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

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

by Michael Wex


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As the main spoken language of the Jews for more than a thousand years, Yiddish has had plenty to lament, plenty to conceal. Its phrases and expressions paint a comprehensive picture of the mind-set that enabled the Jews of Europe to survive persecution: they never stopped kvetching about God, gentiles, children, and everything else.

In born to Kvetch, Michael Wex looks at the ingredients that went into this buffet of disenchantment and examines how they were mixed together to produce an almost limitless supply of striking idioms and withering curses. Born to Kvetchincludes a wealth of material that's never appeared in English before.

Through the fascinating history of this kvetch-full tongue, Michael Wex gives us a moving and inspiring portrait of a people, and a language, in exile.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061132179
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 08/15/2006
Series: P.S. Series
Edition description: REPRINT
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 415,945
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

Novelist, lecturer, and translator Michael Wex is one of the leading lights in the revival of Yiddish, and author of the New York Times bestseller Born to Kvetch and its follow-up, Just Say Nu.

Read an Excerpt

Born to Kvetch

Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods
By Michael Wex

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Michael Wex
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0061132179

Chapter One

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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
KarlPallmeyer More than 1 year ago
First off, I must confess that I'm not a Jew. I can't speak Yiddish and the four semesters of German 101 that I took didn't help me much here. However, I have since added a lot of Yiddish to my vocabulary -- and that causes a lot of confusion when delivered with my native Texan drawl. I'm not sure what first attracted me to this book -- the New York Times review or the cover picture of the cranky kid, but this is one of the most enjoyable reads I've had in the past 10 years. Wex's humor is incredible and insightful, and he draws upon American pop culture references that even a Goy like myself can get, mixing them up with Jewish culture and history into a big, tasty Kosher gumbo (I realize that gumbo probably isn't Kosher, but I enjoy mixing metaphors here). I think I learned more about what it means to be a Jew from Wex than I ever did from Elie Wiesel, Isaac Bashevis Singer or Barbra Streisand. His jokes are certainly funnier.
bostonbibliophile on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Rambling and confusing at times but overall a fun read.
bfertig on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
OK, so some chapters were better than others -- but really, that's to be expected when you have an entire chapters devoted to cursing and body parts! Overall, this is hysterical and great to understand how Yiddish has really developed. So stop kvetching and read this book ;-)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Never mind. Go back to wix
bookchewingbunny More than 1 year ago
didn't realize how in deptch it would be still good tho
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Larry11215 More than 1 year ago
I speak Yiddish fluently, having lived in a Yiddish-speaking community in Brooklyn for 20 years or so. I must say that this book is really wonderful. It brings the REAL Yiddish as it is really spoken by real people to the fore, unlike so many of the YIVO-ish Yiddish books out there or some of the others (including Leo Rosten's classic, which I didn't find accurate). I highly recommend this book for people who want to know something about the real Yiddish. On the other hand, it is more scholarly than the cover would indicate, and it is a bit more than "light reading" - but well worth the effort.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Michael Wex provides a hilarious guide to the Yiddish language and culture and much needed insight for assimilated Jews. Born to Kvetch is a fascinating book that should appeal to most people with an open and inquisitive mind, particularly when many of the phrases, the thought processes, and the humor which connects them have been used for so many decades. Kvetching, complaining so to speak, is more than a word, or a represents a way of thinking, a necessary reflex, a defense mechanism to gain advantage on an issue or an argument.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I grew up hearing Yiddish, but I never realized the complex and colorful background that this language had until I read this book. It is scholarly, but funny. It is intricate in explanation, but simple to understand. Born to Kvetch will cause you to laugh out loud in places and will cause even a rabbi to have headaches in others when we get into the complicated explanations of how each word and term evolved over centuries. This book is a keeper. I even plan to give it to some of my goyisher friends this coming holiday season. Please, please make a CD of this book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a native Yiddish speaker born post - Holocaust I never understood why my world view was so different than that of my friends. This book explained it to me and made me laugh at the same time. Thanks.