TBR: Born to Kvetch

In college, I took a class called Yiddish for German Speakers.  I wasn’t much of a German speaker, but it was a pet project of one of my favorite professors, and I thought I might be a linguistics major.  15 years later, my German is minimal, my Yiddish is even less, but it’s a good memory.

Today’s book, Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods, by Michael Wex, could have been subtitled "The Yiddish That All The German In the World Won’t Help You With."  It’s an exploration of the idioms that don’t make sense even if you can translate every word unless you understand the culture that they’re coming from.  So you learn that the way to say "toilet paper" in Yiddish is "asher yotser papir" or "he who makes-paper" from the morning prayer that praises God for keeping open all the passages that belong open.  Wex also argues that "shmuk" has nothing to do with the standard German "Schmuck" (which means "jewelry"), but comes from "shtok" or "stick" via the Yiddish-Shmiddish construction.

I found the book generally interesting, and laugh out loud funny at times, although it got a little repetitive by the end.  I was also surprised by my reaction to Wex’s relishing explanations of the anti-Christian sentiment buried in some of the idioms. I found myself wondering if it was a mistake to talk about such things "in public."   Or, as another generation might have asked, "is it good for the Jews?"

If I have any substantive complaint about the book, it’s about the lack of any chronological perspective.  The only people who really speak Yiddish now — as opposed to studying it from books — are Orthodox Jews, mostly black hat Hassidim.  I have to think that the language they speak, and the idioms they use, are different from those used by mainstream Yiddish speakers a hundred years ago when there was such a thing as a Yiddish mainstream.

One Response to “TBR: Born to Kvetch”

  1. MCMilker Says:

    Interesting book; I’ll have to pick that up. Most of the Yiddish I know I picked up from second generation friends – who grew up with their parents speaking Yiddish so the children would not understand.As it IS rapidly becoming a lost language, I wonder if we’ll see a resurgence of interest from the third generation.

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