Born to Kvetch:
Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods

by Michael Wex, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005, xiii + 303, $24.95.
Paperback edition, xiii + 303 + 16, New York: HarperCollins, 2006, $13.95.

Languages grow. They are designed—our minds are designed—to add new words and to develop new constructions. Every language expands to meet the needs of those who speak it. An article in the April 18, 2007, issue of The New Yorker called “The Interpreter” explores the nature of the language of people in the Amazon jungle whose needs seem not to include terms for names of colors or even of words for “left” and “right.” It may even be that their language has no subordinate clauses, which would make it unique.

My dissertation adviser was Uriel Weinreich, who understood how languages develop to serve their societies. Yiddish, a Jewish language, reflects the needs and culture of the Jews of Eastern and Central Europe and their descendants in America, Israel, South America, and elsewhere. Weinreich began the work on The Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry. Linguistic atlases had been done before, but Weinreich wanted his project to study culture and history as well. Weinreich’s student and successor as director of the Atlas was Marvin I. Herzog, whose book, The Yiddish Language in Poland: Its Geography and History, has maps showing that the line separating the pronunciations zugn and zogn for the word meaning “to say” corresponds to the line between the areas of sweetened and unsweetened gefilte fish. My own dissertation, Dialect Boundaries and the Question of Franco-Provençal, which I defended ten days after the death of Professor Weinreich, includes a map of different roof styles in France, which corresponds somewhat to maps of different dialect areas. Joshua A. Fishman, expanding this area of research, developed a whole new field: sociolinguistics.

Born to Kvetch continues the tradition of relating language to culture, although its author, Michael Wex, does not relate his own research to Weinreich’s. Wex attributes the style and vocabulary of Yiddish conversation to the study of the Talmud: “Talmudic ways of speech and thought are not so much the forerunners of Yiddish as its matrix, the womb and long-term generational home of a language that was waiting to happen, a language that couldn’t help but be born. From a linguistic point of view, the Talmud is nothing less than Yiddish in utero” (p. 15).

The Talmud includes arguments, some of which are not resolved. Yiddish, and Jewish culture, respect and reflect argument. Argument is part of a tradition that includes complaining—kvetching. This tradition grew out of values embodied in the Talmud, but to an extent the Talmud itself grew out of a tradition of complaining. Wex tells us: “They kvetch in Egypt and they kvetch in the desert. No matter what God does, it’s wrong; whatever favors He bestows, they’re never enough” (p. 3).

I believe the Israelites who wandered for 40 years in the desert and died before reaching the Holy Land had every right to kvetch, but that’s a subject for a different article. The habits of complaining and arguing are well established and probably a source of strength. In the supplement to the book found in the paperback edition, Wex says as much: “Such negativity might not be so negative after all; kvetching might just lie at the root of all progress, all innovation” (supplementary page 9).

Not all Jews come from Yiddish-speaking backgrounds. There are other Jewish languages, among them Ladino, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Arabic, etc. All Jewish communities include or included Talmud scholars, and all have traditions of kvetching. In Judeo-Italian, the Jewish language I know best after Yiddish, most of the words are of Italian origin, just as in Yiddish most of the words are of Germanic origin. But both languages have words that come from Hebrew for “bride” and “groom.” Both have words meaning “garbage” or “nonsense” that come from the Hebrew word for “pig”: khazeray in Yiddish and hazirud in Judeo-Italian. Both tend to be spoken with a singsong pattern of intonation. More such examples may be found in my review essay “A Yearning for Yiddish” (Midstream October 1994).

Wex restricts his discussion to Yiddish and doesn’t refer to the parallels with other Jewish languages. He tends to concentrate on complaining, as suggested by the title of his book, as well as chapters on cursing, misery, sex, and death. His chapter on traditional Jewish schools for children describes a system as “not for the meek. Airless and overcrowded, full of preadolescents forced to trudge through steaming jungles of syllogisms, bobe-mayses, and kid-eating prohibitions—you can’t touch your hair while praying; you can’t pet a dog on shabbes or go swimming during the hottest three weeks of the year …” (p. 109). The entire chapter is about mistreating children. How did Jews ever produce thinkers and scientists, given such a tradition?

