Kvetching with my Jewish Colleagues

“People wonder why Jews are so funny,” Michael Wex writes about a third of his way through his book Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods. From the title and the play on words with “moods” as a grammatical nod all the way to the last chapter on death and dying, the book may seem to merely entertain and poke fun at his own culture with pun upon pun (upon which half the religion is based, chides Wex). However, this volume contains valuable historical, cultural, linguistic and religious ore that, when extracted through mindful reading (in and between the lines) rewards the reader with greater intercultural skills.

There are few better ways to understand how people think than by what comes out of their mouth. While many people think that Jews are mostly concerned with what goes in their mouth, this books exceeds expectations. Jews have an oral tradition that goes back at least four thousand years ripe with antecedent and inference. As an example, we can see the expression a moyd vi a tsimmes, “a maiden like a vegetable stew” that refers to a very beautiful woman (192). Even if one knows that tsimmes seems to be referring to a typical Jewish vegetable dish, the connection between this and a beautiful woman appears obscure if one has no familiarity with its usage.

How fortunate to have the language and the culture that accompanies it still relatively intact. Other ancient cultures with supposedly far greater “civilization” status have come and gone and those that survive tend not to revolve around just one text. The tradition of adherence to the Torah makes Judaism unique among ancient cultures, although a good deal of the rest of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud reveal insight into the Jewish way of life.

The review of Born to Kvetch appears on this blog because of Wex’s extraordinary ability to explain how inextricably language and culture are woven together. Wex opines, “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…” (3). While the word kvetch accompanies the title, and references to why Jews seem to complain so much abound, the book goes far beyond complaints and describes euphemisms and double entendre in topics as far ranging as mitsves, marriage, meals, merry-making, and morgues. Much of the book explains expressions, sayings, clichés and idioms that reveal prejudices and mind-sets within Judaism with particular regard to those Jews who employ Yiddish. Some of these underlying beliefs may be readily apparent as Wex comments in various parts of the text, “[they] remind us of the poverty at the root of so much Yiddish life for so many hundreds of years” (284) and in another “so far as Jewish culture is concerned, the pig exists only to provide gentiles with food and Jews with idioms” (181).

Do Jews complain that much? “Judaism is defined by exile,” Wex claims. “and exile without complaint is tourism, not deportation…If we stop kvetching, how will we know that life isn’t supposed to be like this?… Kvetching lets us remember that we’ve got nowhere to go because we’re special. Kvetching lets us know we’re in exile, that the Jew, and hence the ‘Jewish,’ is out of place everywhere, all the time.” (6) He consents later that “A Jew’s own brain is as close as he’s going to come to a homeland.” Because “Yiddish, the national language of nowhere,”(6) needs to be explained in its interaction with Hebrew, Slavic languages, German and English. This interaction should not be considered contamination; rather think of it merely as an unhappy association.

Despite the diaspora and the fact that Jews live in a variety of contexts and geographical climes, the culture has a common origin and resists full assimilation in any culture. The idea that they are a peculiar people is deep in the Jewish mindset as the ones that God selected for his purposes thousands of years ago. In order to understand the love/hate relationship with Jewish favoritism, Wex sheds this [candle] light, “The election of Israel, as the theologians call it, is like the election of the kid who has to practice the violin while the rest of the neighborhood plays ball – what’s normal for everyone else is a sin for the one who’s chosen.” (9) Jews know they are set apart and yet it doesn’t always bode well for intercultural relations. In fact, this special treatment often stirs up suspicion and resentment – on both sides.

The types of expectations for these “chosen people” are extensive and little understood. Few cultures hold to such rigidity as the Jewish law prescribes, “The orders or commandments that [the children of Israel] received are known as mitsves and a tradition that says there are 613 of them: 248 ‘thou shalts’ and 365 ‘thou shalt nots,’ one for every day of the year. The Jewish calendar follows the moon instead of the sun, though, and has only 354 days – a single Jewish year isn’t long enough to hold all the things we’re not supposed to do.” (8) While there are a considerable number of Jews who resist this direction, the fact that the culture of origin maintains such strict adherence helps explain their reaction to it.

This book ends up being more instructive in Jewish culture than in Jewish language. The language Jews use makes up an essential part of their identity and yet most Jews do not speak Yiddish fluently. The way Wex uses examples paints a picture of Yiddish as a kind of koine or a pidgin language where other languages are shaken in but not stirred. In linguistic terms, code-switching shows up in much the same way Latinos in the US intersperse Spanish terms and attach Spanish suffixes to English verbs. Speaking yidish means speaking the way the Jews speak. For example, one may speak English intermingled with Yiddish nouns, verbs and adverbs to disguise the true meaning or to bond with other Jews but it is not a wholly distinct language in the 20th Century except as learned in academia.

