Just Say Nu: Yiddish for Every Occasion (When English Just Won't Do)

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9780061657320: Just Say Nu: Yiddish for Every Occasion (When English Just Won't Do)

In his New York Times bestseller, Born to Kvetch, author Michael Wex led readers on a hilariously edifying excursion through Yiddish culture and history. With Just Say Nu, he shows us how to use this remarkable language to spice up conversations, stories, presentations, arguments, and more, when plain English will not suffice (including, of course, lots of delightful historical and cultural side trips along the way).

There is, quite simply, nothing in the world that can't be improved by being translated into Yiddish. With Just Say Nu, readers will learn how to shmooze their way through meeting and greeting, eating and drinking, praising and finding fault, maintaining personal hygiene, parenting, going to the doctor, committing crimes, going to singles bars, having sex, talking politics, talking trash, and a host of other mundane activities. Here also is a healthy schmear of optional grammar and the five most useful Yiddish words—what they mean, and how and when to use them in an entire conversation without anybody suspecting you don't have the vaguest idea about what you're actually saying.

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About the Author:

Novelist, lecturer, and translator Michael Wex is one of the leading lights in the revival of Yiddish, and author of the New York Times bestseller Born to Kvetch and its follow-up, Just Say Nu.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Just Say Nu
1 Greeting and Meeting Hello It 's supposed to be simple. An English greeting helps to move two people across the great divide from quiet to conversation, from separation to communication. You say hello, good morning, or good evening, and you get hello, good morning, or good evening in return. Each formula is a well-paved pathway, a gentle ramp that leads easily from one state of being to another. A Yiddish greeting does nothing of the kind. Take a look at the most basic way of saying hello, SHOOLEM ALAYKHEM, which has a literal meaning of "peace upon you." Now compare it with the sole permissible response, ALAYKHEM SHOOLEM, and you'll see what you need to know from the start: Yiddish conversation begins with a willingness to say the reverse of whatever has just been said to you--even when you happen to agree. You're not obliged to disagree, but you have to be ready to do so: Yiddish conversations progress as much by means of rhetorical questions and outright contradiction as by supposedly direct logical paths leading from conversational point A to conversational point B. Alaykhem shoolem implies no disagreement, of course; Hebrew and Arabic both use almost identical greetings, but they don't use them as warm-ups for the gainsaying yet to come. Don't be put off by this propensity to disagree; it's a good thing, and helps to mark the boundary between real conversation and random acts of speech. Simple speech acts-- raid, they're called, "talk"--are as cheap in Yiddish as in any other language and tend not to be valued highly in a linguistic culture that prefers silence to lack of focus. Raid can be PISTEH, empty; HARBEH, strong or harsh; they can even be GESHLIFENEH, polished, and thus all the more slippery. The one thing they don't have to be is listened to: MEH RAIT IN DER VELT AREIN One speaks into the world, means that you're talking to the void; your words are in vain because they are aimless, directed to no one. Raid--which Yiddish uses no less than any other language--are like kids at the recess bell or gays in the closet: they're going to come out, whether you want them to or not. A SHMOOS,2 on the other hand (the Yiddish rhymes with loose), a real conversation, begins with the idea of partnership. It's no accident that shmoos (pronounced shmees in the dialect used in this book--we don't even agree with ourselves, let alone anyone else) comes from a Hebrew word that means "tiding, rumor"; something that you've heard rather than something that you've said. Shmoozing is based on listening, on the idea of responding to what you hear and being answered in turn by someone who has been listening to you. Disagreement leads to even closer attention. Heart speaketh to heart is very nice until all that treacle starts to cloy; heart yelleth at heart can be just as human and a lot more fun. Yiddish not only helped to inspire much of Martin Buber's work, it anticipated his idea of Ich und Du, "I and Thou," by hundreds of years. To besure, people who speak to each other in Yiddish spend much of their time in a sort of conversational collision, banging up against each other without ever going anywhere--just like people who are having sex. Contrary impulses and ideas pressing against each other can lead to communion and release--you don't have a shmooze in Yiddish, you FARFEER one. The verb means "to seduce, to lead astray." MEH FARFEERT A SHMEES; the meaningful exchange of words is a matter of enticement and persuasion. The choice of verb here--the idiom means "to start or strike up an informal conversation"--gives us some insight into basic Yiddish notions of talk. While farfeern is frequently used to explain how girls get into trouble or yeshiva boys fall victim to the blandishments of the outside world, all that is seduced in a Yiddish conversation, all that is farfeert or derailed, is the selfish and ultimately silly desire for one absolute or the other: either total silence or total refusal to shut the hell up. Just as two willing bodies come together only because both have already said yes, so a real shmooze depends on consent, on each party agreeing to listen to what the other has to say. The average Yiddish shmooze involves two people who have renounced their claims to silence on the one hand and to monologue on the other. Each is willing to give the other a chance to do something other than daydream or obey--even though each already knows that the other must be wrong. As such, not every exchange of dialogue attains the status of shmooze. Plenty of nudniks speak Yiddish, and fear of their all-consuming tedium often causes Yiddish to be spoken at a clip that makes even the most agitated English sound like a pothead's drawl; it's a sign that either party to a dialogue is afraid that now is their last chance to get a word in. The shmooze is there to keep us from treating everybody like a nudnik, and it is ironic that the current English use of shmooze has stood the Yiddish meaning on its head: To chat in a friendly and persuasive manner especially so as to gain favor, business, or connections ... schmoozed her professors> This sort of careerist nudnik-ery, defined for us here by the eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, seems to be a recent development. Leo Rosten makes no mention of it in his entry for schmooze in The Joys of Yiddish, published in 1968, and I can't recall having heard it myself until some time in the 1990s. The overtone of purposeful friendliness, affability with an ulterior motive, couldn't be further from the feel of the original; it might be preferable to its purely English equivalent-- network used as a verb, God forbid--but that doesn't bring it any closer to the Yiddish. Where real Yiddish obscenities like shmok and potz ("schmuck" and "putz") have turned cute in English, shmooze has been degraded from secular communion to self-serving sleaze. The transformation is ironic enough; it's even more ironic that English had to reinterpret a word from Yiddish--the language of eternal dissatisfaction--to characterize an essential stage toward getting what you want. English speakers seek to satisfy their desires; all a Yiddish-speaker wants is a chance to open his mouth. A real shmooze involves an acknowledgment of the presence and importance of the person to whom you're speaking, which is why Yiddish leans so heavily on banter and wordplay; these apparently gratuitous remarks are there as conversational Chanuka gelt, tokens of esteem, little spoken gifts. The importance of the other person also explains why there are no Yiddish versions of "your call is important to us" in this book. Even a strict textbook version would have to come with a question mark at the end: "Your call is important to us?" Yeah, sure. The shmooze version, the honest, no-bullshit rendition that shouldhave been yours by right, is Ven meh volt gevolt mit deer raidn, volt men mit deer shoyn gerait (If we wanted to talk to you, we would be).  
 
