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Just Say 'Nu?': Food and Drink

Just Say 'Nu?': Food and Drink

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:

serVETkeh
napkin

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

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:

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

There’s also:

Whatever comes up is known as:

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:

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:

or

or the all-time classic,

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.

Important forms of non-Chinese traif include

Gourmet traif:

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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Michael Wex

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