Is Yiddish Finished (and Can You Say That in Yiddish)?


Yiddish for Every Occasion
(When English Just Won't Do)
By Michael Wex
320 pages. St. Martin's Press. $24.95.

Michael Wex came to wide public attention with Born to Kvetch (2005), a book that described the Yiddish language and how it works. If Born to Kvetch is, in Wex’s own words, “Yiddish anatomy,” Just Say Nu is “a body-building guide”—it shows you “how to flex the Yiddish muscles that Born to Kvetch describes.” The result is a fun-to-read manual for those who would like to add generous dollops of Yiddish to their working vocabulary. After all, there are times when English words seem just too colorless and un-salty; and when Yiddish packs just the right punch.

So far, so good; that is, if learning how to say “Nu” (with all the nuances and permutations that Wex delightfully lists) will turn rank amateurs into fairly respectable Yiddish speakers, and more important, if there are, in fact, places where Wex’s readers can take their linguistic skills for a spin. Take the section on “driving insults,” for example. According to Wex,

The air of many a Yiddish speaker’s car is heavy with slurs, slights, and threats of violence. A combative spirit takes possession of such a driver as soon as his tukhes touches the seat and his foot reaches the pedals; it departs just as quickly when he turns off the ignition and opens the door. King of the road becomes lord of antacids again.

Among the driving insults Wex would have us learn is GOYlem MIT A STEERING WHEEL. That’ll show him!—even though there’s a good chance that he won’t know what a golem is, nor will he slow down for a quick Jewish history lesson. Many of the conversational models—about how to address a new friend or how to chat about the weather—require another Yiddish speaker, and therein lies the rub: armed with hundreds of Yiddish words and phrases, what is one to do with them? Beyond the tightly-knit world of the ultra-Orthodox, who do not want to exchange Yiddish pleasantries with non-observant Jews, Yiddish is, however much Yiddishists will deny it, a language in its death throes. Jackie Mason is the last Jewish dialect comedian and, more important, it is a safe bet that, except for pockets of Hasidim scattered in America and Israel, there will be no Yiddish speakers in 50 years. You can, of course, say Nu all you want, but, like driving curses, you’ll only be saying it to yourself.

Just Say Nu is filled with commentary designed to generate a knowing smile if not a downright laugh but Wex’s wit is best taken in small doses. Fortunately, most readers won’t go from the book’s Introduction to its concluding Yiddish-English Glossary without so much as a potty break; instead, they will turn to the sections that catch their eye: emergencies, illness, old age, and 11 terms for the female breast or genitalia.

Michael Wex has been called a “Yiddish national treasure,” no doubt for his books on Yiddish and his one-man/stand-up shows. Given the way that his quirky, often irreverent voice is everywhere to be heard in Just Say Nu, I suspect that he has large (largely Jewish) crowds rolling in the aisles. But a “national treasure,” I think not—not only because the phrase seems part-and-parcel of the marketing ploys that swaddle Wex like a blanket but also because if the phrase is to have any meaning, at least in terms of Yiddishists, it more properly attaches itself to people such as Maurice Samuel (In Praise of Yiddish) or Uriel Weinrich (College Yiddish).In the best-case scenario, a popularizing work helps to bring attention—and, yes, popularity—to a subject that might otherwise suffer in obscurity and silence.

If Just Say Nu helps to swell the numbers who take Yiddish courses at colleges and Jewish community centers, that will be a good thing, and I will happily take back any reservations I have about Wex’s books. But I fear that Born to Kvetch and Just Say Nu are contemporary versions of Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish (l968), a book that many readers much enjoyed and that caused certain pinch-faced Yiddishists to wonder, “And what about the sorrows?

Wex surely knows that criticism comes with the territory he writes about. I. B. Singer once told me that there was a time when New Yorkers thought nothing of calling the offices of the Jewish Forward when they had a question about a Yiddish word. In the 1950s, it was often “pole lamp,” as if there were pole lamps in the world Sholem Aleichem wrote about. But the word they asked for most was “complaint.” As Singer explained, “If you told them on-TOI-shin, they would say it was close but not exactly right. If you said, Oop-NAR-in, they were unsatisfied.” So, he went on, “I learned to tell them that I did, in fact, know the Yiddish word for ‘complaint,’ but if I told them they would just complain.”

I could complain about Wex’s book but I won’t. Why so? Because I found myself returning to certain sections, the one on children, for example, and adding phrases such as ZEE SHAYNT aROYS VEE A YAGdeh FIN Milekh (“She shines forth like a berry out of milk”) to the vocabulary I use to describe my granddaughter. No doubt others will find their own favorites. The net result is that more people will find the “vitamin” that I. B. Singer thought the Yiddish language was. That can’t be a bad thing.