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“Born to Kvetch” review in the Chronicle of Higher Education

...In contrast, Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods (St. Martin's Press, 2005), by Michael Wex, among the finest living translators of Yiddish literature and a humorist to boot, is, well, a hoot. If you can stop laughing long enough to finish it, Wex distills enough idiosyncratic insight about Yiddish to make any true admirer of its uniqueness kvell.

Whereas Kriwaczek is the kind of author who writes "dragging," then includes "shlepping" in parentheses, Wex reminds you of the kid in grade school who would hold two fingers up behind your head — a compulsive joker. Kriwaczek is earnest, Wex inspired when he gets beyond schoolyard schtick.

Wex's overarching frame in Born to Kvetch is that "the Bible and the Talmud are to Yiddish what plantations are to the blues." Eschewing century-by-century plodding, he zooms in on the logic of Yiddish, centering on its perfection as a tool of kvetching, or complaint. A typical Wex riff: "If the Stones's '(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).'"

Consider it parenthetical wit.

"Like so much of Jewish culture," Wex argues in Born to Kvetch, droll and probing at the same time, "kvetching has its roots in the Bible, which devotes a great deal of time to the nonstop grumbling of the Israelites, who find fault with everything under the sun." If Yiddish is, in Wex's phrase, "the national language of nowhere," one explanation is that "Judaism is defined by exile, and exile without complaint is tourism, not deportation." The will to kvetch similarly derives from the peculiar Jewish obligation to perform the 613 mitzvahs, or commandments, which Wex breaks down into 248 "thou shalts" and 365 "thou shalt nots."It's the latter that truly annoy the so-called chosen people. "The Jews," Wex quips, "have been chosen not to: not to have that BLT; not to sit on Santa's knee; not to catch the Saturday matinee or blend in with the people around them."

Born to Kvetch continues in that spirit, capsulizing aspects of Jewish thought ("The Talmud is nothing less than Yiddish in utero") and the subversive origins of its target tongue: "The whole point behind Yiddish, its whole raison d'être, is the need or desire to talk yidish, as distinct from goyish, Jewish instead of gentile. ... Yiddish started out as German for blasphemers, as a German in which you could deny Christ without getting yourself killed any more often than necessary."

Current scholars of Yiddish often complain, ruefully, that the language now survives (outside Hasidic neighborhoods and Jewish nursing homes) mainly in the university, a "mere" subject of study rather than as the living argot of a community.

To which an appreciator of academe might reply, "If it's good enough for Plato and Aristotle, for Plautus and Cicero, it's nothing to complain about for Abramovich, Aleichem, and Peretz." In the modern world, Weinreich's well-known saw, "A language is a dialect with an army and navy," might be usefully adjusted to, "A language is a dialect with an academic department devoted to it."

In short, mere, schmear. But Wex's uncanny amalgam of Yiddish tone and analytical irony in street-smart American bolsters a further point in Born to Kvetch: A receding language and its cultural ethos can be kept alive, in translation, by boldly re-creating its spirit in other words. To indulge a bit of vernacular, az me ken nit ariber, gait men arunter ("If you can't go over, go under.").

Carlin Romano, critic at large of The Chronicle and literary critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.

Order the hardback, paperback or audio CD version of Born to Kvetch

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