439: Born to Kvetch by Michael Wex

by Gerard

439.109: Wex, Michael. Born To Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005. 285 pp. ISBN 0-312-30741-1.

Dewey Construction:

  • 400: Language
  • 430: Germanic languages
  • 439: Other Germanic languages
  • 439.1: Yiddish
  • +09: Historical treatment

In Aaron Lansky’s Outwitting History, we saw how a small team of dedicated people are helping save Yiddish literature. Thousand of aging Jewish folks were lamenting the loss of their books and happy to give them a new home (but not without inviting Lansky and his crew in for a five-course snack). But where do these feelings of woe come from? Michael Wex, in his Born To Kvetch, gets to root of the issue, arguing that because the Jewish culture exists in a permanent state of exile, the moments of joy are fleeting and all that is left is to kvetch.

The Yiddish word kvetch means “press, squeeze, pinch, or strain,” but a true kvetch is something entirely different. Wex explores the entire Yiddish language to show us how the history of the culture intertwined with the teachings of the Torah, the Talmud, and the infinite midrashim that go along with them form a cohesive whole that informs the kvetch. The kvetch is the straining to be heard, to find the audience of one’s pain and low times.

While the book does focus entirely on kvetch, it does use the kvetch’s various impetuses—poverty, bad luck, ailments, curses—to explore how the Jewish history and the Yiddish language have combined to form some incredible idioms. Like any culture’s idioms, you have to understand the history to understand the power behind the phrases.

As for the book, Wex’s prose is clear and often times witty. It can be a little coarse for those who aren’t expecting it, but the language means what it means, and Wex definitely isn’t sugar-coating it. Having some command of German will help when reading, but it’s not absolutely necessary. This book is equal parts religious exploration, cultural history, and linguistic immersion. I can almost guarantee that you’ll be sprinkling in few words of Yiddish into your speech without realizing it after reading this.