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?


  1. You mentioned it way back in October of ’05. I remembered because I gave it to a friend as a birthday gift based on your entry. Oh, and I read it and loved it.

  2. One oy with aftselakhis sauce, coming up!

  3. I was given Leo Rosen’s book by my father–how does it compare?

  4. That’s Leo ROSTEN, Conrad. Yeah, how does it compare? (I enjoyed it.)

  5. Rosten, Schmosten.

  6. Oy!
    the army—the last place any Eastern European Jew wanted to find himself
    Any of you ever read Daniel Katz‘s “Kun isoisä Suomeen hiihti” (“When grandfather skied to Finland”)?

  7. xiaolongnu says

    From a Jew living in the (central) Pacific: Oy!
    (And, for an entirely different discussion, “shaloha.”)

  8. Barracks: a Jewish friend of mine still has the Iron Cross that his (scholarly Jewish) grandfather won in WWI. A lot of secular Jews were willing to be patriots and nationalists, but weren’t allowed to do so. Ernest Gellner (a Czech German Jew become British) has written about this.

  9. Wex is funny and smart, and his book is definitely fun to read, and unlike Rosten’s book it’s actually about Yiddish. But I feel compelled as an aspiring Yiddish academic to make my unease about this book known:
    1) He definitely perpetuates stereotypes about Jews, and about Yiddish in particular(funny, pithy, earthy, whiny, emotional, etc.)
    2. His discussion of Yiddish dialects is possibly the worst treatment of the subject I’ve encountered. It’s flat-out erroneous for the most part, and he uses technical terms like unrounding in a way that makes it clear he’s guessing at what they mean.
    The best non-scholarly book on Yiddish is Dovid Katz’s “Words On Fire.” It’s less fun than Wex’s, and Katz may be a maverick in the field, but he’s a true scholar, and this adds a depth and clarity that is lacking in “Born to Kvetch.”

  10. Thanks, Ben — I don’t know nearly enough about Yiddish and the relevant literature to make an assessment like that, so I’m grateful for yours, and I’ll look for the Katz book. As for Rosten, I love him, but he’s way over on the Borscht belt side — the anecdotes are great, but don’t trust anything he says about the actual linguistic stuff.

  11. Ben, thanks–and what’s the best scholarly book on Yiddish?

  12. Er drayt sich arum vie a fortz in russell.

  13. funny, pithy, earthy, whiny, emotional, etc… that pretty much describes the Michael Wex I know. Wex was raised as a Hasid, and a lot of his examples more specifically describe the Yiddish usage and attitudes of the Hasidic community, which today is probably the largest group of Yiddish speakers and the only one passing the language on to children in any numbers.
    Wex used to teach Old Icelandic Literature at some university in Canada, so my guess is that he has the academic linguistic chops, but didn’t use them much during the many years he eked out a penurious existance as an avant-garde Yiddish writer for a Berlin-based Yiddish theater (he wrote the Yiddish lyrics to a Klezmatics song about smoking reefer… he had to create a Yiddish word for “joint”) and paid the bills as a janitor in Montreal. When Wex’s book hit the NY Times bestseller list all of his buddies felt that finally Wex will be able to buy, maybe, two cups of coffee in a single week…

  14. I suppose I should emphasize that I do not begrudge Wex his success at all – he certainly deserves it. I just wanted to point out that the book, while edifying and entertaining, also has aspects that I find deeply problematic.
    Hmm, best scholarly book on Yiddish? Hard to say, since scholarly books tend to also be specialized, so it’s hard to think of a scholarly book about Yiddish per se. Here’s three I like:
    1. The best book about the language itself is certainly Neil Jacobs’s “Yiddish: A Linguistic Introduction.”
    2. Though virtually unreadable, Dov-Ber Kerler’s “The Origins of Modern Literary Yiddish” is a fascinating and thoroughly researched account of how a literary standard that reflected the spoken vernacular of Eastern Yiddish coalesced organically in the late 18th century.
    3. Ruth Wisse’s “A Little Love in Big Manhattan” is a thrilling glimpse into the Yiddish literary world in New York in the first decades of the 20th century.
    For the record, I don’t know if there is a non-invented Yiddish word for joint, but in the Hasidic community in New York they call pot ‘ketoyres,’ which is the word for the incense used in the Temple. I think that’s pretty cute. Oh, and as for Rosten, the most important line of his book is in the preface: “This is not a book about Yiddish… This is a book about language — more particularly, the English language.” I wish more people took note of this.

  15. Thanks, that’s very useful.

  16. It is indeed, and I’ll look out for the Wisse book. Sounds wonderful. (And I too like ketoyres.)

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