Just Say 'Nu?': Greeting and Meeting

By Michael Wex

Published November 20, 2007, issue of November 23, 2007.
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It’s supposed to be simple. An English greeting helps to move two people across the great divide from quiet to conversation, from separation to communication. You say “Hello,” “Good morning,” or “Good evening” and you get “Hello,” “Good morning,” or “Good evening” in return. Each formula is a well-paved pathway, a gentle ramp that leads easily from one state of being to another.

As we mentioned at the end of our last installment, a Yiddish greeting does nothing of the kind. Take a look at the most basic way of saying hello,

SHOOlem aLAYkhem,

which has a literal meaning of “peace upon you.” Now compare it with the sole permissible response, aLAYkhem SHOOlem, and you’ll see what you need to know from the start: Yiddish conversation begins with a willingness to say the reverse of whatever has just been said to you — even when you happen to agree. You’re not obliged to disagree, but you have to be ready to do so: Yiddish conversations progress as much by means of rhetorical questions and outright contradiction as by supposedly direct logical paths leading from conversational point A to conversational point B. Alaykhem shoolem implies no disagreement, of course; Hebrew and Arabic use almost identical greetings, but they don’t use them as warm-ups for the gainsaying yet to come.

Don’t be put off by this propensity to disagree; it’s a good thing, and helps to mark the boundary between real conversation and random acts of speech. Simple speech acts — raid, they’re called, “talk” — are as cheap in Yiddish as in any other language and tend not to be valued highly in a linguistic culture that prefers silence to lack of focus. Raid can be PISteh, empty; HARbeh, strong or harsh; they can even be geSHLIfeneh, polished, and thus all the more slippery. The one thing they don’t have to be is listened to:

One speaks into the world,

means that you’re talking to the void; your words are vain because they are aimless, directed to no one. Raid — which Yiddish uses no less than any other language does — are like kids at the recess-bell or gays in the closet: They’re going to come out, whether you want them to or not.

A shmoos, on the other hand (the Yiddish rhymes with “loose”), a real conversation, begins with the idea of partnership. It’s no accident that shmoos (pronounced *shmees *in the dialect used here; we don’t even agree with ourselves, let alone anyone else) comes from a Hebrew word that means “tiding, rumor”; something that you’ve heard rather than something that you’ve said. Shmoozing is based on listening, on the idea of responding to what you hear and being answered in turn by someone who has been listening to you.

Disagreement leads to even closer attention. Heart speaketh to heart is very nice until all that treacle starts to cloy; heart yelleth at heart can be just as human and a lot more fun. Yiddish not only helped to inspire much of Martin Buber’s work, it anticipated his idea of Ich und Du, I and Thou, by hundreds of years. To be sure, people who speak to each other in Yiddish spend much of their time in a sort of conversational collision, banging up against each other without ever going anywhere — just like people who are having sex. Contrary impulses and ideas pressing against each other can lead to communion and release: You don’t have a shmooze in Yiddish, you farFEER one. The verb means “to seduce, to lead astray.” Meh farFEERT a shmees; the meaningful exchange of words is a matter of enticement and persuasion.

The choice of verb here — the idiom means “to start or strike up an informal conversation” — gives us some insight into basic Yiddish notions of talk. While farfeern is frequently used to explain how girls get into trouble or how yeshiva boys fall victim to the blandishments of the outside world, all that is seduced in a Yiddish conversation, all that is farfeert or derailed, is the selfish and ultimately silly desire for one absolute or the other: either total silence or total refusal to shut the hell up. Just as two willing bodies come together only because both have already said yes, so a real shmooze depends on consent, on each party agreeing to listen to what the other has to say. The average Yiddish shmooze involves two people who have renounced their claims to silence on the one hand and to monologue on the other. Each is willing to give the other a chance to do something other than daydream or obey — even though each already knows that the other must be wrong.

As such, not every exchange of dialogue attains the status of shmooze. Plenty of nudniks speak Yiddish, and fear of their all-consuming tedium often causes Yiddish to be spoken at a clip that makes even the most agitated English sound like a pothead’s drawl; it’s a sign that either party to a dialogue is afraid that now is their last chance to get a word in. The shmooze is there to keep us from treating everybody like a nudnik, and it is ironic that the current English use of shmooze has stood the Yiddish meaning on its head:

Shmooze: To chat in a friendly and persuasive manner esp. so as to gain favor, business or connections… (she shmoozed her professors)

This sort of careerist nudnik-ery, defined for us here by the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, seems to be a recent development. Leo Rosten makes no mention of it in his entry for “shmooze” in “The Joys of Yiddish,” published in 1968, and I can’t recall having heard it myself until some time in the 1990s. The overtone of purposeful friendliness, affability with an ulterior motive, couldn’t be further from the feel of the original; it might be preferable to its purely English equivalent — “network” used as a verb, God forbid — but that doesn’t bring it any closer to the Yiddish. Where real Yiddish obscenities like shmok and potz (“schmuck” and “putz”) have turned cute in English, shmooze has been degraded from secular communion to self-serving sleaze. The transformation is ironic enough; it’s even more ironic that English had to reinterpret a word from Yiddish — the language of eternal dissatisfaction — to characterize an essential stage toward getting what you want.

English speakers seek to satisfy their desires; all a Yiddish-speaker wants is a chance to open his mouth. A real shmooze involves an acknowledgment of the presence and importance of the person to whom you’re speaking, which is why Yiddish leans so heavily on banter and wordplay; these apparently gratuitous remarks are there as conversational Hanukkah gelt, tokens of esteem, little spoken gifts.

The importance of the other person also explains why no Yiddish version of “Your call is important to us” will ever be found in this column. Even a strict textbook version would have to come with a question mark at the end: “Your call is important to us?” Yeah, sure. The shmooze version, the honest, no-nonsense rendition that should have been yours by right, is Ven meh volt gevolt mit deer raidn, volt men mit deer shoyn gerait, “If we wanted to talk to you, we would be.”

Adapted from “Just Say Nu,” by Michael Wex. Copyright (c) 2007 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

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