Just Say Nu… Yiddish for Every Occasion (When English Just Won’t Do) by Michael Wex, St. Martin’s Press.
Yiddish is still breathing – but hardly. Learned experts have been predicting its demise for over a century. Abe Cahan, longtime editor of the Daily Forverts saw Yiddish as dead and buried by 1933. But as the late I.B. Singer pointed out, “In Jewish life, it’s a long way between being sick and being dead.”
At one time, the Yiddish press and periodicals in North America had a combined circulation of 800,000 – and readership was probably close to twice that figure. In New York City alone, there were 12 full-time Yiddish theatres.
In the period before World War II, most of the world’s Jews conversed in Yiddish. Growing out of medieval German, with elements drawn from Slavic languages and the holy tongue of Hebrew, Yiddish was a lingua franca for Ashkenazi Jews throughout eastern Europe and Germany, gradually spreading to far-flung Jewish communities in the United States and Australia.
Then, history played a series of ugly tricks on Yiddish. The Nazis wiped out half of its speakers in the Holocaust, and Stalin crushed another large segment. But in some ways, the worst damage was done by the freedom and comforts of North America, as assimilation drained Jewish Americans of the need to speak a language all their own.
Canadians will remember with nostalgic affection a number of organizations that struggled valiantly to preserve Yiddish. The Workmen’s Circle (Arbeter Ring) – which, in the ’30s harboured a socialist-cosmopolitan outlook – engaged in numerous Yiddish cultural activities that included afternoon elementary and high school Yiddish classes, a summer camp, concerts, lectures and journals in Yiddish.
The Farband (socialist-Zionist) and the left-wing Jewish People’s Fraternal Order worked the same side of the street, only on a smaller scale.
Michael Wex, who lives in Toronto, has been hailed as “one of the leading lights of the current Yiddish revival.” He lectures widely on Yiddish themes and is the author of the recent enthusiastically welcomed book, Born to Kvetch. Publishers Weekly called it “a treasure-trove of linguistics, sociology, history and folklore.”
Just Say Nu contains nine chapters and provides Yiddish expressions for such life situations as meeting and greeting, food and drink, family life, health and illness, and love and sex.
The author asserts that the eager beginner can go a long way conversationally with little more than the following five words: “Nu” (well), “shoyn” (already), “epes” (sort of), “takeh” (exactly) and “nebach” (too bad).
Wex offers hundreds of Yiddish phrases and expressions to cover every mood and situation.
Food: Es hot der bubes tam – “It has my grandmother’s taste.” Oy, iz dos a meichl – “Oy, is this a taste treat!” Er shtupt dee kishkeh – “He stuffs his guts.”
Family life: Mach tsee doos mohl – “Shut your mouth.” Zits in krits in shveig – “Sit and grind your teeth and be quiet.” Er tselaygt zach vee baym tatn in veingortn – “He’s lying around like he is in his father’s vineyard.”
Health and sickness: toyb vee dee vant – “deaf as the wall;” oysgemitchet – “exhausted.”
One criticism – the author is a bit too free with four-letter words, and it’s no surprise that the book’s longest chapter is on “love and sex.” Do we really need 11 designations for women’s breasts and 12 terms for female genitalia?
The volume is enhanced by a Yiddish-English glossary and a brief appendix of basic Yiddish grammar. Final word to eager readers, hot hanooeh – “enjoy.”