things in life don’t go as planned, Harvey Gotliffe can get rid of bad energy. He simply steps back, closes his eyes, breathes deeply, extends his palms and whispers, “Gay avek,” the Yiddish phrase for “go away.”
Gotliffe, who will be holding a book signing at Capitola Book Café on Monday, April 9, recently wrote and published The Oy Way: Following the path of most resistance. The book is his collection of 36 mind-clearing tai chi–like exercises, each with its Yiddish phrase. “Gay avek” is just a personal favorite.
“It’s both a psychological and a physiological thing,” says Gotliffe. “When somebody or something is bothering you, you can mentally or physically get them out of there. Just say, ‘I don’t need you.’”
Gotliffe’s new book, which may sound like a bit from a rejected Seinfeld episode, has distinct three goals behind it, Gotliffe says. One is to maintain a sense of cultural pride in the Yiddish language, which has been slowly disappearing since the Second World War. Another is to allow for the psychological benefits from movement and exercise, and a third is to provide a little bit of entertainment to his readers, audiences and a few followers—some of whom are Holocaust survivors.
“When I taught, I found that people learn more if they’re looser, if they’re not worried they’re going to upset their professor—or [else] they sit there very tense,” says Gotliffe, who founded the magazine journalism program at San Jose State University. “So I try to put a little bit of levity in all that. If you’re a professor, you entertain along with educate.”
Each Oy Way exercise starts in one of two shrugging stances—the shteyn (standing) or the beygn (bent). The stances, which are very similar, both have a “what-are-you-gonna-do” look about them.
To complete his book, Gotliffe combined his experience in slow-moving Chinese martial arts with a wry brand of humor normally reserved for cinematic Jewish stereotypes—as evidenced by some of the names of his workouts. The routines, each one complete with its own photograph to demonstrate the exercise, include “Markn a tsimis” (making molehills into mountains), “Oykh mir al lebn” (this you call a living?) and “Zitsn oyf shpilkes,” which translates to “sitting on pins and needles.”
Along with directions, each exercise comes with a rather comical section for “thoughts” and another for the workout’s “benefits.” The “Kum aher!,” for example, employs a beckoning motion using the finger that not only brings people together but also “improves digital dexterity in the digital age.” But the movement’s “thoughts” section is equally helpful. “You can command others by making the right moves,” Gotliffe writes.
Gotliffe is a busy man, even now that the 600-plus hours of shlepn he says he put into his book are behind him. He’s begun work on his memoirs, which will cover the five years after his parents died and he traveled the world meeting relatives he didn’t know existed. When he isn’t writing his next book, he says he’s “hustling” to sell and promote his more recent one, which has already made it into bookstores around the country as well as into libraries Santa Cruz, San Jose and Detroit.
For Gotliffe the publicity game is a difficult one, with unfortunate setbacks along the way. Last month someone broke into his car and stole a wealth of his press materials. Luckily he had a Yiddishexercise in his arsenal to help him cope with the situation. “You get angry, and you use a certain language,” Harvey explains.
So, did you use the Gay avek?
“I think I used something more profane, which isn’t in the book,” Gotliffe says.
If there is a unifying thread in Gotliffe’s work, it is his mission to find meaning in an often senseless world. Gotliffe’s Yiddish exercises are his path to find reason and truth.
“Narishkeyt is my favorite word, which is the nonsense in our lives,” Gotliffe says, “all the BS, whether it be the robbery, whether it be the Afghan war. It’s part of our lives all the time. And the Gay avek helps to push it away.”
The Oy Way: Following the Path of Most Resistance
Monday, April 9 at 7:30pm
Capitola Book Café