I was ransacking Michael Wex’s Born to Kvetch for the Yiddish entry in the curses-and-insults book I’m working on when it occurred to me that I’d never gotten around to mentioning it here, so I’m remedying the omission now. Wex’s website has links to articles of his as well as brief excerpts from each chapter of the book—Origins of Yiddish, Yiddish in Action, and so on. The first can serve as a sample of the style:
Yiddish started out as German for blasphemers, as a German in which you could deny Christ without getting yourself killed any more often than necessary. From day one, once they started to speak “German” to one another, the Jews were speaking German aftselakhis, German to spite the Germans, a German that Germans wouldn’t understand—the argot of the unredeemed. Don’t think of Yiddish as a union or melding of German and Semitic elements; think of it as a horror movie. Think of Hebrew as an aristocrat with a funny accent, a mysterious old language no longer used in conversation, the linguistic equivalent of the Undead. It needs body and blood to return to spoken life, the body and blood of a living language that can be taken over and put to use in the service of the Jewish brain.
If you like that, you’ll probably like the book. It’s overwritten, sure, but in much the same way the pastrami sandwiches at the Carnegie Deli are too big to eat; they’re tasty and irresistible anyway. The guy’s both scholarly and funny, a rare combination. And he knows some good curses, like a kazarme zol af dir aynfaln ‘a barracks should collapse on you’; as he says, “Having a building of any kind collapse on top of you is never pleasant, but if that building is a barracks, then you’re probably in the army—the last place any Eastern European Jew wanted to find himself.” And how can you not love a book that quotes Mickey Katz? “You’ll love it in the South Pacific,/ Some enchanted evening with Moyshe Pipik.” Can I get an Oy?