As with virtually all Yiddish greetings, alaykhem shoolem is often, though not inevitably, followed by a challenge in the form of nu, which has a basic meaning of "so" or "well," as if to say, "Now that we've got the hellos out of the way, what have you got to say for yourself? Nu--give some account of your activities, justify your presence on this planet." It is the prelude to "How are you?" or "What's doing?" (For more on nu, see here .) While nu can be used as part of virtually any greeting, the response to other salutations is just as fixed as alaykhem shoolem. Greetings are classified by time of day, time of week, and time of the Jewish year, and God help anyone who doesn't use the precise formula called for on a Saturday evening when Sunday is one of the two closing days of Passover--they'll never be taken seriously again. The basic weekday greetings are The Sabbath and other Jewish holidays have greetings of their own, which tend to be used even by people who would never think of observing them. These greetings are based on a rigid pecking order of holidays, in which Saturday trumps everything except for Yom Kippur:  
Friday afternoon through Saturday: GIT SHABES Good Sabbath A holiday that falls on a Saturday: GIT SHABES, GIT YONTEF Good Sabbath, happy holiday Saturday night: GITEH VOKH Good week Saturday during the High Holiday season: GIT SHABES, GIT YONTEF, GIT YOOR Good Sabbath, happy holiday, happy new year New moon: GITN KHOYDESH A good month Holidays (except Purim and Chanukah): GIT YONTEF Happy holiday The intermediate days of Passover and Tabernacles: GITN MOYED Happy in-between times It's as if "Merry Christmas" were a test, not a slogan. Newcomers to Yiddish can conceal their ignorance for a few extra seconds by taking advantage of the fact that every greeting, no matter how specialized, gets exactly the same response: GIT YOOR A good year. Hence the well-known proverb: Az meh git a yeedn a git morgn, git er oop a gants yoor, "If you give a Jew a good morning, he gives you a whole year in return." Since no opening line conveys good wishes for more than a year, you can never go wrong by offering a year in return--a habit that also saves you from having to pay much attention to the person who's started talking. Someone entering a home, a business, or an unusually hospitable kosher hotel with a Yiddish-speaking desk clerk will often be greeted with BUREKH-A-BU Blessed be the one who comes. The sole proper response--one that separates the yold from the adept in the secrets of Yiddish--is BUREKH-A-NIMTSEH Blessed be the one who is already here. As a noun, BURKH-A-BEH (note the shift in stress and loss of an e) means "welcome, reception." A SHAYNEM BURKH-A-BEH, "a lovely reception," means that you've been ignored, insulted, or attacked. If you should use the phrase while being physically ejected from someplace, it means "I had a yarmulke when I came in."  
 
