‘And why,’ you might ask, ‘do I need to pepper my conversations with words, phrases, entire sentences and paragraphs in a language that almost nobody really knows anymore?’ ” asks Michael Wex in the introduction to his guide to Yiddish, Just Say Nu. His answer, “Why not?” comes straight out of the Borscht Belt, as does much of his book. Wex is more comedian than linguist, and (in this) sequel to his bestseller Born to Kvetch, is meant to entertain as much as to teach. Its organization, based “on the Talmudic principle of ‘that reminds me,’ ” is somewhat random — a section on terms of endearment is followed by one on emergencies. But if you indulge its misch-masch logic, the book will offer you just enough knowledge, as Wex wryly puts it, to “sound totally au courant,” if not actually fluent. You will learn, for example, how to count in Yiddish and the multiple meanings of “nu,” an expression, he explains, which can denote anything from the gentle nudge “well?” to “What business is it of yours and who are you that you should even be asking?” It just goes to show you the value of Wex’s advice: “Uttered in the proper tone of voice, virtually any phrase in this book can be turned into an insult.”

Nora Krug, Washington Post

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