This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Cagney, Kelly...and a Coin Clattering in a Keg*

I recently had occasion to watch the 1941 film “Strawberry Blonde” on television. It takes place in New York during the 1890s and tells the story of scrappy young Biff (James Cagney) who is struggling to rise above his lowly economic situation, but in the meantime is distracted by the lovely but shallow Virginia (Betty Grable, the blonde of the title) who eventually ditches him.

At that point the Cagney character becomes appreciative of the more genuine qualities of Amy (Olivia De Havilland). His conservative temperament had previously been put off by her posturing as a “free-thinker” whose mother had been a Bloomer Girl, her aunt an actress and she herself a cigarette smoker! Nevertheless Biff is now impelled to make an aggressive pass at her. Tearfully, Amy now owns up that she is really an innocent girl and her background was not really quite as scandalous as she had presented it. Mother had merely expressed admiration for the Bloomer Girls (but Father had forbidden her to act on it), Auntie’s theatrical experience had been confined to church productions, and her own cigarettes were never lit.

To this revelation Cagney retorts: “Just as they say: ‘An empty barrel makes the most noise.’”

The film never bothers to divulge the identities of “they,” and it seems to assume that the average moviegoer will understand the point of the proverb.

My own reaction, as someone who is familiar with Jewish traditional literature, was along the lines of “Hey, Jimmy Cagney just quoted from the Talmud!”

The passage I had in mind appears in the Babylonian Talmud in the context of an exposition of a verse from the biblical book of Proverbs: “Wisdom resteth in the heart of him that hath understanding: but that which is in the midst of fools is made known.”

By way of illustrating the contrast between wisdom that rests unobtrusively inside one’s heart and the kind which is broadcast publicly, Rav Ḥama applied the former text to a student who is the heir to a family of Torah scholars; whereas the latter speaks of a scholar who comes from an uneducated background, so that his wisdom stands out in sharp contrast to the ignorance of the rest of his family environment.

The Talmud then introduces a comment by the sage ‘Ulla: “It is as they say: An istira in a lagin calls: kish, kish.”

This proverb might benefit from a few explanations. The Aramaic “istira” alludes to the Greek “stater,” a widely circulated denomination of (usually) silver coinage in the ancient Mediterranean world. The “lagin” was a medium-sized ceramic or glass vessel that was often kept in the dining room, especially at formal dinners, and used to fill cups with wine after the beverage had been removed from its original storage barrel. ‘Kish kish” is the onomatopoeic sound of a coin rattling against the insides of an otherwise empty container.

As the commentators understood it, ‘Ulla’s proverb was being attached to Rav Ḥama’s distinction between pupils from scholarly and ignorant families, in order to exemplify how a scholar appears much more conspicuous against a background of uneducated kinsfolk. I prefer to attach it directly to the biblical text, which is being understood as saying that inferior intellects always make a point of actively publicizing their thoughts however banal they might be—and therefore there is an inverse proportionality between people’s boastful oratory and their actual intelligence.

A seventeenth-century Yiddish lexicon of proverbs and folk sayings, the Mar’eh Mussar (Tzucht-Shpigl, Mirror of Morals) by Seligman Ulma-Guenzburg of Hanau, proposed some alternative ways of expressing this idea: “A half-penny coin in an empty money-box jingles much more than if it contained a thousand gold coins,” or: “At first he talks big but then does nothing—a lot of wind to no avail.”

In any case, ‘Ulla’s analogy is to of a solitary coin clattering about and making the “kish kish” noise in an otherwise empty container. If the same object had been deposited inside a purse that was packed with coins, the sound would have been muffled and inaudible. This fits quite nicely with the context of Jimmy Cagney’s line in the movie, which conveys the meaning of: “I never took your boasting seriously, since everybody knows that the louder the clatter the less basis it has in fact.”

Did the creators of “Strawberry Blonde” know the Talmudic passage? Unlikely, but not altogether unimaginable. The authors of the screenplay’s final version were the prominent team of Julius and Philip Epstein, a pair of twins who were responsible for such masterpieces as “Casablanca” “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Although the Epstein brothers were Jewish, their pre-university education took place in the New York City public school system and they do not appear to have received any substantial Jewish instruction.

