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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.
If you think that's all there is, wait till you get to the chapter about swinging live chickens with diapers over your head!
There is so much wit, wisdom and brilliant insight in this book that I am in awe of Wex's accomplishment. I have lived with Yiddish since I was a child. Wex has a very deep grasp of the neshomeh, the soul of the language and of Ashkenazi Jewry. I laughed so hard as I read and reread passages from Born to kvetch. The laughter of recognition.
Often I would find myself stopping and shouting, Ot azoy! ( Right on!) Finally, someone has not only gotten it but has the seykhel to put it on paper in a coherent and truly hysterical fashion, one which really represents the best in Yiddish humor. What is this humor? It is a presentation of the facts in a way that reminds us of the absurdity of life. Wex has gotten the Ashkenazi Jewish psyche down pat. Go no further. This is it.
But I digress.
Yiddish is ( yes, it's still very much alive in spite of what some paskudnyaks have written) one of the most exciting, self-deprecating, honest modes of communication around. If you like to laugh this is your language. If you want to cry ( and possibly kvetch a bit, too - it wouldn't hurt) climb on board. The literature of Yiddish ( much of it untranslated) rivals the best in the world. I used to listen to the news on a NY radio station, WEVD, read in Yiddish. It was hilarious. Jon Stewart, eat your heart out. This is where it all started. Jewish comedians grew up immersed in Yiddish.Notice how many there are and were - Marx Bros, Three Stooges, Jack Benny, Seinfeld, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, etc.- not only often often use Yiddish phrases but their entire world outlook is taken lock, stock and bagel from Yiddish.
By the way, Wex yearly gives classes in which he expounds on many related themes, all of them from his unique and authentic Yiddish background, at the Klezkamp gatherings in NY. Well worth the price of admission.
I learned more about the psychology of the Eastern European Jewish world ( ie. most American Jews) from this book than anywhere else. I also recognized my relatives.
And, yes, Wex is the real thing. He grew up in a Yiddish-speaking Canadian home. His Yiddish is not university Yiddish, le-havdil, but the language that Ashkenazi Jews used to eat, laugh, perform carnal acts, and curse. You think that our parents and grandparents weren't human? This book will show you just how human they were .
Wex has put the Yid back into Yiddish.
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