Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Born to Kvetch by Michael Wex

I am not going to write this post in any attempt at faux-Yiddish; that would only embarrass both of us. In fact, I think I'll try to be short and mostly-factual, since there's nothing specific I can bring to this book - no point of view or expertise - that would be at all relevant. (I am not Jewish, a linguist, Canadian, of Eastern European extraction of any kind, or anything else related.)

So: Born to Kvetch. A surprise 2005 bestseller by Canadian novelist, lecturer, translator, and general man-about-Toronto Michael Wex. Subtitled "Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods," and broken into a baker's dozen chapters, each of which goes through some aspect of life or history and describes the usages and meanings of a bunch of related Yiddish words.

I had it sitting on my read-it-someday shelf; I bought it randomly a decade ago, a good ten years after it was published. And I like books on words, especially if I think I know a little bit already. (I grew up in a town with a fair number of Jewish people and have the usual American familiarity with Classic Hollywood Yiddish - i.e., very, very little but feels like at least a handle.)

Wex is a fun, amusing writer, who claims an authoritative tone and ranges widely through the Yiddish language and culture to explain the words he includes. This is a very quotable book, which I suppose one should expect from a novelist. For example: "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." (p.21)

Or, deeper in the book:

Nature cannot be completely divorced from politics, either. Modern Yiddish literature developed more or less simultaneously with the pogrom and racially (rather than religiously) based anti-Semitism. The European landscape wasn't neutral; it belonged to the gentiles, was bound to those gentiles in a way that it could never be to any Jew, who could be forced off it - or even under it - at gentile discretion: a tree is a beautiful thing until you're tied to it by an angry mob. It is surely no accident that many rhapsodic Yiddish descriptions of the European landscape were written by emigrants who had no interion of ever setting foot in those landscapes again,. Their full beauty emerged only in memory, after the threat was finally removed - the trees were nice enough, it was the people that you had to look out for.


I did know a hell of a lot less about Yiddish than I thought I did, starting with how things are spelled under the standard YIVO system - it's pretty different from Classic Hollywood Yiddish, even if the pronunciations are roughly similar. Wex is coming from the living language of Yiddish, which means the Orthodox world of today and the earlier world of vast swaths of Eastern Europe of a century or so ago. Kvetch is almost as much about Orthodox Jewish practice and life as is is about the Yiddish language, because a language defines and is defined by the people who use it daily; the words in it are the things that are important to them and that they do all the time.

I don't know of a better book about Yiddish, but, then again, I probably wouldn't. I am as goy as you get. This is an excellent book on words and what they mean, with a strong sideline on the people that use them.

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