This holiday season was nudnik season around my house. My father, who is deadly, used the Yiddish word to skewer a certain friend; and as a result I came to understand the word "nudnik" in all its glory. Nudnik means a bore and a pest. Webster’s says the root is Russian for boredom. Or in Leo Rosten’s definition, "A nudnik is not just a nuisance; to merit the status of nudnik, a nuisance must be a most persistent, talkative, obnoxious, indomitable, and indefatigable nag. I regard nudnik as a peerless word for the characterization of a universal type."
At one point over the holidays, my wife said, "Nudnik is you." Because I am something of a chatterbox; and she doesn’t suffer fools.
A few days ago my wife said, chozzerai, meaning b.s., and today she called me a luftmensch.
I said, "How much Yiddish do you know?"
My wife said, "A little. Yiddish is the language of New York."
I asked her to explain and she told me a story. When she first moved to New York from Philadelphia nearly 30 years ago, she interviewed with the literary agent Charlotte Sheedy, who was looking to hire an assistant, and Sheedy, who is Jewish, said something about the UJA, and my wife, instead of doing the right thing and pretending that she understood, said, What’s the UJA? Sheedy didn’t like my wife, my wife says, regarding her as an arrogant WASP, and she gave her a curt lecture about, If you’re going to work in New York, then you have to know that kind of thing.
Needless to say, my wife didn’t get the job. But she did get the lesson. She and her two sisters have all worked closely with Jews, and all of them can throw around Yiddish words.
For me the lesson of the story is that in taking a place in the US establishment, we have shared our gifts and changed America and ourselves. You can’t go backwards into parochialism.