Born To Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods
By Michael Wex
St. Martin’s Press, 320 pages, $24.95.
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If you asked me whether I enjoyed Michael Wex’s hilarious and learned book, “Born To Kvetch,” I would find myself in an impossible quandary. To admit the rare pleasure I derived from reading it would be to violate what Wex argues is the very essence of Yiddish sensibility: a stubborn, cynical and often maddening refusal to concede satisfaction, with anything. So, despite my enjoyment of Wex’s fresh linguistic psychoanalysis of Yiddish culture, I am bound as a Jew to respond — aftselochis ! (spitefully) — with nothing more flattering than a kvetch. Thankfully however, Wex provides a variety of ingenious Yiddish idioms whereby I might indicate approval of his work, without betraying my Yiddishkeit by “speaking goyish” — that is, by expressing satisfaction or direct, cordial flattery.
So, did I like this book, you ask?
Let me tell you: “ Mayne sonim zoln nisht hano’e hobn fun a aza bukh!” (“My enemies should never enjoy such a book!”)
Wex analyzes the many ways that Yiddish — a language that has perfected the art of the curse while experiencing deep discomfort with praise — developed a strategy to deal with those rare times when a Yiddish Jew (henceforth, the “Yid”) has nothing negative, nasty or bitter to say.
Imagine, for example, that the Yid has somehow managed to spend the night with Halle Berry and is asked, “ Iz zee shayn ?” (“Is she pretty?”). Without lying –– or risking sounding satisfied by responding in a goyish (positive) way –– the Yid can turn his reluctant concession of Berry’s undeniable beauty into both a kvetch and a curse: “ Mayne sonim zoln zayn azoy mees ” (“My enemies should only be as ugly” [as she is pretty]).
The inquirer gets far more than he asked for, always a risk when conversing in Yiddish. Not only has he received an honest, if tortuously indirect, response to his question, but he also has learned that the Yid has bitter enemies, and he has shared in the nasty Yiddish curse that these enemies should all turn metaphysically ugly.
The “my enemies” trope is one of dozens of Yiddish expressions that Wex not only expertly translates and probes, but also psychoanalyzes with never-failing comic insight in constructing his depiction of the essential sensibilities of Yiddish, the Jews’ language of never-ending displacement, dissatisfaction, disillusion, deflation and denial. Wex argues that to understand Yiddish properly — he dubs it “the international language of nowhere” and “ dybbuk -infested German for blasphemers” — one first must understand the history and sacred literature of the Jews since biblical times, with a particular focus on the long Jewish historical experience with goles , or exile.
Wex is at his best when tracing Yiddish expressions back to their Hebrew and Aramaic roots in biblical and talmudic sources, then mining their deeper meanings and what these reveal about the essential Yiddish mentalité. According to him, the history of the Jews as a people was inaugurated by what is arguably the most audacious collective kvetch in recorded civilization: Having been freed from centuries of brutal slavery by God’s spectacular plagues visited on their enslavers and then His dazzling miracles to enable their own escape from Egypt, the Jews almost immediately complain about the catering services in the Sinai desert. They’re sick of the manna, they’re thirsty, they want meat. Why couldn’t they have just stayed in Egypt, where they got free room and board, instead of having to die of starvation in the desert? Worst of all, what will the goyim say when they do indeed die in the desert? God responds to the Israelites’ astonishingly ungrateful kvetching with what Wex defines as the counter-kvetch.
Every demanding child of Yiddish-speaking parents has encountered a well-worn version of this maddening, all purpose counter-kvetch to a simple, innocent request (though Wex doesn’t cite it explicitly). The child wants ice cream ? “ Ikh vell dir bald gebn ayz-kreem !” (“Oh, I’ll give you ice cream, all right!”) the parent retorts. Unlike the biblical paradigm, though, this really means “No!”
