Just Say 'Nu?': Food and Drink

A monthly column on making your daily life more Yiddish

By Michael Wex

Published May 15, 2008, issue of May 23, 2008.
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The main problem with eating all the time is that it can get in the way of talking. Contrary to popular belief, Yiddish-speakers aren’t obsessed with food; they’re obsessed with talking about food, especially what’s wrong with it: it’s the memory of food that attracts them. Much like bores who haunt cocktail parties, telling you that they’d “like to have written, but don’t like to write,” the mass of Yiddish-speakers wants to have eaten far more than it really wants to eat. It’s a question of satiety rather than aesthetics. Indispensable terms relating to consumption include:

TEler
plate

SHISL
bowl, dish

GLOOZ
glass, cup

A GLOOZ KAveh/TAI/MIlekh
a cup of coffee/tea/milk

GOOPL
fork

LEFL
spoon

MEser
knife

serVETkeh
napkin

TISH
table

TISH-TEKH
tablecloth

geRIKHT
dish, course

MEIKHL
dish, delicacy

A BISL
a little, a bit

NOKH A BISL
a little more

A SEEdeh FIN AKHT geRIKHTN
an eight-course meal

ZEIT aZOY GIT IN derLANGT MEER…
Please pass me… (polite)

GIB aHER…
Gimme here (less polite)

What you do with the stuff once you get it is pretty straightforward:

ESN
to eat

TRINKN
to drink

KEIen
to chew

SHLINgen
to swallow

FRESN
to gorge, eat vast amounts

SHTUPN DOOS MOYL
to stuff one’s face

OONtrinkn ZAKH (MIT)
to drink one’s fill, drink a lot (of)

A KHIdesh VOOS ER VERT ke-SAYder GRAIber?
Is it any wonder that he just keeps getting fatter?

ER FREST ZAKH OON A GANTSN TUG MIT khazeREI!
He gorges himself on crap all day!

IN ZEE? TRINKT ZAKH OON A GANtseh NAKHT MIT BEER!
And her? She soaks herself in beer all night!

farKHLINyen ZAKH
to gag

KRAIKN ZAKH
to choke

GREPSN
to belch

GAYN IN DER LINker KAIL aREIN
to go down the wrong way [lit., “go into the windpipe”]

S’IZ MEER aRAYN IN DER LINker KAIL
It went down the wrong way.

SEH[ZEE/ER] KAIRT MEER BREKHN
It/she/he makes me sick; It’s/she’s/he’s enough to make me vomit.

MEERZ nish-GIT
I’m nauseous, I’m going to throw up.

Whoopsing your cookies

Like most languages whose speakers have digestive systems, Yiddish possesses more terms for human regurgitation than for human rights. Given the prominence of the upset stomach in so much Yiddish discourse, it’s no surprise that the language has a full palette of expressions to describe its best-known consequence.

Heartburn, incidentally, is known as BREnenish or HARTS-BREnen, but these terms are used no more often than IMfarDEIung and NISHT-farDEIung, the two standard words for “indigestion,” which are rarely heard in day-to-day speech. Rather than say anything, sufferers tend to clutch their chests and groan, or simply ask for a glooz seltser.

If none of that works, here’s what happens, along with their basic meanings:

BREKHN
to vomit

tseRIKgaibm
to give back, return

kaPOYR SHLUGN
to bring up

GAIBM khaZOOreh
to return to sender

Khazooreh in the last example means “return,” “repetition of a lesson,” and “merchandise that has been sent back for a refund.”

There’s also:

OYSkern DEE GAL
to pour the gall out

BREKHN MIT GREEneh GAL
to throw up green bile, vomit violently.

Whatever comes up is known as:

KAIeh
vomit

BREKHekhts
vomit

The latter has a scarily onomatopoeic sound; fans of classical literature might notice that it also sounds a lot like the opening of the “Brekekekex” chorus in Aristophanes’ Frogs, a fact that would undoubtedly have made Aristophanes kvell.

The most interesting fact about Yiddish terms for losing your lunch is their frequent association with boredom, an association not without some influence on English. The Yiddish word nooDOteh means “nausea” or “tedium” — cause and effect are often hard to separate — and the adjective associated with it, NUDneh, means “nauseating, boring.” A nudneh person NUDyet — he or she bores you, forces you to endure nausea — and such a person is called a NUDnik. English has lost the gut-wrenching physicality that Yiddish — ever mindful of its speakers’ stomachs — never fails to stress; the basic meaning of nudnik, usually translated as “bore” or “pest,” is “person who provokes vomit in another; agent of upchuck.” NUDZHen, an alternate version of nudyen, gives us the English noun and verb “nudge,” as in, “Quit nudging,” “Don’t be such a nudge” — i.e., “shut up before you make me sick to my stomach.”

