Thursday, April 06, 2006

Born To Kvetch

"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 Satsify Me)." - Michael Wex Born To Kvetch

I grew up in West Los Angeles with close friends of Jewish heritage. Though their families were far from orthodox, there was enough Yiddish bandied about I could return from a pal's house and realize what a tsuris I'd gotten my self into at school, bemoan the mishuganeh drivers on Santa Monica Blvd., and say "oy gevolt!" when i hit a baseball through a parked car window.
I was particularly taken by the Jewish-Hungarian dishes, served with selzer water, of my friend's mother and grandmother and how my sanity was questioned when I wouldn't go beyond three helpings.
In my teens I had a Jewish girlfriend - if I'd been fluent with Yiddish, here I would've answered my friends "Iz zi sheyn? is she beautiful? Mayne sonim zoln zayn azoy miyes My enemies should be as ugly (as she is beautiful)" I went to her house for the first time and recalled not a word from her mom but in a flash an unforgettable warm plate of kasha was put before me - nothing like the pseudo-macrobiotic stuff i'd been making that my friends lovingly referred to as "gruel".

Born to Kvetch - Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods is one of the few books i've recently been unable to put down. Admittedly, it helps if the reader is a bit of a language nut, but there are some laugh-out-loud moments throughout. Interspersed with Talmudic interpretation and syntactical gymnastics, Wex cites incidents of Yiddish phrases in Three Stooges movies, comparisons with Twilight Zone episodes, analogies to songs by ? And the Mysterians, and Albert King.

In a nutshell the "kvetch" is portrayed not just as a complaint but as a kind of pre-emptive strike against those forces of evil and mischief that would love to pounce upon compliments or other admissions of joy and acceptance. Thus, the tradition of breaking glasses at the start of a wedding - those spirits that would seek to ruin the joyous occasion are somehow appeased by these acts of symbolic destruction. As with the phrase I mentioned earlier, complimenting the beauty of the woman is not enough when the praise can double as a curse against one's enemies.
I enjoy the way Wex seems to reach out personally to the reader, suggesting that if the going gets rough, skip ahead to another chapter. I followed his advice and relished the delicious lists of Yiddish curses, ie.;

You should lose all of your teeth but one, so that you can have a toothache

Doctors should have need of you

Your brain should dry up

May you have a calamity in your flanks

A maniac should be crossed off the register of madmen and you should be inscribed in his place

Hours of fun, this. If you happen upon this wonderful book, Mazl Tov!

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