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August 20, 2014 | 24th Av 5774

Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods

by Michael Wex

Born to KvetchBorn to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods
By Michael Wex
Harper Perennial
Study Guide by Pamela Rothstein

 

About the Author

Michael Wex is one of the major figures in the current revival of the Yiddish language. His many activities touch virtually every aspect of Yiddish, including fiction, translation, storytelling, performance and lecturing. Born in 1954 in the Canadian province of Alberta to a Yiddish speaking family, Wex has taught at the University of Toronto and the University of Michigan and currently lives in Toronto. Wex’s translations from Yiddish into English include Classic Yiddish Stories of S.Y. Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and I.L. Peretz (2004) and The Wishing-Ring: A Novel by S.Y. Abramovitsh (2003). He also translates into Yiddish, creating the only translation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Three Penny Opera authorized by the author’s estate. Wex also has translated songs into Yiddish by artists such as Irving Berlin, Bob Dylan, and Holly Near.

Born to Kvetch, published in 2005, became a New York Times bestseller and spurred a follow-up phrasebook, Just Say Nu (2007), which has been serialized in The Forward. Wex’s novels include Shlepping the Exile (1993) and both the Yiddish (2005) and English (2007) editions of The Adventures of Micah Mushmelon / Die Abenteuer des Micah Mushmelon, kindlicher Talmudist. At Klezkamp, the Yiddish Folk Arts Festival, Wex’s popular annual series of classes on Yiddish has been renamed Wexology.

About the Book

Born to Kvetchfascinates and entertains, yet always pushes the reader to ponder the serious aspects of how the Yiddish language reflects Jewish history and a Jewish perspective on life. Wex draws attention to kvetching as embodying Yiddish as a means of dealing with the difficult existence of Jews in the Diaspora since the destruction of the Second Temple. “Kvetching,” he writes, “becomes a way of exercising some small measure of control over an otherwise hostile environment.” Speaking a language that non-Jews could not understand has allowed Jews to undermine and mock the surrounding Christian culture. In this way, Yiddish speakers created and nurtured a distinct way of living through the language of their daily lives.

The organization of Born to Kvetch, like its literary style, is reader friendly. In the book’s introduction, Wex lays out his focus on Yiddish as a language of opposition, and kvetching as “a way of knowing, a means of apprehension that sees the world through cataract-colored glasses.” Born to Kvetch includes a glossary of Yiddish words and is organized into thirteen thematic chapters, each sporting a catchy and humorous title that Wex matches with a functional, topical description: Kvetch Que C’est? The Origins of Yiddish; Six Feet Under, Baking Bagels: Yiddish in Action; More Difficult Than Splitting the Red Sea: Courtship and Marriage; and Too Good for the Goyim: Sex in Yiddish.

While two chapters look at the history and religious roots of Yiddish, Wex’s explorations focus less on the history of the language than on the rich and diverse cultural underpinnings. He examines and explains everything within Yiddish—from food, poverty and demons to childhood, marriage and death. At the book’s core are the myriad examples that Wex provides to illustrate his points, always bolstered by humorous commentary that often draws on contemporary culture. Many readers will be tempted to skip directly to the chapter entitled You Should Grow Like an Onion: The Yiddish Curse, and they will not be disappointed or disoriented if they do. Born to Kvetch can be satisfyingly read from front to back or in small bites, a chapter at a time.

Questions for Discussion

1. Born to Kvetch is Wex’s ode to a language he loves. Yiddish was not always regarded in such high esteem. A maskil (follower of the nineteenth century Jewish Enlightenment movement) remarked: "Yiddish grates on our ears and distorts. This jargon is incapable in fact of expressing sublime thoughts. It is our obligation to cast off these old rags, a heritage of the dark Middle Ages." Has reading Wex’s book helped you gain a better understanding and appreciation of Yiddish? How has it altered your perspective?

2. If you are a Jew of Ashkenazi descent, think about the Yiddish speakers in your family. Does anyone speak Yiddish today? If not, who was the last Yiddish speaker?

3. If you speak Yiddish, think about how and when you do so—only in certain circumstances (refer to Wex’s chapter headings) or around certain people? Have you passed your knowledge of Yiddish to younger family members and the Jewish community?

4. Compare and contrast the role and history of Yiddish and Judeo-Spanish/Ladino as two different Jewish Diaspora languages.

5. Wex writes that kvetching and counterkvetching date to the Exodus. To what extent do you consider kvetching an integral part of Jewish culture, as opposed to a specific part of Yiddish culture?

6. Wex explains that Yiddish, as a language of exile, reflected the Jews’ existential state: “For centuries, the Jews’ only real home was a way of thinking designed to make their exile meaningful, a way of thinking designed to arm them against the threats and attractions of the people around them…” In your opinion, what is the role of language in creating and sustaining Jewish identity, especially in the Diaspora? Has it become a decorative feature of modern Judaism or does it still have a serious role in Jewish life?

7. Consider the fate of Yiddish in modern-day Israel. Why was Yiddish actively discouraged as a lingua franca in the Jewish state? What accounts for the resurgence of interest in Yiddish in contemporary Israel?

8. In your opinion, what would it mean to Judaism if Yiddish were lost as a living language?

9. Wex writes: “Since the horrors of 9/11, we’ve been loath to express ‘negative’ emotions, and I think that Born to Kvetch really struck a chord with the public by showing how the Jewish people, surrounded by enemies who sought to outlaw the expression of their fundamental ideas, managed to express these ideas, to deepen and develop them, and to do it all in a highly ‘negative’ way—under the very noses of those who wanted to censor its spirit.” Commenting on the United States, he remarks, “In a country born in a revolution, failure to kvetch is a dereliction of duty. I think that Born to Kvetch has helped to remind people of that fact, while acquainting them with a language that takes no prisoners, minces no words, and never takes itself—or anything else—too seriously” (page 10). Do you agree? What is the political dimension of Yiddish in modern American culture, if any?

10. Wex cites the Three Stooges, Lenny Bruce, and Mad Magazine as examples of how the subversive nature of Yiddish entered American popular culture. What is your opinion?

11. “Kvetching is to the Jewish soul as breathing is to the Jewish body,” says Wex. (page 4) Do you agree? Does this characteristic shape even Jews who do not speak Yiddish?

12. Today there is a significant interest in Yiddish among both Jews and non-Jews, as reflected in the many university-level courses and the revival of Yiddish film, theater and music. How do you account for this renewed interest? What will it take to sustain this revival?

13. At the core of Wex’s understanding is the premise that Yiddish and language in general act as separators. How, if at all, are contemporary Jews throughout the world using language (or other means) to mark boundaries between themselves and others?

14. Do you feel a personal connection to Yiddish, a desire to study, hear or speak it? What would you do to actualize these wishes?

Further Reading and Resources

Websites

Books

  • Chaver, Yael, What Must Be Forgotten: The Survival of Yiddish in Zionist Palestine
  • Lansky, Aaron, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books
  • Samuel, Maurice, In Praise of Yiddish
  • Shandler, Jeffrey, Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language & Culture
  • Weinreich, Uriel, College Yiddish
  • Weinreich, Uriel, Modern English-Yiddish, Yiddish-English Dictionary
  • Weinstein, Miriam, Yiddish: A Nation of Words

Pamela Rothstein serves as Director of Congregational Learning and Programming at the Falmouth Jewish Congregation in East Falmouth, Massachusetts.

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