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.
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
concept 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
To Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods," audiotape
from the book of the same name by Michael Wex, who narrates it,
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
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.
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.
author pursues all kinds 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 audiobook. The book is also
available as a downloaded audiobook, which you can listen to on your
iPod or similar device.
You’ll find some
audiobooks, 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
audiobook medium. I glommed onto mainly non-fiction audiobooks 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
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.
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 buying the book in significant numbers.