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“Just Say Nu” New York Times Review

What’s Yiddish for double-dipping? With verve, élan and something only a non-Yiddish speaker would call chutzpah, Michael Wex returns to the linguistic mother lode that yielded “Born to Kvetch,” his brilliant cultural history of Yiddish. This time around, in “Just Say Nu,” he gets down to the everyday business of putting Yiddish to use. When a tipesh (moron) dawdles in front of you on the highway, selecting the right curse matters. Mr. Wex, like a Yiddish sommelier, knows just the expression for this or any other occasion.

(Just Say Nu) is packaged as a primer, with a mild pretense of being an instruction manual. Mr. Wex lists Yiddish numerals, explains pronouns and includes drawings of a man and a woman with the principal body parts identified in Yiddish. This is all beside the point. Most readers will skip over the grammar and syntax and head right to Mr. Wex’s comic explanations of Yiddish phrases, and how to get maximum impact out of a language strong on aggression, contempt and abuse.

Now, that driver. Is he a shmendrik, kuneh-laiml or yold? Yiddish parses the stupidity of others in a thousand ways, and fine distinctions matter. “A shmendrik walks (or drives) into a wall because he expects it to get out of his way; a kuneh-laiml didn’t notice the wall to begin with,” Mr. Wex explains.

Both words come from the names of characters in the Yiddish theater. “A shmendrik is the sort of person who made FEMA so effective both before and after Hurricane Katrina; a yold believes the shmendrik’s claim that it wasn’t his fault, while the kuneh-laiml wants to know when the hurricane’s going to hit.”

Personally, I favor shoyteh ben pikholts (“fool with a woodpecker for a father”), at whom the following bit of advice should be flung: “Vilst krikhn? Zolst meer krikhn afn boyekh.” (You want to crawl? You should crawl on your belly.”) That’s much more creative, and satisfying, than the overworked middle finger. There are plenty more where that came from in Just Say Nu.

Mr. Wex addresses most of the important life situations: meeting and greeting, food and drink, family life, health and illness, love and sex. There is overlap, of course. Yiddish is a supple language, and some words have near-universal application. Mr. Wex goes so far as to say that beginners can get through any conversation with nothing more than “nu” (well), “shoyn” (already), “epes” (sort of), “takeh” (exactly) and “nebakh” (too bad), each of which gets a mini-treatise.

The ineffable nu can be a neutral link between clauses, a throat-clearer like “O.K.” (“nu, let’s get down to it”) or “so,” or an escape hatch from an unpleasant topic. (“X died suddenly, nu, let’s speak of happier matters.”) A long, drawn-out nu, addressed to a stranger, means, “What are you doing here and what do you have to say for yourself?” Then there’s “the nu of utter indifference,” a big, fat “so what.”

We have only scratched the surface. “I’ve been told that in many a marriage, a late-night, slightly diffident ‘nu?’ often accompanied by a shrug (and usually uttered by the husband) is still considered foreplay,” Mr. Wex writes.

Although Just Say Nu never does explain why, after heavy exercise, you shvits vee a beeber (“sweat like a beaver”), he delves into the curious history behind obscure formulations like Yukheen oo-Voyez, a leering phrase often heard after a wolf-whistle. It refers to the two bronze pillars, well formed and free-standing, that King Solomon placed outside the temple vestibule.

Here and elsewhere, intonation is critical. The potent “Vays ikh voos” (literally, “I know what”), an acidic retort to arrant nonsense, depends on delivery for its effect. It’s not so much spoken as spat, or sneezed out, “slow-roasted over the adenoids before being projected through the nose.” It can be devastating when performed correctly.

“It consists of equal parts disbelief, contempt and impatience — practically a Yiddish trifecta,” Mr. Wex writes. Those who fail to master it can simply turn the page. “Uttered in the proper tone of voice,” Mr. Wex points out, helpfully, “virtually any phrase in this book can be turned into an insult.”

The brief discussion of chutzpah in Just Say Nuis illuminating. The word has come to mean cheek, or an admirable nerviness. This is not right, Mr. Wex argues. Chutzpah is always pejorative, suggesting an “offensive disregard for manners, social conventions or the feelings of others.”

In Yiddish a clever, nervy person, that is, a mazik or mamzer, has an abundance of saykhl (brains), not chutzpah. On the far edge of acceptability, we encounter “shmad-shtik” (“apostasy” shtik), the sort of thing Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat does — “shtik so wild that you wouldn’t have expected it of a Jew.” But not chutzpah.

Sometimes the language comes up short. Mr. Wex, trying to explain the concept of a colonoscopy in Yiddish, struggled for technical terms and fell back on “fat kishka” for colon. The elderly relative to whom he was speaking listened solemnly and then asked, “Do you have to pay?”

No one is going to learn Yiddish by reading Mr. Wex. But he or she will pick up some of the music and maybe hum along. I, for one, am itching for the opportunity to say “Zits in krits in shveig.” It means “Sit and gnash your teeth and be silent.” That should pretty much end the conversation.

William Grimes, New York Times

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