Let others be born to be wild, born to run or born under a bad sign. According to Michael Wex, Jews were Born to Kvetch.
Wex’s tome is more than just the standard-issue listing of the 97 ways to say “idiot” in Yiddish. It's a reverse-engineering of the spirit of Eastern European Judaism via the Yiddish language. By analyzing the words and phrases of everyday Yiddishkeit, Wex paints a detailed portrait of the way of life Hitler and Stalin almost completely erased like the shaking of a societal Etch-a-Sketch.
And it doesn’t hurt that he’s stunningly, uproariously, laugh-out-loud-and-make-everyone-on-the-train-think-you’re-a-lunatic funny. Even forays into Yiddish esoterica that, by all means, should have resulted in the book being tossed out the window are must-read passages because you simply need to know what joke or amazingly apropos cultural reference Wex is going to make next.
If the Toronto university teacher and novelist ever makes a speaking appearance in the Bay Area, go.
Here’s a bissel of Wex’s magic:
• “If the Stones’ ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ had been written in Yiddish, it would have been called ‘(I Love to Keep Telling You That I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (Because Telling You That I’m Not Satisfied Is All that Can Satisfy Me.)’”
• On the origin of the phrase “hakn a tshaynik”: “[James Watt], an intelligent Scotsman, looked at his kettle and came up with the Union Pacific; an equally intelligent Yiddish speaker looked at a similar kettle and started to complain about someone else’s complaining.”
Wex’s story begins not with gevalt and shmaltz and other well-known Yiddish fare, but the Old Testament, as “The Bible and Torah are to Yiddish what the plantations are to the blues.” Belive it or not, linguistic differences in Yiddish dialects trace back to the Hebrew spoken by Jews in the land of Israel and those taken to Persia during the Babylonian captivity. (With characteristic wit, Wex explains an ancient transition in the pronunciation from “oo” to “ee” as “anticipating Dave Seville’s ‘Witch Doctor’ by about 1,500 years.”)
If languages varied in viscosity based on their richness and complexity, English would be Coca-Cola, French would be porridge and German would be stew. But Yiddish would be pudding (preferably rice pudding with a hint of saffron, that’d be ideal).
In much the same way that the German word “schadenfreude” embodies a concept which requires about eight English words (“A malicious satisfaction in the misfortunes of others”), Yiddish often manages to say more with less. But it’s not just that multiple concepts are communicated with a single word; Yiddish references are put together like combination billiard shots. One thing refers to another, which refers to another, which refers to another and to yet another. Hence “You should eat kreplach” really means “I oughta beat you silly.”
Confused? Well, traditionally kreplach are eaten on three yearly special occasions: Purim, Erev Yom Kippur and Hoshanah Rabbah, three holidays associated with the verb “shlogn” (to beat).
You shlog a grogger on Purim, for example. Kreplach are associated with beating, and “Kreplach zolstu esn is a nice oblique way of offering you a kosher knuckle sandwich.”
While Wex’s book is amazing, it isn’t quite perfect. There’s only so much Yiddish those with a rudimentary knowledge can take, regardless of the author’s cleverness. Put this book in the hands of someone who knows 12 Yiddish words and it’s an ornamental sword; give it to your Yiddish-speaking mom or grandma and it’s a deadly weapon.
We can only hope to know as much about any subject as Wex knows about Yiddish, and sometimes, unfortunately, in Born to Kvetch it shows. He enjoys interjecting thoughts into the text via parenthetical statements, and sometimes this is done so in several languages or even multiple dialects of a language. You won’t be able to read paragraphs like those if you’re tired, and trying to read them will make you tired.
Even still, in Born to Kvetch Wex has either written the funniest academic book or the most academic funny book in many a year, and it’s not to be missed.
Joe Eskenazi, J Weekly
Order the hardback, paperback or audio CD version of Born to Kvetch