A delightful excursion through the Yiddish language, the culture it defines and serves, and the fine art of complaint
Throughout history, Jews around the world have had plenty of reasons to lament. And for a thousand years, they've had the perfect language for it. Rich in color, expressiveness, and complexity, Yiddish has proven incredibly useful and durable. Its wonderful phrases and idioms impeccably reflect the mind-set that has enabled the Jews of Europe to survive a millennium of unrelenting persecution . . . and enables them to kvetch about it!
Michael Wex—professor, scholar, translator, novelist, and performer—takes a serious yet unceasingly fun and funny look at this remarkable kvetch-full tongue that has both shaped and has been shaped by those who speak it. Featuring chapters on curse words, food, sex, and even death, he allows his lively wit and scholarship to roam freely from Sholem Aleichem to Chaucer to Elvis.
Perhaps only a khokhem be-layle (a fool, literally a "sage at night," when there's no one around to see) would care to pass up this endearing and enriching treasure trove of linguistics, sociology, history, and folklore—an intriguing appreciation of a unique and enduring language and an equally fascinating culture.
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Born to KvetchYiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods
By Michael Wex
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Michael Wex
All right reserved.
Kvetch Que C'est?
The Origins of Yiddish
A man boards a Chicago-bound train in Grand Central Station and sits down across from an old man reading a Yiddish newspaper. Half an hour after the train has left the station, the old man puts down his paper and starts to whine like a frightened child. "Oy, am I thirsty. . . . Oy, am I thirsty. . . . Oy, am I thirsty. . . ."
The other man is at the end of his rope inside of five minutes. He makes his way to the water cooler at the far end of the car, fills a cup with water, and starts walking back to his seat. He pauses after a few steps, goes back to the cooler, fills a second cup with water and walks gingerly down the aisle, trying to keep the cups from spilling. He stops in front the old man and clears his throat. The old man looks up in midoy, his eyes beam with gratitude as he drains the first cup in a single gulp. Before he can say or do anything else, the man hands him the second cup, then sits back down and closes his eyes, hoping to catch a bit of a nap. As he sits back, the old man allows himself a sigh of thanks. He leans into his own seat, tilts his forehead toward the ceiling, and says, just as loudly as before, "Oy,was I thirsty. . . ."
If you can understand this joke, you'll have no trouble learning Yiddish. It contains virtually every important element of the Yiddish-speaking mind-set in easily accessible form: the constant tension between the Jewish and the non-Jewish; the faux naivete that allows the old man to pretend that he isn't disturbing anyone; the deflation of the other passenger's hopes, the disappointment of all his expectations after he has watered the Jew; and most importantly of all, the underlying assumption, the fundamental idea that kvetching--complaining--is not only a pastime, not only a response to adverse or imperfect circumstance, but a way of life that has nothing to do with the fulfillment or frustration of desire. Kvetching can be applied indifferently to hunger or satiety, satisfaction or disappointment: it is a way of knowing, a means of apprehension that sees the world through cataract-colored glasses.
The old man's initial kvetches are a means to an end. He's thirsty, he's lazy, he figures that if he yells loudly enough he's going to get what he wants. But these first few oys are only the setup; the quintessentially Yiddish aspect--what Yiddish would call dos pintele yidish, the essence of Yiddish--appears only in the joke's last line. The old man knows what's happening; he knows that he could have died of thirst for all that his seatmate cared, as long as he did so quietly. He knows that the water is a sign of contempt, not a gesture of mercy, and he also knows that in a world where indifference is the best that can be expected, the principle of aftselakhis (very literally, "in order to provoke anger"), the impulse to do things only because someone else doesn't want you to, is sometimes essential to the world's moral balance. And the old man understands how aftselakhis works: alone in the history of the world, Yiddish-speaking Jews long ago broke the satisfaction barrier and figured out how to express contentment by means of complaint: kvetching becomes a way of exercising some small measure of control over an otherwise hostile environment. 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)."
Like so much of Jewish culture, 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. They kvetch about their problems and they kvetch about the solutions. They kvetch in Egypt and they kvetch in the desert. No matter what God does, it's wrong; whatever favors He bestows, they're never enough.
So, for example, the Israelites are on the edge of the Red Sea, with Pharaoh and his hosts closing fast behind them. God has been plaguing the Egyptians left and right and has just finished killing every one of their firstborn males. The Israelites are understandably nervous, but there's a big difference between being slightly apprehensive and insulting the agent of your deliverance: "And they said to Moses: 'What? There's no graves in Egypt, you had to take us into the desert to die. . . . What did we tell you in Egypt? Get off our backs and let us serve the Egyptians, because serving the Egyptians is better than dying in the desert' " (Exod. 14:11-12).
This sort of thing constitutes what might be called the basic kvetch, the initial declaration of unhappiness that identifies the general area of complaint. Had Isaac Newton been struck by a potato kugel instead of an apple, the whole world would now know that for every basic kvetch there is also an equal and opposite counterkvetch, a retaliation in kind provoked by the original complaint. Such counterkvetching also appears in the Bible, most notably when God decides to answer the Israelites' complaints about the food in the desert by giving them something to kvetch about. The Jews want meat instead of the manna that they've been getting? Moses tells them:
God's going to give you meat and you're going to eat it.
Not one day
Or two days;
Not five days
Or ten days
Or twenty days.
But for a month you're going to eat it, until it's coming out of your noses (Num. 11:19-20).
They get meat, all right--quails, hundreds and hundreds of quails--and for dessert they get a plague. . . .
Excerpted from Born to Kvetch by Michael Wex Copyright © 2006 by Michael Wex. Excerpted by permission.
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