Praise and Blame

People who spend much of their time talking about food need a lot of words to describe it. I can’t recall having ever having seen a real restaurant review in Yiddish, which tends to judge entrées by poundage and to describe most food simply as good, better, best, or bad, worse, worst. If, however, you want to get invited back to someone’s house, there are some recommended terms.

The basic word for “tasty, delicious” is geSHMAK. Preceded by der, geshmak can also be a noun that means “taste.” A dish that’s really geshmak can be:

baTAMT
tasty

A MEIKHL
a delicacy

OY, IZ DOOS A MEIKHL
Oy, is this a taste-treat.

ES HOT A TAM-ga-NAIDN
It has the taste of paradise.

If you say such things but don’t really mean them, the food is IM-ba-TAMT—lacking in taste—but why settle for that when you can fall back on an old friend and say:

ES NUDZHet derFIN
It makes you sick,

or

S’IZ NISHT IN MOYL TSE NAImen
You can’t even get it into your mouth,

or the all-time classic,

ES HOT DER BUbes TAM
It has my grandmother’s taste, neither pleasant nor fresh

Kosher and Nonkosher

Just about everybody knows that these are the two main categories of Jewish food. Even native Yiddish-speakers who have never kept kosher (a surprisingly large number, outside of the orthodox world) are acutely aware of the differences between kosher and nonkosher food. For speakers from more traditional backgrounds, the distinction usually remains second nature for their entire lives.

KOOsher
kosher

IZ DOOS KOOsher?
Is this kosher?

DOOS IZ KOOsher?
This is kosher?

VEIZT MEER DAIM HEKHsher
Show me the sign or certificate that certifies it as kosher.

DOOS IZ NISHT KEN HEKHsher.
This is not a hekhsher.

IKH HIT KASHres SHTRENG OOP, IN VAYS VER ES IZ ORVILLE REDENBACHER IN VER ES IZ A ROOV
I am fastidious in my observance of kashres (kosherness) and can tell the difference between Orville Redenbacher and a rabbi.

TRAIF
unkosher

IKH ES NISHT KA’ TRAIF
I don’t eat unkosher food.

IKH ES NOR TRAIFI
only eat unkosher food.

Important forms of non-Chinese traif include

KHAzer
pig, pork

SHPEK
bacon

SHINkeh
ham

kolBAS
sausage

HUZ
hare

SHRIMP
shrimp

Gourmet traif:

SHTROYS
ostrich

SHNEKN
escargot

ZHAbeh-FEES
frogs’ legs.

Strictly Kosher

A hekhsher (plural, hekhSHAIrim) indicates that something is kosher; it’s a warrant that validates the consumption or use of a particular product by letting the consumer know that at least one rabbi has examined the raw materials and manufacturing processes and deemed them to be in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel. If every Jew is a king or queen, then the rabbi, whose fastidiousness is all that stands between the consumer and transgression, becomes a sort of spiritual taster. Everyone who relies on a particular hekhsher is implicitly trusting the certifying rabbi with their lives.

Idiomatically, the idea of a farLAISlekher hekhsher, a reliable heksher, isn’t restricted to rabbinical activity or things that might end up in your mouth. Hekhsher can be used to mean “vindication, validation, approval”; if Good Housekeeping were to publish in Yiddish, its famous Seal would become “The Good Housekeeping Hekhsher,” with neither the hekhsher nor the seal being in any way diminished.

Despite the fact that almost every food product available in America that can be kosher now has a hekhsher, you’ve still got to be careful if you’re planning to take food to observant friends or relatives. Never forget that the vast number of hekhshairim currently in existence attests to the fact that there’s no such thing as absolutely kosher. Kashres is like beauty — it’s in the eye of the person who looks but won’t touch, and repudiation is the hallmark of much of what passes for Jewish observance today: the more hekhshairim you don’t accept, the more virtuous you know yourself to be.

If you want to bring your orthodox hosts a treat, for God’s sake phone first and find out what they’ll eat. Ask what butcher or baker they buy from; failure to do so could earn your well-meant present a discreet trip to the garbage.

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


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