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The New York Times (May 20) carried a review on a revue, “Old Jews telling jokes”, currently being performed at the Westside Theater, under the title “Such a tradition of humor, and this is only a revue?”.

I was unable to get the idea of its beginning line:

Every Jewish mother will die, a fact many are not exactly famous for playing down, but the Jewish-mother joke will live forever.

What is the plain English for “a fact many are not exactly famous for playing down,” which looks to me somewhat winding?

The associated question :

The beginning block of the article ends up with the following line;

"The show, whose title has as firm a grasp on its audience’s desire as “Girls gone wild,” is a winning concept executed deftly with affection. Would it kill you to pay a visit? "

I guess “Would it kill you to pay a visit” simply means “Why don’t you try to pay a visit.”

Is “Would it kill you to do something” a popular phrase to substitute for recommending somebody to do something? Does it sound awkward or over-the-top if I say to my colleague “Would it kill you to have a drink,” instead of saying “Let’s have a drink” after work?”

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Goodness, this takes so much cultural knowledge, specifically of Jewish culture. Those examples are hilarious to imagine heard read in a Jewish accent, with its characteristic intonation patterns. –  tchrist May 23 '12 at 2:09
    
For clarity's sake the sentence should read, "Every Jewish mother will die, a fact many Jewish mothers are not exactly famous for playing down". The rest is already addressed in the answers. –  user21732 May 30 '12 at 6:28
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3 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The phrase

Every Jewish mother will die, a fact many are not exactly famous for playing down

may be doubly confusing if you're not familiar with Jewish mothers and English is not your first language. There are two tricks going on here:

  • There is a figure of speech here known as litotes. By denying that they play it down, the author is affirming that they play it up.
  • The Jewish Mother stereotype has these women guilt-tripping, in this case by playing on their age and infirmity to get others (e.g., their sons) to pay attention to them (say, to visit).
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@YoichiOishi, The word "many" in the phrase refers to Jewish mothers. –  JLG May 23 '12 at 12:08
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a fact many are not exactly famous for playing down

Sarcastic understatement. The implication is that Jewish mothers put guilt trips on their kids with statements like "One day I'll be dead, then you'll wish you could pay me a visit!"

The "would it kill you..." is over the top. It is for someone who has not done what is expected of them. Wife to husband: "Would it kill you to take out the trash?!"

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We have Japanese equivalent (...しても罰は当たらない) to “It won’t kill you to do X.” We use to say “You won’t be punished (or blamed) by the God, if you do (cook for me, clean up your messy study, come home a bit earlier). –  Yoichi Oishi May 23 '12 at 4:06
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I'll take a stab at Part 2 of your question.

As you might have guessed, Would it kill you to do X? is a bit stronger than asking Why don't you do X?

The implication is that a person is reluctant to do something for some reason – perhaps they are too busy, or they have some other reason that they've avoided doing something that really shouldn't be that big of a deal. So, the only reason you'd say, "Would it kill you to have a drink?" would be if such an outing was long overdue. If you and Bob had mentioned going out after work sometime, and several months passed, and it just never worked out, then you might say, "Gee, Bob, would it kill you to go out for a drink?"

It's often used mother-to-son to mean, "It's been so long since you visited me – do you think it's too much to ask for you to stop by and see me every once in awhile?" It implies the mother isn't being visited as much as she would like, and perhaps the son is acting ungrateful for all the sacrifices the mother endured while she was raising her son.

This article might be worth reading as well: Wikipedia entry on the Jewish mother stereotype.

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Well. I think I’m now pretty clear with what is meant by “It won’t kill you to do X,” because I’m accustomed to be told by my wife -"It won’t kill you to cook a dinner in place of me once a year.” But I’m not still clear with the meaning of “a fact many are not exactly famous for playing down.” Would you take a bother of providing me a plain or direct translation of this phrase? –  Yoichi Oishi May 23 '12 at 3:44
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@YoichiOishi - J.R. and TecBrat have both done a good job addressing the two aspects of your question (+1 each). "Not exactly famous for playing down..." meaning the statement is the opposite of the stereotype being referenced. The stereotype is that they are famous for playing up the guilt trip. –  Joel Brown May 23 '12 at 3:51
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@Yoichi, perhaps the cultural item you are missing is the "guilt trip". It refers to using guilt as a motivator. It is a stereotypical tactic of Jewish mothers. The other part, "Not exactly famous...", The sarcastic implication is "Maybe a little famous..." but the real intended meaning is the opposite "Very famous for..." You might run in to "Not exactly" in a literal use, like someone asks "Did get a perfect score?" and the answer might by "Not exactly, but I did pretty well." Or, sarcastic "Did you do well on the test?" "Not exactly. I failed." –  TecBrat May 23 '12 at 10:41
    
@Joel Brown. tchrist said ‘this takes so much cultural knowledge.’ I understand that. But the most difficult part I’m struggling with is the line, ‘a fact many are not exactly famous for playing down.’ I wouldn’t be annoyed if there were not this parenthesis. It looks so much complicated to me. What does ‘many’ represent for? Jewish mother jokes? Does ‘famous for’ simply mean ‘be known’? Is ‘not exactly’ similar with ‘not necessarily’? If you rephrase this line in simpler construction, what will it be? –  Yoichi Oishi May 23 '12 at 11:22
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@YoichiOishi - The phrase that is giving you so much trouble is similar to the "double negative" construction that is frowned upon for being confusing. It uses ironic understatement for emphasis (not quite litotes), which is itself stereotypical of Ashkenazi Jewish humour. The most direct restatement would be something like: "Every Jewish mother will die, a fact which they will, according to the stereotype, remind you of frequently in order to obtain sympathy or compliance through instilling guilt." –  Joel Brown May 23 '12 at 11:36
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protected by RegDwigнt May 30 '12 at 12:56

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