In Born to Kvetch Wex straddles both the high and low end of that spectrum in a work that manages to be simultaneously entertaining and erudite. Wex explains Yiddish culture by unraveling, in great detail, the words and phrases used by Yiddish speakers in the various areas of their lives. In doing so, he draws deeply on the complex traditional and religious roots of Jewish culture while engaging in what can only be called national psychobiography.
The results are a joy to behold. But with respect to the joys of Yiddish, Wex’s book is so far from Leo Rosten’s famous work of the same title — an alphabetical lexicon of Yiddish and Yiddish-English words and phrases that’s the clear ancestor of Born to Kvetch — that you’d have to use the Yiddish phrase lehavdl (to distinguish between two things you’re comparing) or perhaps even lehavdl be’elef havdoles (to make that distinction a thousand times over). If you’re unsure which one to use, I refer you to pages 62 and 63 of Wex’s book; as you read, you’ll learn, among many other treasures, such useful information as the real reason a glass is broken at Jewish weddings and some particularly juicy euphemisms for naughty body parts that haven’t entered the English lexicon.
This isn’t to say the book is perfect; Wex, according to his jacket copy, is a performer of stand-up, and there are moments throughout the book where his hyperkinetic verbalizing — or, as Lenny Bruce might have called it, his good old-fashioned shpritzing — gets exhausting. And sure, sometimes he falls back on Jewish stereotypes a little too much and Jewish history a little too little, sacrificing nuance and gravity for mood and tone, but when the results are this good, who can hold it against him?
Jeremy Dauber, Washington Post
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