Just Say 'Nu?': Seasonal Greetings

In our last installment, we looked at the most common of all Yiddish greetings, shoolem alaykhem, and its inevitable response, alaykhem shoolem. As with virtually all Yiddish greetings, alaykhem shoolem is often, though not inevitably, followed by a challenge in the form of nu, which has a basic meaning of “so” or “well,” as if to say, “Now that we’ve got the hellos out of the way, what have you got to say for yourself? Nu — give some account of your activities, justify your presence on this planet.” It is the prelude to “How are you?” or “What’s doing?”

While nu can be used as part of virtually any greeting, the response to other salutations is just as fixed as alaykhem shoolem. Greetings are classified by time of day, time of week, and time of the Jewish year, and God help anyone who doesn’t use the precise formula called for on a Saturday evening when Sunday is one of the two closing days of Passover — they’ll never be taken seriously again.

The basic weekday greetings are

The Sabbath and other Jewish holidays have greetings of their own, which tend to be used even by people who would never think of observing them. These greetings are based on a rigid pecking order of holidays, in which Saturday trumps everything except for Yom Kippur:

Friday afternoon through Saturday:

A holiday that falls on a Saturday:

Saturday night:

Saturday during the High Holiday season:

New moon:

Holidays (except Purim and Chanukah):

The intermediate days of Passover and Tabernacles:

It’s as if “Merry Christmas” were a test, not a slogan. Newcomers to Yiddish can conceal their ignorance for a few extra seconds by taking advantage of the fact that every greeting, no matter how specialized, gets exactly the same response:

Hence the well-known proverb: Az meh git a yeedn a git morgn, git er oop a gants yoor, “If you give a Jew a good morning, he gives you a whole year in return.” Since no opening line conveys good wishes for more than a year, you can never go wrong by offering a year in return — a habit that also saves you from having to pay much attention to the person who’s started talking.

Someone entering a home, a business, or an unusually hospitable kosher hotel with a Yiddish-speaking desk clerk will often be greeted with BUrekh-a-BU

Blessed be the one who comes

The sole proper response — one that separates the yold from the adept in the secrets of Yiddish — is

As a noun, burkh-A-beh (note the shift in stress and loss of an “e”) means “welcome, reception.” A SHAYnem burkh-A-beh, “a lovely reception,” means that you’ve been ignored, insulted, or attacked. If you should use the phrase while being physically ejected from someplace, it means “I had a yarmulke when I came in.”

When the lights go up in the burlesque house and you find Rabbi Goldberg sitting next to you, all there is to say (assuming that you’re the one who recovers quickly enough to speak first) is,

It means, “Nice to see you, but why am I seeing you here?” and indicates that you’ve run into someone in a place where they aren’t expected to be. In less embarrassing circumstances — you own the burlesque house and know that Rabbi Goldberg knows that you do — it’s a friendly way of asking someone what business has brought them to so unusual a location.

Goodbye

Thousands of pop songs to the contrary, it’s always easier to say goodbye, which makes one wonder why Jews take so long to do so. There are only three greeting-and-response pairs in standard use, and the response — as you might already have expected — is the same in every case:

(on Saturday night)

The all-purpose answer is

If you’re trying to end a conversation or walk out of a room, the most common way to say goodbye is ZEI geZINT (literally, “be well”). If you’re trying to get rid of a nudnik or have no plans of ever seeing someone again — so long as you can help it — you say ZEI MEER geZINT or even ZEI-zhe MEER geZINT. The meer (which means “me”) gives the expression a sense of “I hope that you’re going to be healthy, because I have no intention of asking after you.” “ZEI MEER geZINT MIT [any noun you choose]” really means either, “Stop bothering me about whatever-it-is [because you’re leaving],” or “You and your whatever-it-is-that-you-won’t-stop-going-on-about can go to hell together.” To someone who’s about to embark on a trip, whether to the source of the Nile or the store on the corner, you say:

If they indicate that they’re planning to go to a place that you’ve already warned them off of, GAY/FOOR geZINterHAYT can also mean, “Go ahead and go, but don’t say that I didn’t warn you”; “Go — whatever happens is your own damned fault.”

How are you?

Despite the fact that a polite evasion is as close as anyone is likely to come to a positive response to the question — if you don’t get a kvetch, you’ll get a circumlocution —Yiddish speakers continue to ask after one another’s welfare as if they were gathering material for a long-term anthropological study of what can go wrong. Such behavior- might be based on religious principles: the Mishna enjoins us to “Be the first to greet [that is, inquire after the welfare of] every man” (Ovos 4:16), but says nothing about hanging around to listen to his answer.

The verb makhn, “to make,” can also mean “to do, to say; to swing, to wave, to be”:

The textbook response would be

What you’re far more likely to hear, assuming that she’s really getting on all right, is

variant pronunciations of a phrase that means “[may] no evil eye [befall her],” or the truly all-purpose

the politest possible way of saying absolutely nothing. The textbook response to any question about yourself,

is pretty much confined to textbook use and doesn’t really do much to further conversation:

“I’m doing quite well, thanks. My children — they should live and be well — head up the only orthodox Junior Achievement Club in the state; my husband, the cardiologist/rabbi, has just been named America’s first Jewish astronaut and will soon be taking shabes into outer space, kenaineh horeh; I’ve won the Nobel Prize for Economics and Home Economics, and Color Me Kosher, my it’s-fun-to-be-frum cosmetics business, is the first glatt kosher firm to be named to the Fortune 500.”

It’s people like this for whom the evil eye was invented.

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

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Michael Wex

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Just Say 'Nu?': Seasonal Greetings

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