Wex contends that almost two millennia after the biblical period, Yiddish became the most effective vehicle ever to express “ dos pintele Yid ,” the essential spark of a Yid since ancient times, particularly that which always has differentiated him from the goy. Yiddish, more than just a language and less than most languages, embodies a skeptical state of mind, a discouraging posture and a perennially suspicious attitude toward an ever-hostile world. Yiddish is, as Wex illustrates abundantly, fundamentally a language of exile ( goles ) and alienation, and it has developed hundreds of expressions to convey the Yid’s jaundiced view of life, which centuries of displacement and oppression have engendered.
Beginning with a chapter on the linguistic and cultural foundations of the kvetch (“Kvetch-que C’est?”), and ending with myriad Yiddish expressions for death (“It Should Happen to You: Death in Yiddish”),Wex explores just about every aspect of exilic Jewish life, as reflected in Yiddish idiom. The chapters, “The Yiddish Curse: You Should Grow Like an Onion” and “Sex in Yiddish: Too Good for the Goyim,” are particularly rich (and shmutzig ). Wex’s 10-page discussion of the various forms of corporal punishment and insults meted out to generations of Jewish children by kheyder-melamdim (Hebrew school teachers) is a fine example of the author’s ability to produce a long and ribald rant that would turn comic Dennis Miller goyish-green with envy. His long, descriptive list of the forms of assault at the melamed’s disposal (the knip, shnel, patsh, zets, klap, flem, frask and, finally, the much-dreaded khmal , whose victim will be so knocked out as to “see Cracow and Lemberg”) will have readers falling out of their chairs, as will the melamed’s extensive repertoire for demeaning his students’ intelligence. Beyond being physically assaulted, the less gifted kheyder student risked being called any, or all, of the following: nar (fool) , shoyte (moron) , sheygets (gentile) , shtik fleysh mit oygen (piece of dead meat with eyes) , puts mit oyren (prick with
ears) , puts mit a kapelyush (prick in a hat), goylem af reyder (golem on wheels) and shoyte ben pikholts (the idiot son of a woodpecker). As for the institutions of the kheyder and its melamed, Wex offers this insight:
Airless and overcrowded, full of preadolescents forced to trudge through steaming jungles of syllogisms, bubbe-mayses and kid-eating prohibitions — you can’t touch your hair while praying, you can’t pet a dog on Shabbes , or go swimming during the hottest three weeks of the year — the kheyder had to be run by a combination of prison guard, exegete and child psychologist. But we’re in goles ; we got the melamed instead.
Wex is a rare combination of Jewish comic and scholarly cultural analyst. Between his lines, brimming with linguistic comedy, there is a more serious message in “Born To Kvetch,” one that includes a trenchant, basically fair, critique of the earnestly humorless, secular enthusiasts of “modern Yiddish,” particularly the advocates of what is known as klal shprakh — the standardized version of the language invented mainly for academic purposes by the founders of YIVO. While klal shprakh certainly fulfills an important need for, say, classroom instruction, it is not, never was and, Wex argues, can never be an adequate replacement for the idiomatic, natural, mimetic Yiddish of native speakers, so steeped in what Yiddish’s greatest scholar, Max Weinreich, famously coined, “ derekh ha-Shas,” (the pathways of the Talmud). Other than a handful of klal shprakh devotees —described by Wex as “strident nudniks talking to their children as if they were all speaking Yiddish on Meet the Press” — most of today’s native Yiddish speakers are Hasidim of Hungarian origin, whose Yiddish is incomprehensible to those who know only klal shprakh. And, as Wex wryly observes: “ Klal Shprakh has adherents; Hasidim have babies.”
The vexing (or, should I say “Wexing”?) problem that lovers of Yiddish must face after reading this marvelous book is: What kind of a future might this bountiful and beautiful language — one that, Wex observes, “likes to argue with everybody about everything” — have in an America of catastrophic Jewish cultural loss? In this era of unprecedented Jewish success and comfort, when most Jews desire little more than to imagine that their long and bitter exile — whose conditions nurtured all that is so rich, moving and comical about Yiddish — is a thing of the past, and when the main association most American Jews have with Yiddish is happy, campy klezmer music, can we find a way (to paraphrase Jesse Jackson) to “keep kvetch alive?”