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Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moodsby Michael Wex
Synopses & Reviews
As the main spoken language of the Jews for more than a thousand years, Yiddish has had plenty to lament, plenty to conceal. Its phrases, idioms, and expressions paint a comprehensive picture of the mind-set that enabled the Jews of Europe to survive a millennium of unrelenting persecution: they never stopped kvetching — about God, gentiles, children, food, and everything (and anything) else. They even learned how to smile through their kvetching and express satisfaction in the form of complaint.
In Born to Kvetch, Michael Wex looks at the ingredients that went into this buffet of disenchantment and examines how they were mixed together to produce an almost limitless supply of striking idioms and withering curses (which get a chapter all to themselves). Born to Kvetch includes a wealth of material that's never appeared in English before. You'll find information on the Yiddish relationship to food, nature, divinity, and humanity. There's even a chapter about sex.
This is no bobe mayse (cock-and-bull story) from a khokhem be-layle(idiot, literally a "sage at night" when no one's looking), but a serious yet fun and funny look at a language that both shaped and was shaped by those who spoke it. From tukhes to goy, meshugener to kvetch, Yiddish words have permeated and transformed English as well.
Through the idioms, phrases, metaphors, and fascinating history of this kvetch-full tongue, Michael Wex gives us a moving and inspiring portrait of a people, and a language, in exile.
"Fortunately, despite its title and cover photo, this is not a kitschy book about a folksy language spoken by quaint, elderly Jews. It is, rather, an earthy romp through the lingua franca of Jews, which has roots reaching back to the Hebrew Bible and which continues to thrive in 21st-century America. Canadian professor, translator and performer Wex has an academic's breadth of knowledge, and while he doesn't ignore your bubbe's tsimmes, he gives equal time to the semantic nuances of putz, schmuck, shlong and shvants. Wex organizes his material around broad, idiosyncratic categories, but like the authors of the Talmud (the source for a large number of Yiddish idioms), he strays irrepressibly beyond the confines of any given topic. His lively wit roams freely, and Rabbi Akiva and Sholem Aleichem collide happily with Chaucer, Elvis and Robert Petrie. Academics, and others, will be disappointed at the lack of source notes, and a few errors have crept in (the fifth day of Sukkot is not Hoshana Rabba, for instance). Overall, however, this treasure trove of linguistics, sociology, history and folklore offers a fascinating look at how, through the centuries, a unique and enduring language has reflected an equally unique and enduring culture. Agent, Gareth Esersky. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Wise, witty and altogether wonderful....Mr. Wex has perfect pitch. He always finds the precise word, the most vivid metaphor, for his juicy Yiddishisms, and he enjoys teasing out complexities." William Grimes, The New York Times
"All the wonderful elements of Yiddish language and culture are humorously presented here. Highly recommended..." Library Journal
"Wise, witty and altogether wonderful.... Mr. Wex has perfect pitch. He always finds the precise word, the most vivid metaphor, for his juicy Yiddishisms, and he enjoys teasing out complexities." William Grimes, The New York Times
Yiddish is everywhere. We hear words like nosh, schlep, and schmutz all the time, but how did these words come to pepper American English? In Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular and the New Land, Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle trace the influence of Yiddish from medieval Europe to the tenements of New Yorkand#8217;s Lower East Side. This comics anthology contains original stories by notable writers and artists such as Barry Deutsch, Peter Kuper, Spain Rodriguez, and Sharon Rudahl. Through illustrations, comics art, and a full-length play, four major themes are explored: culture, performance, assimilation, and the revival of the language. The last fully realized work by Harvey Pekar, this book is a thoughtful compilation that reveals the far-reaching influences of Yiddish.
Praise for Yiddishkeit:
and#8220;The book is about what Neal Gabler in his introduction labels and#8216;Jewish sensibility.and#8217; It pervades this volume, which he acknowledges is messy; he writes: and#8216;You really can't define Yiddishkeit neatly in words or pictures. You sort of have to feel it by wading into it.and#8217; The book does this with gusto.and#8221; and#8212;New York Times
and#8220;Yiddishkeit is as colorful, bawdy, and charming as the culture it seeks to represent.and#8221;
and#8220;every bit of it brimming with the charm and flavor of its subject and seamlessly meshing with the text to create a genuinely compelling, scholarly comics experienceand#8221;
and#8220;Yiddishkeit is a book that truly informs about Jewish culture and, in the process, challenges readers to pick apart their own vocabulary.and#8221; and#8212;Chicago Tribune
and#8220;a postvernacular tour de forceand#8221;
and#8220;A fascinating and enlightening effort that takes full use of the graphic storytelling medium in an insightful and revelatory way.and#8221; and#8212;The Miami Herald
and#8220;With a loving eye Pekar and Buhle extract moments and personalities from Yiddish history.and#8221; and#8212;Hadassah
and#8220;gorgeous comix-style portraits of Yiddish writersand#8221;
and#8220;Yiddishkeit has managed to survive, if just barely, not because there are individuals dedicated to its survival, though there are, but because Yiddishkeit is an essential part of both the Jewish and the human experience.and#8221;and#160;
and#8212;Neal Gabler, author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, from his introduction
"The hearty hardcover is a scrumptious smorgasbord of comics, essays, and illustrations, edited by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle, providing concentrated tastes, with historical context, of Yiddish theater, literature, characters and culture." and#8212;Heeb magazine
The entry for kvetchn (the verbal form) in Uriel Weinreich's Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary reads simply: "press, squeeze, pinch; strain." There is no mention of grumbling or complaint. You can kvetch an orange to get juice, kvetch a buzzer for service, or kvetch mit di pleytses, shrug your shoulders, when no one responds to the buzzer that you kvetched. All perfectly good, perfectly common uses of the verb kvetchn, none of which appears to have the remotest connection with the idea of whining or complaining. The link is found in Weinreich's "strain" which he uses to define kvetchn zikh, to press or squeeze oneself, the reflexive form of the verb. Alexander Harkavy's 1928 Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary helps make Weinreich's meaning clearer. It isn't simply to strain, but "to strain," as Harkavy has it, "at stool," to have trouble doing what, if you'd eaten your prunes the way you were supposed to, you wouldn't have any trouble with at all. The connection with complaint lies, of course, in the tone of voice: someone who's kvetching sounds like someone who's paying the price for not having taken his castor oil---and he has just as eager an audience. A really good kvetch has a visceral quality, a sense that the kvetcher won't be completely comfortable, completely satisfied, until it's all come out. Go ahead and ask someone how they're feeling; if they tell you, "Don't ask," just remember that you already have. The twenty-minute litany of tsuris is nobody's fault but your own.
---from Born to Kvetch
About the Author
Michael Wex is a novelist, university teacher, translator (including the only authorized Yiddish translation of The Threepenny Opera), and performer (of stand-up and one-person shows). He has been hailed as "a Yiddish national treasure" and is one of the leading lights in the current revival of Yiddish, lecturing widely on Yiddish and Jewish culture. He lives and kvetches in Toronto.
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