Review: What Does Kvetch Mean?

Born To Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods. (Audio CD) by Michael Wex (Author), Michael Wex (Narrator). HarperAudio.

Imagine a dictionary of Yiddish that contained only the most colorful and culturally rich words and phrases in a language. Now imagine that the definitions were arranged topically and written up by a lexicographically learned person who was also part cultural critic and an accomplished uninhibited professional comedian.

Michael Wex has put together a charming and learned book about Yiddish that encompasses those traits. More important to me, Wex brings a set of propositions to his writing. His expertise as a Yiddish translator, university teacher and novelist comes into play. Wex works with the concepts that Jewish culture inheres deeply in the Yiddish language and shapes its idioms. And he attempts, most often successfully, to show how those elements of language in turn shape the attitudes of their speakers.

True, Wex stretches some points. He finds some of the roots of kvetching in the society of the ancient rabbis and the disputes of Mishnaic scholars. I must admit this is a stretch. He also dwells too often on Yiddish principles that he himself invents. He calls one such notion the "aftselakhis"-impulse, the drive to do things simply because they are contrary to the wishes of others.

Even so, I found many myth shattering gems of insight in this book pertaining to topics of religion, food, sex, demons, insults, and the goyim.

For instance, all my life I had thought that the “bubbe mayse” was a grandmother’s tale. But in a lengthy discourse Wex informs us that the term derives from the widely popular medieval Italian romance Buovo d'Antona – a story of the love of Bovo and Druzane. When translated into Yiddish in 1507-1508 by Elia Levita these stories became the Bove-Bukh. In 1541 it was the first non-religious printed Yiddish book, and was reprinted over the years in at least 40 editions. By reference to this famous work, any romanticized story in Yiddish became a bove-mayse. Later folk etymology confused this with a bubbe-mayse or a grandmother's tale.

The author pursues all types of language games in his own writing, and engages in puns throughout the book. In one discussion, Wex introduces the town of Teaneck as a pun on words, saying that a girl had to wear a turtleneck to the movies in Teaneck.

I’m glad that I listened to this book, rather than reading it from a printed edition. Through the CD I got to hear the full resonance of the Yiddish idiom. This book on CD is a second generation audio book. The book is also available as a downloaded audio book which you can listen to on your iPod or similar device.

You’ll find some audio books, like this one, are read by the author. This has its plusses and minuses. For one thing, the author ought to know best how to best emphasize and dramatize his own writings. The downside is that an author generally sounds less polished than a professional reader. In this case Publisher’s Weekly calls Wex’s reading style, “a cross between Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man character and a classic Yiddish whine.” After my first hesitations, I decided that his inflection was perfectly suited to his content.

I’m a late convert to the audio book medium. I glommed onto mainly non-fiction audio books as a desperate way to save my sanity during my daily commute. This particular book actually made me look forward to the traffic jams on the GWB.

As a professor of Judaism, I listened fruitlessly for any inaccuracies in the author’s description of the references in Yiddishisms to Jewish law, culture and history. I caught only two minor errors. I have my doubts about a few of the more complex explanations that Wex proposes for the origin of some Yiddish idioms.

My main caveat is that I doubt a total amhaaretz (Jewish cultural ignoramus) or a complete shaygetz (non-Jew) would be able to follow some of Wex’s compressed and complex excurses on these background subjects. Hence, this book will be best appreciated by the knowledgeable Jewish reader, one who is already somewhat literate in the culture and history of the people of the kvetch. But it is recommended to the general readership at large, who, it appears, are already purchasing the book in significant numbers, making it # 24 in a recent the NY Times PB bestseller list.

-repost from 11/1/06

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