One will note that “The whole point behind Yiddish, its whole raison d’être, is the need or desire to talk yidish as distinct from goyish, Jewish instead of Gentile… Although comparatively few Jews had much more than a kheyder-level education, almost all knew enough to be able to turn “the rain in Spain” into the geshem in Sfarad” without having to pause too long to think.” You can even get away with not having to say the word goy and use the word orel, “which means “an uncircumcised male.” (86-87) There’s even an expression for Jews who don’t speak Yiddish, not because they are Sephardic or of some other ilk, but because they grew up in the community and should at least be able to understand conversations. When a person speaks Yiddish like a goy it means “like someone who knows Yiddish words but does not understand the principles that bind them together.” (63) Culture attempts to explain those principles.

The author clearly states that not just Yiddish, but also Hebrew (and specifically Biblical Hebrew) provides such ample veiled references and connotations for inside jokes and avoidance mechanisms. The mere practice of referring to a concept by its opposite quintessentially describes Jewish interaction especially when it comes to names and unmentionables. For example, Wex provides a lengthy explanation regarding certain names in Jewish history such as Jezebel, an infamous queen at the time of Elijah who ordered all the prophets killed. Rather than using what would have been her real name the Hebrew term for her means “daughter of garbage” as a slight to her deplorable behavior. Beelzebub’s name should probably have been Baal Zevul and appears as such in other contexts but because of its double meaning as “lord of the flies” that bears the most common point of reference currently.  Wex brings up these examples as cases where Jews make fun of other religions, but from a linguistic point of view, they are not so much “making fun” of other religions as merely using puns and nick-names (22).

As with most cultures, causality is a function of usage. In many cases the culture creates circumstances that need to find expression through language. “As khad gadye nearly makes clear, Yiddish can have as much impact on Jewish rituals as the rituals do on Yiddish. The Ashkenazi custom of eating carrots on Rosh Hashana as a means of asking the Lord that our ‘merits might increase’ derives from the fact that the Yiddish verb for ‘increase’ is mern, which is identical in sound and spelling with the plural form of the noun mer, which means ‘carrot’” (80). While significant, the details of the lengthy explanation foray through Hebrew, Aramaic, German (old and modern, including dialects) and finally Yiddish are lost on most Jews. They just know that they eat carrots when celebrating the Jewish New Year. Lengthy explanations seem to be the order of the day with many Yiddish expressions because they are not so cut and dry. Five full pages on kapores and the idioms associated with them are barely enough to help a 21st century Jew understand what the tradition of waving a rooster about one’s head has to do with the Mosaic notion of a scapegoat. “Only in Yiddish could the plot of Wuthering Heights be expressed in terms of poultry” (85).

While Wex doesn’t provide a conclusion at the end of the book, allow me to take from some general statements he made throughout the book to extract a coherent message that applies to intercultural relations. Wex writes, “There were certainly wealthy people among Europe’s Yiddish-speaking Jews and there was also a middle class. They’re being given short shrift here for the simple reason that most of the terminology describing them simply is what it is: Yiddish word X is equivalent to English word Y, and that’s it” (158). Anyone familiar with interpretation knows that very rarely are their word-for-word equivalents among languages. Some substitutes do not require explanation because they are readily apparent. However, this text devotes itself to the explanations that may dilute the humor for some, but reveal the depth of character for others.

Wex continues, “Yiddish speakers certainly needed to discuss other financial states than poverty, but these other states didn’t really seem to engage them, probably because it was simply too difficult to maintain a nonnegative conversation for any length of time. Between keynehores and spitting and jealousy – hell, it was easier to complain about what you lacked than get too enthusiastic over what others might have had. Why talk about the rich and only imply a complaint when you could talk about yourself and complain to your heart’s content?” (158) The book goes far beyond complaints or stereotypes. Born to Kvetch essentially presents a collection of stories about measuring graves and making candles and putting a baker’s shovel with loaves of bread above the bed where a mother gives birth, and how we all got our philtrum or shnel under our nose from the angel that flicked out our knowledge of a preexistence (just to name a few). The stories, the connections, or as Wex puts it, the “principles that bind it all together” are what makes it such a treasure. I believe the author’s principle intent revolves around the idea that the reader not necessarily reach a certain level of fluency in Yiddish but a greater understanding of Yiddish cultural knowledge and cultural literacy.

  • Wex, Michael.  Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods.  2005.  Harper Perennial. New York.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *