Yiddish doesn't need apologies. Once dismissed as a derivative vernacular language, the lingua franca of millions of Jews has recently gained just recognition for its richness and strikingly apt idioms, phrases, and metaphors. Michael Wex's Born to Kvetch combines the lively accessibility of Leo Rosten's The New Joys of Yiddish with the insightfulness of a serious inquiry into Yiddish culture. Anyone who loves wordplay or enjoys Jewish humor will appreciate this book.
Mr. Wex, a Yiddish translator, university teacher, novelist and stand-up comic, has many such examples up his sleeve, but Born to Kvetch is much more than a greatest-hits collection of colorful Yiddish expressions. It is a thoughtful inquiry into the religious and cultural substrata of Yiddish, the underlying harmonic structure that allows the language to sing, usually in a mournful minor key.
The New York Times
Fortunately, despite its title and cover photo, this is not a kitschy book about a folksy language spoken by quaint, elderly Jews. It is, rather, an earthy romp through the lingua franca of Jews, which has roots reaching back to the Hebrew Bible and which continues to thrive in 21st-century America. Canadian professor, translator and performer Wex has an academic's breadth of knowledge, and while he doesn't ignore your bubbe's tsimmes, he gives equal time to the semantic nuances of putz, schmuck, shlong and shvants. Wex organizes his material around broad, idiosyncratic categories, but like the authors of the Talmud (the source for a large number of Yiddish idioms), he strays irrepressibly beyond the confines of any given topic. His lively wit roams freely, and Rabbi Akiva and Sholem Aleichem collide happily with Chaucer, Elvis and Robert Petrie. Academics, and others, will be disappointed at the lack of source notes, and a few errors have crept in (the fifth day of Sukkot is not Hoshana Rabba, for instance). Overall, however, this treasure trove of linguistics, sociology, history and folklore offers a fascinating look at how, through the centuries, a unique and enduring language has reflected an equally unique and enduring culture. Agent, Gareth Esersky. (Sept.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Frank, tough-minded, and profoundly honest, Wex (Shlepping the Exile)-who grew up an Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking Jew-examines the Yiddish language from an insider's point of view. He describes the development of Yiddish throughout its history, explains the nature of the separation of Jews from gentiles as reflected in the ritual laws of kosher, and illustrates the harsh reality of European Jewish life, which is mirrored in the Yiddish language itself. Paradox, poverty, irony, and superstition (the secret heart of Yiddish) are described by example and through comparison to present-day popular culture. Other topics include the development of Yiddish words, expressions, and idioms; the nature of Jewish exile; kvetching (or complaining); and the life and religion of the Jewish people from birth to death, as evident in the Yiddish tongue. All the wonderful elements of Yiddish language and culture are humorously presented here. Highly recommended for Jewish studies collections.-Gene Shaw, NYPL Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.