Picture me ten years ago, desperate and broke. I’m in an editing suite, watching porn with a producer. “So you see what’s happening here?” he asks. “She’s switched rooms with the rabbi’s wife, but the desk clerk forgot to tell the rabbi. When he comes back at night, he goes straight to the room and jumps into bed…He’s gotta say something, know what I mean? Think you can do it?”
I’d spent my life getting ready for it: A non-Jew was going to give me money to say four or five words in Yiddish. I nodded, he set some levels, and off we went. “Oy,” I moaned, watching the rabbi’s face on the screen, “Oy, Shprintse” — I’d given the rabbi’s wife a good old-fashioned Yiddish name. “Oy! Oy! Shprintse,” the rabbi was about to climax. “Oy-vay-iz-meer-Shprintse…Oy vay.”
“Oy vay?” The producer was yelling into my headphones. “Oy vay? Don’t think you can screw with me just because I’m not Jewish. Now let’s do it again and let’s do it right. Tell me what you say.”
I’d just told him, but he didn’t want to know. The rest was all his fault. “Nu,” I said. “What you really say is nu.”
“Then say it. And don’t say anything else. Just say nu.”
There’s something almost Zen-like about it, the idea that the same set of words and expressions can be used to express pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow, satisfaction and discontent. Since none of it is going to last, why bother to name two sets of phantoms, as if the cosmos were a kosher kitchen and illusions could be dairy or meat? If all life is suffering, then oy vay iz meer — “o, woe is me” — is the proper response to everything.
Most Jews are not Buddhists, though, let alone students of Zen. While virtually any Yiddish-speaker would subscribe to the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths — the idea that to live is to suffer — he or she would probably differ with the Buddha on the final cause of that suffering. It isn’t desire that gets in the way of happiness; the Jews’ problems are rooted in devotion to the immutable rather than attachment to transitory things or ideas:
Meh ken laibm
(You could live),
as they say in Yiddish. The problem is not even vaguely meta-physical. Life in the fullest sense of the word is indeed possible in this sublunary, material world; life is what it’s here for.
Meh ken laibm
(You could live),
as any Yiddish-speaking Jew can tell you,
Ober meh lozt nisht
(But they won’t let you).
It isn’t life that’s to blame, it’s the living. Just about all of them. There are a lot of them, they’re all out to get you — and worse, as far as they’re concerned, it’s your fault.
Yiddish is under no illusions about the nobility of human nature; the language and its approach to life owe their existence to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, to the exile of the whole of the Jewish people. And what caused all of this to happen? What started a chain of generally unpleasant events that is still unfolding? What momentous occurrence brought it all about? A man was thrown out of a party to which he’d been invited by mistake (see Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gitin, folio 55b).
Yiddish offers a refreshingly realistic view of human life and motivation. While it is unfair to say that Yiddish glories in human small-mindedness, Yiddish is certainly not afraid to acknowledge the importance of small-mindedness in human affairs. In the Yiddish world, where sages and tradesmen were often the very same people, happiness, contentment of the most inconsequential sort, is like a wallet full of cash: great to have, dumb to flash.
Pleasure thus tends to be taken quietly, in private. It isn’t that Yiddish-speakers are never happy; they’re happy, all right, they just don’t want to admit it. They’re wary of having others come in and rain on their parade — whether those others are human beings or the wicked spirits and evil eyes that are believed to bedevil all humanity. Best keep your happiness inside, where it’s less likely to be stolen or disturbed. As the Bible tells us, “And Judah and Israel dwelt in safety, each man under his vine and each under his fig tree” (I Kings 5:5). A mentsh, a decent and proper human being, doesn’t have to be satisfied with his or her own vine or fig tree; a mentsh merely makes sure that his or her vine or fig tree isn’t enlarged at the expense of someone else’s.
It is difficult to divorce these ethical and superstitious currents from the historical conditions that led to the development of a mentality that holds the real value of an education to be that “they can never take it away from you” — as if gangs of ravening goyim were going to launch an academic search-and-seizure pogrom to plunder your memories of Statistics 101. Yiddish-speaking Jews are the teenagers among the peoples of the world, afraid to say that they like anything lest it, too, be taken away from them by their stern, often angry father or the juvenile delinquent babysitters into whose hands He has cast them.
This is the feeling that leads to the famous old joke about two Jews who meet after not having seen each other for some time. “Nu?” says the first one.
The second says, “E-e-h.”
“Ah!” says the first one.
The second goes, “Mmm.”
“Oh,” nods the first.
“A-ha,” says the second. “S’iz azoy git zakh arooptseraidn fin hartsn, It’s so good to get it off my chest.”
We’re not here to talk about Yiddish theory, though; this column will be about Yiddish practice, about using the language yourself and understanding what’s being said around you. The installments are designed to help you transform your experience of the world by making Yiddish a part of your daily life. Rather than simply describe the language and explain how it works, we’re going to show you what to do with it. If the material in my first book, “Born to Kvetch,” was Yiddish anatomy, “Just Say Nu” is a bodybuilding guide: It will show you how to flex the Yiddish muscles that “Born to Kvetch” described.
“And why,” you might ask, “do I need to pepper my conversation with words, phrases, entire sentences and paragraphs in a language that almost nobody really knows anymore?”
Why not? Yiddish has the unique ability to diminish human misery without providing any concomitant increase in happiness — and if you think that’s easy, here’s your chance to try it.
Don’t look for standard western logic here; like any real conversation, this column is structured on the Talmudic principle of “that reminds me,” which is why curses and descriptions of anger will be found in the section on driving — they’ve been included where they’re most likely to come to mind and prove useful.
Next month we’ll take a look at how to start a conversation in Yiddish. Until then, please consider the fact that the only permissible response to
the standard Yiddish for “hello,” is
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.
Adapted from “Just Say Nu,” by Michael Wex. Copyright ©2007 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Marin’s Press.