When the lights go up in the burlesque house and you find Rabbi Goldberg sitting next to you, all there is to say (assuming that you're the one who recovers quickly enough to speak first) is, NU, RABBI, VOOS ZUGT EER GITS? What's the good word, Rabbi? [lit., "What good do you say?"] . It means, "Nice to see you, but why am I seeing you here?" and indicates that you've run into someone in a place where they aren't expected to be. In less embarrassing circumstances--you own the burlesque house and know that Rabbi Goldberg knows that you do--it's a friendly way of asking someone what business has brought them to so unusual a location. Good-bye Thousands of pop songs to the contrary, it's always easier to say good-bye, which makes one wonder why Jews take so long to do so. There are only three greeting-and-response pairs in standard use, and the response--as you might already have expected--is the same in every case: The all-purpose answer is A GIT YOOR a good year. If you're trying to end a conversation or walk out of a room, the most common way to say good-bye is ZEI GEZINT (literally, "be well"). If you're trying to get rid of a nudnik or have no plans of ever seeing someone again--so long as you can help it--you say ZEI MEER GEZINT or even ZEI-ZHE MEER GEZINT. The meer (which means "me") gives the expression a sense of "I hope that you're going to be healthy, because I have no intention of asking after you." " ZEI MEER GEZINT MIT [any noun you choose]" really means either, "Stop bothering me about whatever-it-is [because you're leaving]," or "You and your whatever-it-is-that-you-won't-stop-going-on-about can go to hell together." To someone who's aboutto embark on a trip, whether to the source of the Nile or the store on the corner, you say: If they indicate that they're planning to go to a place that you've already warned them off of, GAY (or FOOR) GEZINTERHAYT can also mean, "Go ahead and go, but don't say that I didn't warn you"; "Go--whatever happens is your own damned fault." How Are You? Despite the fact that a polite evasion is as close as anyone is likely to come to a positive response to the question--if you don't get a kvetch, you'll get a circumlocution--Yiddish speakers continue to ask after one another's welfare as if they were gathering material for a long-term anthropological study of what can go wrong. Such behavior might be based on religious principles: the Mishna enjoins us to "Be the first to greet [that is, inquire after the welfare of] every man" (Ovos 4:16), but says nothing about hanging around to listen to his answer. VOOS MAKHT EER? How are you? (To a stranger, elder or social superior)  
VOOS MAKHSTEE? How are you? (To a friend, a child, anyone whom you outrank)  
VOOS MAKHT A YEED? How are you? [lit. , "How is a Jew? " Used only between males; informal and synagogue usage]  
VOOS MAKHT EER GITS? How you doing, man/dude/pal o' mine? The verb makhn, "to make," can also mean "to do, to say; to swing, to wave, to be": VOOS MAKHT DEIN SHVESTER? How's your sister? The textbook response would be ZEE MAKHT GIT She's (doing) well. What you're far more likely to hear, assuming that she's really getting on all right, is KENEH HOREH or KENAINEH HOREH, variant pronunciations of a phrase that means "[may] no evil eye [befall her]" (see here), or the truly all-purpose BU-REKH-A-SHEM Thank God [lit., "blessed be God"], the politest possible way of saying absolutely nothing. The textbook response to any question about yourself, GANTS GIT very well, is pretty much confined to textbook use and doesn't really do much to further conversation. "I'm doing quite well, thanks. My children--they should live and be well--head up the only orthodox Junior Achievement Club inthe state; my husband, the cardiologist/rabbi, has just been named America's first Jewish astronaut and will soon be taking shabes into outer space, kenaineh horeh; I've won the Nobel Prize for Economics and Home Economics, and Color Me Kosher, my it's-fun-to-be- frum cosmetics business, is the first glatt kosher firm to be named to the Fortune 500. It's people like this for whom the evil eye was invented.  
 
The more usual responses to general questions about your welfare are E-e-h and nishkoosheh are two of many Yiddish words with a pronounced physical component. In order to use either of them effectively: 1. Raise the right hand to mid-chest level, palm parallel to the floor. 2. Give the wrist a quarter-turn to the left (toward you), followed immediately by a half-turn right (i.e., a quarter-turn from the starting position), followed immediately by a half-turn left. 3. Repeat if needed with an extended e-e-h or every time that nishkoosheh is said...

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Book Description HarperCollins Publishers Inc, United States, 2008. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint, Bilingual. Language: English . Brand New Book. In his New York Times bestseller, Born to Kvetch, author Michael Wex led readers on a hilariously edifying excursion through Yiddish culture and history. With Just Say Nu, he shows us how to use this remarkable language to spice up conversations, stories, presentations, arguments, and more, when plain English will not suffice (including, of course, lots of delightful historical and cultural side trips along the way). There is, quite simply, nothing in the world that can t be improved by being translated into Yiddish. With Just Say Nu, readers will learn how to shmooze their way through meeting and greeting, eating and drinking, praising and finding fault, maintaining personal hygiene, parenting, going to the doctor, committing crimes, going to singles bars, having sex, talking politics, talking trash, and a host of other mundane activities. Here also is a healthy schmear of optional grammar and the five most useful Yiddish words--what they mean, and how and when to use them in an entire conversation without anybody suspecting you don t have the vaguest idea about what you re actually saying. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780061657320

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