Born To Kvetch

A man boards a Chicago-bound train in Grand Central Station and sits down across from an old man reading a Yiddish newspaper. Half an hour after the train has left the station, the old man puts down his paper and starts to whine like a frightened child.

“Oy, am I thirsty . . . Oy, am I thirsty . . . Oy, am I thirsty . . .”

The other man is at the end of his rope inside of five minutes. He makes his way to the water cooler at the far end of the car, fills a cup with water, and starts walking back to his seat. He pauses after a few steps, goes back to the cooler, fills a second cup with water and walks gingerly down the aisle, trying to keep the cups from spilling. He stops in front of the old man and clears his throat. The old man looks up in midoy, his eyes beam with gratitude as he drains the first cup in a single gulp. Before he can say or do anything else, the man hands him the second cup, then sits back down and closes his eyes, hoping to catch a bit of a nap. As he sits back, the old man allows himself a sigh of thanks. He leans into his own seat, tilts his forehead toward the ceiling, and says, just as loudly as before, “Oy, was I thirsty . . .”

The above excerpt is from Born To Kvetch by Michael Wex.

From the inner jacket – “For Jews, kvetching is a way of understanding the world. It is rooted, like so much of Jewish culture, in the Bible where the Israelites grumble endlessly. They complain about their problems and complain as much about the solutions. They kvetch in Egypt and they kvetch in the desert; no matter what God does, it’s wrong.

In Yiddish Jews found the perfect language for their complaints. In kvetching they made complaining into an art form.

Yiddish was the main spoken language for Jews for over a thousand years and its phrases, idioms and expressions paint a comprehensive picture of the psychology that helped the Jews of Europe to survive unrelenting persecution. In Born to Kvetch Michael Wex looks into the origins of this surplus of disenchantment and examines how it helped to create the abundance of striking idioms and curses in Yiddish.

Michael Wex takes a serious but funny look at the language that has shaped and was shaped by those who spoke it. Featuring chapters on the Yiddish relationship to food, nature, God, death and even sex, he allows his scholarship and wit to roam freely from Sholem Aleichem to Chaucer and Elvis Presley.

A treasure trove of linguistics, sociology, history and folklore – an inspiring portrait of a people, and a language, in exile.

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