Life on the Kibitz

By Edmon J. Rodman

Published January 20, 2010, issue of January 29, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A book about talking should seem as natural as moving your jaw, especially for a Jewish audience: people who love to comment, question and, yes, complain. Daniel Menaker’s new book, “A Good Talk — The story and Skill of Conversation” (Twelve, 2010, $20), a nicely framed approach to the art of conversation utilizing digression, humor, even impudence, is a useful kibitz on this almost proprietary Jewish subject.

Many of us, for example, become tongue-tied and brain-knotted when it comes time to initiate conversations. One way to begin, Menaker advises, is by giving compliments. Saying “ ‘What a wonderful tie!’ is fine,” he writes. “As long as a) the other person is wearing a tie, and b) it is by our standards indeed wonderful.”

He also advises how to deal with “deadly nightshade,” people who talk too much. (Many of his examples are from his 20 years as an editor at the New Yorker.) As a remedy, he suggests changing the subject, by initiating a Top 10 list — “Top 10 movies. Top 10 foods.” Most of us in the same situation are probably thinking, “Top 10 ways to disappear.”

Clearly a man who enjoys his face-to-face time (a transcribed conversation is a key talking point of the book), Menaker defines the best conversations as having an aimless undirected quality. Last Passover, he would have liked my Seder.

“Some good conversations linger,” says Menaker.

For many Americans, certain conversational topics remain taboo: religion, sex, politics, the amount of tread remaining on your tires. Though Menaker says that “most ordinary people agree that religion has a conversational cordon around it,” he also adds, “Far better would be to admit religion into the open areas of conversation.” Many readers, I think, would say, “l’chaim,” to that.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.