Did you come from one of those families where you walked off to kindergarten not knowing if you were speaking English or Yiddish? If the teacher held up a fork for identification, did you raise your hand and proudly — but wrongly — announce, “gupple”? How could gupple be wrong? It sounds just like “apple,” as in “apple pie.”
Fortunately, even if you don’t know your punim from your pupik, you can still enjoy “Just Say Nu,” the latest book from Yiddish maven Michael Wex. In fact, even if you can’t pronounce “nu,” reading the text in phonetic Yiddish or in English will give you the feeling of being immersed in the Jewish culture, and once immersed you’ll manage to float like a matzah ball.
Wex, author of “Born to Kvetch,” describes Yiddish as “the language of dissatisfaction.” But it’s so much more, as he continues to describe how Yiddish has a use and purpose in our daily lives (but there’s still plenty of dissatisfaction).
You may well recognize the very words your parents used when you brought home a 98 percent on an exam. “What happened to the other 2 percent, you fool, simpleton, hat with earflaps, tailor’s dummy, cabbage stem, piece of meat with two eyes.” Or, sarcastically, “You genius, you!”
Methods of death or of wishing it upon your enemies in Yiddish (always good to know): Suffocated, shot, stabbed, choked, smashed to bits, boiled and roasted — with an abscess on your liver.
In "Just Say Nu" Wex offers no fewer than 13 Yiddish terms to refer to the human rear and 26 frequently mentioned diseases. The nearly a dozen different terms he offers for “shut up” may induce nostalgia for your Yiddish upbringing (or necessitate therapy): “Shut your trap, take a mouthful of water, sit and grit your teeth and be silent, let our enemies speak already!”
Finally, other household expressions in a Yiddish-speaking home include “Have you gone off your nut?” and the all-purpose “ich voos” (for this!), which is the truncated version of “For this, the crap that I’ve just heard, for this, God gave you a mouth?” Wex maintains that “ich voos” consists of equal parts disbelief, contempt and impatience: the Yiddish trifecta.
Do you think there’s another language that offers such variety? You genius, you!
But wait, you putz, there’s more! Dating service, schmating service! All you need are "Just Say Nu"’s 15 Yiddish pick-up lines, including:
“If King Solomon had seen you he’d have wanted only one wife.” It gives you the chills, doesn’t it?
Wex sees the Yiddish influence everywhere, even in the film “Casablanca,” counterintuitively enough. And while Humphrey Bogart’s Rick doesn’t wish an abscess on Major Strasser — he just shoots him — he does utter
the eerily Yiddish-sounding line: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
Of course, if Rick’s Café Americain were truly a Jewish gin joint, he’d have doled out copious quantities of this Wexian drink. It’s called the “Alter Kaker” and consists of an ounce and a half of Old Granddad whiskey and half an ounce of prune juice — on the rocks, of course.
It’s the ideal cocktail with which to toast the suffocation, shooting, stabbing, choking or boiling of one’s enemies. L’chaim!
Loretta Eskenazi, J
To order your copy of the paperback, hardcover book or the award-winning audio CD (read by Wex himself) click on the images above.