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Born To Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods Hardcover – August 25, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. 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.
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"Wise, witty and altogether wonderful…. Mr. Wex has perfect pitch. He always finds the precise word, the most vivid metaphor, for his juicy Yiddishisms, and he enjoys teasing out complexities. "
---William Grimes, The New York Times
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Examples of sayings and expressions are given in (transcribed) Yiddish, translated into English and thoroughly discussed. It is accessible to a reader not knowing Yiddish but it should be interesting to fluent speakers as well, because of the links between culture and language. A real treat for anybody interested in the relations between the two. Beautifully written with a lot of often sarcastic humor.
Recently I spent four days listening to him lecture at the annual Klezkamp get together. I couldn't stop laughing. My sister sat next to me. She was laughing so hard I thought she might need emergency medical care.
The material is potentially beyond dull. Wex's genius is that he makes it dance and makes me beg for more. Granted, I am a Yiddishist and love the language and culture. Also, I come from a similar background having sat in a yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) for several years, so I identify with much of what he discusses. However, as the old commercial for Levy's rye bread went, "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's." Anyone with the least interest in European Jewish culture will find this work to be a gold mine.
Why? Because what he says ( writes in his book) is, as far as I know, totally original. There is so much sentimental nonsense written about Yiddish and European Jewry. This book totally strips that away. Here you get the real, unvarnished thing.
Some people complain about his voice. For me, it is the perfect voice for this book. It is the quintessential Eastern European Jewish voice with a beautiful Canadian undertone. The tone, the flow, the candence are all classic kvetch with a generous contribution from Leonard Cohen. I grew up with many people who spoke this way. I find it totally wonderful that the publisher would have Michael read his own work; it is a stroke of genius. I listened to the entire set in my car. At times I laughed so hard I was afraid the police would pull me over. " Your honor, I was overcome with an eruptive kvetch. What can I say?"
Now I'm listening to it again. And then I'll probably do it again, and again.....
Mr. Wex has done Yiddish a great service and has written a book that avoids both of these pitfalls. Beneath the humor - and this is a very funny, well written book - is a very serious examination of Yiddish as a language inextricably tied to its religion. Very few people could have written a book as insightful as this one and still made it entertaining. Mr. Wex has the background - a Yeshiva bocher turned secularist - and mindset to carry it off with aplomb.
Some people might complain that the examination of Yiddish language and culture in this book is too harsh and well... kvetchadik. But there is pride for a language and culture long gone throughout this book. More than any book on Yiddish that I've read, this one rings true. The description of the culture of Chasidic education of children is particularly unflinching and mordantly accurate. Footnotes would help this book a great deal. But this is a fine achievement. Now if only they wouldn't have put someone else's photo next to the NY Times review. ;)
If you think that's all there is, wait till you get to the chapter about swinging live chickens with diapers over your head!
Although the subject matter is engrossing, the book can be dry at times, which can sometimes be a bit of the slog. The pay-off is a greater understanding and appreciation for the depth of Yiddish