Wex’s chapter on cursing and bad language in general is particularly instructive in the way it points out the uniqueness of the Yiddish tradition. The familiar “zolst vaksn vi a tsibele, mitn kop in dr’erd” (you should grow like an onion, with your head in the ground) is one of many such curses—too light-hearted or imaginative to feel like a real curse. There are expressions like a mise meshune (a strange death) or gey in dr’erd (go into the earth, i.e., drop dead) which sound much more sincere. But there are few if any offensive idioms relating to sexual activity. When I lived and taught in China I learned many taboo words and felt they were closer to English than Yiddish insults are, despite the fact that Chinese is very different from English. In Chinese, you can call someone gou niang yangde (raised by a dog’s mother), which is used exactly as “SOB” is used in English and means the same thing. Furthermore, Chinese, like English, has idioms reflecting incestuous relationships with one’s mother. Yiddish doesn’t. Yiddish and English share many similarities but differ significantly in their use of offensive language.

There is a list of 23 curses in Born to Kvetch (p. 136), not one of which has anything to do with sex. Later in the book (p. 249), Wex mentions that there are insulting words meaning “penis,” but he doesn’t explore the absence of obscene curses in Yiddish. Perhaps the Talmud is part of the answer. Just as the tradition of arguing and complaining has been part of Jewish culture for millennia, so is the unwillingness to use words referring to physical desire—although the Song of Songs, which antedates the Talmud, is a possible exception to this rule.

There is much more to Yiddish than quibbling and complaining. Jewish culture and Jewish languages are concerned with charity and with tikkun olam—improving the world. Jews are disproportionately involved in politics, the arts, and the sciences. All these subjects, to be sure, are the reflections and outgrowth of arguing, which is a form of exploration. But they are serious subjects, and one can be quite serious in Yiddish. Born to Kvetch is simultaneously a funny and a learned book. The emphasis on the humor, however, may possibly obscure the learning.

It would be inappropriate if I didn’t do some kvetching about the book. The chapter on dialects is full of errors, for example: “The significant Yiddish-speaking populations of what are now Romania and Hungary shared a basic southeastern dialect with their fellow Austrians (or ex-Austrians) in Galicia, a province of Austro-Hungary that included large areas of present-day Poland (e.g. Cracow) and Ukraine (L’viv for instance)” (p.47). This is incorrect. My father was from Cracow, which most definitely was a city that did not speak Southeastern Yiddish. The Southeastern Yiddish area includes most of Romania, although not the parts that were in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Southeastern Yiddish is the collection of dialects found in Romania and Ukraine, but is different from the Yiddish dialects that were spoken in Galicia, Eastern Hungary, Slovakia, and Transylvania, which is the same as Polish Yiddish, called “Central Yiddish” by Weinreich and other linguists.

Another error occurs when Wex says that the Standard Yiddish pronunciations voynt (resides) and froy (woman) are vo:nt and fro: in Polish Yiddish (the colon indicates vowel length). The two words have different vowels in every Yiddish dialect. In Northeastern (Lithuanian) Yiddish, one says veynt and froy. In Polish Yiddish, one says voynt and fro:. There is no part of the Yiddish-speaking world that says vo:nt. The Standard Yiddish oy in both words is an example of compromise.

There is also a Western Yiddish, once spoken in Alsace, Switzerland, and Holland. It is on the verge of extinction. An excellent book on the subject, Westjiddisch in der Schweiz und Südwestdeutschland by Jürg Fleischer, appeared in 2005.

Despite my kvetching, I welcome the publication of Wex’s book. Scholarship and popular writing are hard to reconcile, but Born to Kvetch combines the two. A great many Yiddish expressions are funny, but studying Yiddish and Jewish languages is serious scholarship.

This review appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Midstream.