If “they” (the source of Cagney’s adage) were not the rabbis of the Talmud, then who were they? The next likely suspect in such cases is often Shakespeare—and our present search there does in fact produce a positive result. In some of the plays in the bard’s historical cycle there appears a character named Ancient (or: Ensign) Pistol, one of Falstaff’s cronies and a drinking buddy of Prince Hal’s dissolute youth, who eventually enlists in the French campaign that is the subject of “Henry V.” This swaggering, sycophantic loudmouth comes across as a cowardly and opportunistic braggart who is constantly inflating his negligible accomplishments. One character says of him, “I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart. But the saying is true: ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.’”

A similar idea is voiced by the loyal Earl of Kent in “King Lear” when he tries without success to persuade his misguided monarch that Cordelia’s understated filial affection is more authentic than the ostentatious fawning of her elder sisters: “Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least, nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound reverbs no hollowness.”

There are a few earlier instances of proverbs that make a similar point. One of my favourites appears in an essay by Plutarch, an ancient writer whose observations often dovetail with those of his contemporary rabbis. The premise of his essay “Concerning Talkativeness” (De Garrulitate) is that garrulous talkers are usually very poor listeners and therefore miss out on much of what they should be hearing. “Consequently, while others retain what is said, in talkative persons it goes right through in a flux; then they go about like empty vessels, void of sense, but full of noise.”

Now let’s fast-forward to October 2017 when White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly, accused (inaccurately, it seems) Florida’s Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of taking credit for something she had not done. Gen. Kelly placed her “in a long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise.”

In a retort that puzzled even the administration’s most ardent opponents, the African-American Wilson insisted that “empty barrel” was...a racist expression! For a few days the American news media were scrambling to track down reasons why the expression or its background could by any stretch of the imagination carry racist connotations. As far as I can tell, the best they could come up with was the claim that any criticism of a black woman by a privileged white male must be stigmatized as racist and sexist.

Advocates of liberal education have often looked back nostalgically to the days when civilized society was held together by its partaking in a shared cultural and literary heritage, so that people could assume that their listeners would recognize and understand allusions to the Bible or Shakespeare (and perhaps even an occasional quote from the Talmud). Whatever the weaknesses of that shared heritage (yes, it is overwhelmingly European and male), it probably is preferable to our present situation of incoherent discourse among virtual illiterates who are thereby stunted in their abilities to communicate meaningfully.

But that’s just my own two cents. Hopefully they are not just rattling around in an empty pot.

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, February 9, 2018, p. 13.
  • For further reading:
    • Brand, Yehoshua. Ceramics in Talmudic Literature. Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1953. [Hebrew]
    • Epstein, Julius J., and Philip G. Epstein. The Strawberry Blonde (1941): Shooting Script. Alexandria VA: Alexander Street Press and Warner Brothers, 1941.
    • Munro, Lucy. “Speaking History Linguistic Memory and the Usable Past in the Early Modern History Play.” Huntington Library Quarterly 76, no. 4 (2013): 519–40.
    • Shmeruk, Chone. Yiddish literature in Poland: Historical Studies and Perspectives. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, the Hebrew University, 1981.
    • Sokoloff, Michael. A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic of the Talmudic and Geonic Periods. Ramat-Gan and Baltimore: Bar Ilan University Press and Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
    • Sperber, Daniel. Roman Palestine, 200-400, Money and Prices. 2nd ed. with supplement. Bar-Ilan Studies in Near Eastern Languages and Culture. Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1991.
    • Steinschneider, Moritz. “Jüdisch-deutsche Literatur, nach einem handschriftlichen Katalog der Oppenheim’schen Bibliothek (in Oxford).” Serapeum 10 (1849): 9–16.
    • Yeck, Joanne L. “Epstein, Julius and Philip.” In International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, edited by Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast, 4th ed., Vol. 4: Writers and Production Artists:267–69. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.
    • Zevulun, Uzza, and Yael Olnick. Function and Design in the Talmudic Period. Tel-Aviv: Haaretz Museum, 1978. [Hebrew].