Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods
By Michael Wex
St. Martin’s. 304 pages. $24.95.
It’s been called folksy and quaint. It’s been labeled a dialect and dismissed as “jargon.” Even its defenders tend to admit that it died 50 years ago. Yiddish, nebekh, has suffered so much defamation of character that it could probably win a libel suit.
If Yiddish ever does sue, its first expert witness will be Michael Wex. In his extraordinary and important new book, Born to Kvetch, Wex debunks a century of misunderstandings about the primary language of Ashkenaz, and paints a startlingly unsentimental, erudite, and entertaining portrait of Eastern European Jewish life and speech. Most impressively, Wex’s take on the mameloshn (the mother tongue) isn’t fraught with nostalgia or idealism, and it is “neither pretty nor politically correct”—as he says, “Yiddish is a lot of things, but innocent isn’t one of them.”
Wex is a native speaker of Yiddish from a place without a whole lot of native speakers of Yiddish: Alberta, Canada. He’s a former Yeshiva bukher, stand-up comedian, translator, and scholar of English literature, all of which provide him with the tools to make his topic as raucously entertaining as a linguistics lecture invaded by the Three Stooges (who do, in fact, make several appearances). Illuminating the origins and meanings of Yiddish idioms, Wex is as likely to refer to The Dick Van Dyke Show or I. J. Schwartz’s 1918 translation of Hamlet as he is to 16th-century Yiddish authors. His jokes succeed whether he’s drawing them from Talmudic debates, Grateful Dead lyrics, or Jewish thieves’ slang.
In Born to Kvetch, Wex doesn’t strive for comprehensiveness, nor does he aspire to teach grammar; he simply wants his readers to know what Yiddish is like: how it sounds, what it feels like to speak it, and what it means to live a Yiddish life.
He covers the language’s origins, and offers dozens of juicy idioms relating to nature, money, food, childhood, marriage, sex, and death. His no-holds-barred surveys of Yiddish cursing and profanity are small masterpieces, for the simple reason that unlike previous books about Yiddish speech, Wex pulls no punches in terms of obscenity. (Fair warning: if this book were a TV show, it would have to be on HBO.) All of this enlightening material is solidly anchored in the work of historians, anthropologists, linguists, and the great twentieth century Yiddishists—but, thankfully, Wex limits himself to three simple footnotes.
Yiddish, Wex argues, is most comfortable when it’s complaining. It’s “a language that likes to argue with everybody about everything.” He explains this as consistent with the Mishnaic scholars (who “disagree 99.8 percent of the time”) and the principle of “aftselakhis”—“the impulse to do things only because someone else doesn’t want you to.” The kvetch, or complaint, is thus the basic unit of Yiddish thought, as developed over hundreds of years of Diaspora living: “kvetching becomes a way of exercising some small measure of control over an otherwise hostile environment.”
Wex downplays the socialist, secularist atmosphere of Yiddish life in Eastern Europe and America. He has relatively little to say about the Lower East Side culture of the Forvetz, the Freiheit, and the 2nd Avenue Yiddish theaters—probably because those stories have been told elsewhere (and they’ll be told again, for example, in Tony Michels’ A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York, being published by Harvard University Press in November). Wex argues that the religious component of Yiddish has been largely underappreciated, even when it’s not being deliberately edited out of the language, as happened in the former Soviet Union.
Most speakers, Wex points out, whether practicing or not, call their toilet tissue “asher yotser papir”—“the paper of ‘He Who has created’”—referencing the blessing that religious Jews say after using the restroom. Wex maintains that “To be ignorant of yidishkayt—traditional Jewish culture in the broadest sense—is to have no reason to speak Yiddish, no way to understand it properly.” This perspective explains why he spends so much time dredging up fascinating bits of Torah and Talmud, like the Gemara where sages discuss how long it should take for a man to make love to his wife. (Rabbi Akiva says, “As long as it takes to swallow an egg.”) These detours into the territory of theological literature afford insight into the world of people who spoke the language.
For those who know a handful of Yiddish words, and have perhaps leafed through Leo Rosten’s bestselling book, The Joys of Yiddish, Wex’s linguistic explorations plumb new depths; even fluent speakers of Yiddish—staggering as it seems, there are 178,945 of these in the U.S. alone, according to the 2000 census—will learn something on every page of Born to Kvetch. He sketches etymologies of familiar words like “schlimazel” (from the German for “bad” and the Hebrew for “luck”) and “nebekh” (from the Czech, “nebohy,” which means “unfortunate”), and he clarifies “bupkes” (literally, “goat dung”), which should not be used in polite company. In one typically illuminating aside, Wex reveals that Rosten’s classic definition of “chutzpah”—“murdering your mother and father, then throwing yourself on the mercy of the court because you’re an orphan”—was not at all Jewish in its origins, but rather cribbed from an American humorist, Artemus Ward.
Wex probably isn’t going to revitalize the language single-handedly, nor can he change the fact that most modern speakers of Yiddish are Hasidim who wouldn’t touch a book like this one with a ten-foot shtekl. But as Jews of all ages search for new ways to connect to their heritage, Yiddish is becoming increasingly attractive as a complex, flexible, and substantial link to the recent and not-so-recent past. Wex has produced an invaluable guidebook for those who want to know more, one that is almost as rich and hilarious as the language itself. All we can say is, “A sheynem dank.”