Et tu, Wex?


By Philologos

Published December 23, 2005, issue of December 23, 2005.
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Why is it that in the English language there are so many popular books about Yiddish as opposed to, say, French, Portuguese, Turkish or Hindi? And why is it that these books are invariably humorous in tone, as if Yiddish were somehow an intrinsically cute or hilarious language? For instance, log on to Amazon’s Web page that advertises Barbara Davilman and Ellis Weiner’s “Yiddish With Dick and Jane(whose “brief story,” we are told there, “is priceless, [and whose] equally funny glossary is a great reference to which readers can return any time they need the right Yiddish word — or whenever they need to determine whether the jerk they just saw is a putz, a schmo, or a schmuck”), and the other books you will be referred to are Yetta Emmes’s “Drek: The Real Yiddish Your Bubbe Never Taught You,” Benjamin Blech’s “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Yiddish” and “How to Talk Jewish” by comedian Jackie Mason (along with Ira Berkow).

Do we think of any other language this way?

And now along comes another such book, in some ways the best and in others the most aggravating of them all. If one wants to praise Michael Wex’s recently published “Born To Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods” (St. Martin’s Press), there is a great deal to praise it for. It is witty, erudite, perceptive and full of fascinating odds and ends. And unlike many books on Yiddish, its author is a native speaker of the language and knows it inside out. There are no embarrassing gaffes here; no errors of grammar, idiom or fact; no uninformed statements. It’s definitely an inside job.

And yet precisely because Wex, a novelist (in English), translator (from Yiddish) and teacher who lives in Toronto, knows Yiddish so well and can be so clever and insightful about it, one wants to say to him: “Et tu? What has Yiddish done to deserve such a book from her own flesh and blood? Do we really have to hear it said one more time, and by someone like you of all people, that what characterizes Yiddish among languages is its special talent for complaining, cursing, ridiculing, backbiting, appeasing the supernatural, warding off the Evil Eye, discussing everything from birth to death and food to sex with a black, sarcastic irony, and in general, assisting its speakers to get through life as neurotically and miserably as possible while making a bitter joke of it?”

Here are a few of the book’s pronouncements:

“… alone in the history of the world, Yiddish-speaking Jews long ago broke the satisfaction barrier and figured out how to express contentment by means of complaint….”

“Compared with contemporary English, Yiddish is a regular haunted house where demons frolic and sinister forces rage nearly unchecked.”

“As a language of goles, of the exile that has defined every aspect of Jewish life since the destruction of the Second Temple, Yiddish has developed an unusually extensive vocabulary of poverty, want and stymied desire — the indispensable prerequisites for a really good kvetch.”

“We eat, sleep, go to the toilet, and die [in Yiddish]. We pay taxes and serve in the army and do business, but we’re shut out, excluded from all the usual sources of pleasure — we’re on Turtle Island, and turtles are treyf.”

“There is almost no phase of human life that Yiddish takes entirely seriously.”

Ha, ha. Humor aside, however (and Wex can be genuinely funny), there’s something wrong in talking about any language in this manner. It’s not that one can’t find plenty of Yiddish expressions or conversational ploys with which to back up such formulations. But there are two big problems with them. One is the confusion of a language with its users. Of course one can kvetch marvelously in Yiddish — but one can kvetch marvelously in Sicilian, too. It’s the kvetcher who kvetches, not the language. And by the same token, although you would never guess it from reading “Born To Kvetch,” if you happen to be a Yiddish-speaking Jew who is by nature easygoing, fun loving and optimistic (yes, there are such people — I’ve even known one or two of them myself), there’s no problem being them in Yiddish, either. It’s telling, to take one example, that among the many hundreds of Yiddish words and idioms that Wex includes in his book, he couldn’t find room for that spontaneous little exclamation of enjoyment and appreciation, a mekhaye! (literally, “a life-giver!”), one of Yiddish’s most wonderful everyday expressions.

Beyond this, there is the whole question of how a book like Wex’s, presents, as do so many others on Yiddish, a caricatured picture of Eastern European Jewish life and its American aftermath, one drawn more from the Jewish joke book and the novels of Isaac Bashevis Singer than from any historical reality. Even within the world of religious Orthodoxy, which Wex seems to take as the normative expression of Ashkenazic Jewry though by the late 19th century it had already ceased to be that, there were many more shades of behavior and character types than he indicates — let alone in the world of secular Yiddish society and culture, which from his book you hardly would guess ever existed. A Jewish joke is a Jewish joke, but do we really have to turn an entire civilization into one?

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

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