Born to kvetch
Whether Yiddish is a dead language or reviving has been an ongoing source of debate ever since Hitler murdered most of its European practitioners, and its American speakers, of whom
there were many even into the 1940s and 1950s, melted into the proverbial pot. There are now relatively few Jews in Europe, and fewer yet speak Yiddish. In the United States it is spoken primarily in ultraorthodox communities and by Florida retirees. The American Yiddish Theater, which in its heyday rivaled Broadway, would be Greek to most Jews today.
But there are signs of revival. Since the 1980s there has been a great deal of interest, on both sides of the Atlantic, in klezmer music and in Yiddish. Here and in Europe--strangely
enough, especially in Germany and Poland--even non-Jews are learning the language, forming klezmer bands, and singing in mamaloshen.
Forty years ago there was Leo Rosten's popular book The Joys of Yiddish, but Rosten himself declared, "This is not a book about Yiddish." It was instead a delightful tome about Yiddish words and phrases that have infiltrated American English. My computer spell-checker has no problem with kvetch, kibitz, schlep, schmaltz, or schmooze. It's not okay by tchotchke, but that I can find in my dictionary. My spell-checker accepts hoo-ha and mishmash, but not oy vey or putz--and probably plenty of other words you may not know how to spell but know exactly how to use.
Now comes Michael Wex, scholar, stand-up comedian, and best-selling author of Born to Kvetch and Just Say Nu. Riding--and, one could argue, helping to foster--a resurgence of Yiddish that Rosten could hardly have imagined, Wex has brought the language and the culture that spawned it further into the spotlight for those who are interested in learning about Yiddish, for those who want to learn to speak it--and even for those who just want hilarious, highly entertaining reading.
Wex's strong suit, like Rosten's, is his terrific sense of humor, but he backs his comedy with an
unparalleled understanding of all matters Yiddish. He has the chutzpah to invent a transliteration system for Yiddish that is at times at odds with the one created by the hallowed YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. It's emblematic of his nerve, and of his scholarship.
But he is funny, whether talking about relatives--"You can't live with them, you hardly ever get presents without them"--or describing an unappetizing dish that has all "the sex appeal of Don Knotts in a rainstorm."
In time-honored Yiddish tradition, he finds amusing ways to look at life's difficulties. "Tsoores (troubles) are to Yiddish what water is to fish, the difference being that no one has ever made a serious experiment to see if Jews could live without troubles."
Michael Wex will appear at the Jewish Community Center as part of the Jewish Book Festival on Monday, November 10.
[Originally published in November, 2008.]