The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Born to Kvetch

by Tricia Dower

I was debating whether or not to use a Yiddish-speaking character in my latest story when I came upon Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods on the bargain table at Munro’s Bookstore. I took that as a sign to go for it.

Author Michael Wex, who lives in Toronto, is a novelist, university teacher, translator and performer of stand-up and one-person shows. He lectures widely on Yiddish and Jewish culture. His book is a scholarly work but it’s also a hoot to read in many places, especially if you grew up close to New York City and had a part-time job at Robinson’s Hardware in high school. Although old Mr. and Mrs. Robinson had turned the day-to-day operations over to their progeny by the time I worked there, they presided on lawn chairs in front of the store kibitzing and kvetching and instructing customers that whatever they wanted was “in de beck.”

Wex defines kvetching — the fine art of complaining — in some detail and gives this helpful analogy: “If the Stones’s (I Can’t Get No ) Satisfaction had been written in Yiddish, it would have been called (I Love to Keep Telling You that I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (Because Telling You That I’m Not Satisfied Is All That Can Satisfy Me).” After I read that, I finally understood a friend of mine.

Born to Kvetch features chapters on the Yiddish curse (“a kvetch with a mission”), demons, food, religion, marriage, sex and the Angel of Death, among other things. It steers you through the origins of Yiddish — the coded language of exiles — and sheds light on why so many great comics are Jewish. As Wex writes in the chapter called A Slap in the Tukhes and Hello: Yiddish Life from Birth to Bar Mitzva, “There is almost no phase of life that Yiddish takes entirely seriously.”

I laughed out loud at the Yiddish equivalent of ‘speak of the devil.’ When just any old somebody shows up only seconds after his name has been mentioned, the Yiddish say, ‘We should have mentioned the Messiah.’ You gotta love people who’ve been waiting even longer than Sleeping Beauty for a saviour and can still joke about it.

It’s a point of pride with me to be out of touch. Apparently this book was a New York Times best seller in 2005. So successful, in fact, you can now buy Born to Kvetch t-shirts, camisoles, mugs and boxer shorts, ball caps, hoodies, sweatshirts, mouse pads, teddy bears, tote bags, throw pillows and thong underwear. Even a shirt for your dog.

So, get the book, already. And maybe a thong for your shlong or your oyse mokem.


Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

Aha! Excellent Tricia! I must pick that one up as I too am waaaay out of touch :)

Tue Apr 24, 08:44:00 am GMT-4  
Anonymous Larry said...

Did you decide to use a Yiddish character?

Tue Apr 24, 09:28:00 am GMT-4  
Anonymous Ruth Taylor said...

Great title, great cover, and the inside of the book sounds good, too. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

Ruth (way way more out of touch than anyone at the CWC)

Tue Apr 24, 10:52:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

I remember this book but only its (great) title. Now I'll definitely read it. It's rather surprising how much yiddish I use in my everyday language, including fake yiddish like verklempt.

Tue Apr 24, 11:43:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Lisa McMann said...

I have this book. It's great fun. :)

Tue Apr 24, 11:54:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks Jen, Ruth, Tamara and Lisa.

Larry, yes I did. It's headed your way!

Tue Apr 24, 12:25:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger MelBell said...

I'm so getting this.

Tue Apr 24, 12:41:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

You're a mensch, Tricia!

Wed Apr 25, 09:17:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks, Andrew, so are you!

Thanks for getting it, Mel.

Thu Apr 26, 01:02:00 am GMT-4  

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