Born to Kvetch: Yiddish as she is spoke

Michael Wex's bestselling Born to Kvetch is a deeply personal, wry and illuminating journey through the Yiddish language. This works especially well because Yiddish is a real kitchen language, an idiosyncratic collection of personal and familial dialects half-spoken by Jews around the world. My father's first language was Yiddish (he was born in a refugee camp in Azerbaijan and as his family moved from camp to camp, heading west, the lingua franca was Yiddish), and I attended secular Yiddish school at the Workmen's Circle on weekends for about eight years, coming away with an ungrammatical, half-remembered grasp of the language that is nevertheless sufficient to tell the occasional joke, to pretend to speak German, and to communicate with my Russian family in Petersburg (I don't speak Russian and they don't speak English).

Since my childhood, I haven't given much thought to the formalities of Yiddish, and that's where Wex's book comes in, an uproarious etymology of Yiddish with profane and irreverent examples that had me barking with laughter in public places. And as much as Born to Kvetch made me laugh, it also made me a little sorrowful at the thought of secular Yiddish dwindling away (Yiddish is still widely spoken among orthodox Jews, of course).

Of course, the real value in reading Wex's book comes in the new vocabulary words and concepts there for the taking, uniquely Yiddish and ironical notions like "Klipe" ("a common scold, Elvira Gulch crossed with Joan Rivers...a child klipe is clingy and demanding....the two types were considered mutually exclusive until Courtney Love came along"). More elaborate, the ironical use of "treasure" (oytser) to describe ill treatment, as in, "I'll bury him in the ground like a treasure" -- "so exquisite a hatred that you want to make sure he goes into the ground gently and deeply, without anyone but you knowing where he's buried." These back-handed insults are pure MAD Magazine -- "May his wardrobe be purchased from his father," meaning, his father should drop dead. Not to mention the purely visceral, "You should piss green worms, " a maniac should be crossed off the register of madmen and you should be inscribed in his place," and the purely delightful, "You should thunder in your belly and lightning in your pants."

Of all the notions I took away from Kvetch, my favorite is the "klots-kashe," the klutz's question, a question that is both pointlessly stupid and incredibly derailing -- the example that Wex gives is the person who, in a discussion of slavery, asks, "But is slavery always bad for slaves?" The klots-kashe has found its way firmly into online culture (it's the scourge of message-boards), but I'd never known its name until now.

Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods


  1. My favorite was a curse from a fellow soldier directed at an overbearing sergeant: “All your teeth should fall out out of your head but one tooth, and that tooth should kill you!”

    He was from Brooklyn, so it was “teet” and “toot.”

  2. That’s great! My grandfather ran a Yiddish newspaper – one of many in Philly in the day – and wrote a number of books of fiction and poetry in Yiddish, which sit on my shelf unread by me since I lack all but a few words of Yiddish in my head.

    There also the National Yiddish Book Center for folks wanting to know more about this dying language ( ). They carry over 10,000 Yiddish titles on line and in person is a very cute museum and theater for all things Yiddish which happens to be located in my small town of Amherst, Mass. My next step is to get my grandfather’s books translated.

  3. As with all children growing up in Russia with Jewish parent, the only real exposure I got to Yiddish was from hearing my grand parents swear. It’s a great swearing language since it’s obscure enough to not be completely understood by non Yiddish speakers yet have enough of a smattering of German and other languages to get the gist of it. Plus it’s such a harsh language that practically anything you say sounds threatening.

  4. My favourite Yiddish curse was “may you grow like a potato, with your head in the dirt.”

    Though I never met her, I love the stories about my great-grandmother, who spoke no English, cursing a blue streak in Yiddish to baffled door-to-door salesmen.

  5. Excellent book. Read it when it came out a few years ago.

    Its follow-up ‘Just Say Nu’, not quite as good, but worth reading. My main problem with the second is Wex’s use of Poylish pronunciation, I prefer the Litvish, like my great-granparents probably used. I does give a nice explanation one of my favorite Yiddish tell-off “Gey kakn afn yam!” go shit on the ocean!. According to Wex, it’s ‘On’ the ocean, because Nu, you think you’re like Jebus and can walk on water?(my paraphrase). Ron Jeremy was interviewed a few NPR a few years ago and mentioned a second part to this which went “and wipe your tuches in the waves”, unfortunately I don’t remember th Yiddish for that.


  6. Perhaps coincidentally, there’s a poignant article about the Workmen’s Circle where Cory learned Yiddish, in today’s Toronto Star:

    And speaking of “Gey kakn afn yam” (comment #7), when I was a kid there was a listing in the Toronto phone book for a Mr. Geykakn Offenyom — someone’s very clever end-run (with middle finger extended) around Bell Canada’s monthly charge for an unlisted phone number.

  7. huh – in Scots, the word ‘clipe’ means tell-tale…

    Scots is one of the few languages that can lay claim (reckons the Scot) to being as – expressive – as Yiddish. (If you disagree, awa’ an’ bile yer heid)

    And in it’s Glaswegian form, at least, it’s still evolving. The equivalent book would the Michael Munro’s ‘The Patter’

  8. Cory, I adore klots-kashe, and will pass it on to several convention programming mavens of my acquaintance. I’ve never forgotten the half-muffled squeaks of dismay that went up from a panel on some recondite academic subject when the moderator, an academic attending her first sf con, said “Let’s start by defining the difference between fantasy and science fiction.”

    QuietTrickster, I’ll second that. Yiddish and Scots are unmatched for their vocabulary of colorful abuse. A friend of mine once proposed that we have a go at translating a chunk of The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie. I refused, on the grounds that modern English has nothing to match the fine distinctions and gradations of the insults in the original, and without those, what’s the point?

  9. I too attended a Workmen’s Circle (in Detroit), and I wish I had enough Yiddish to communicate with anyone. My parents didn’t learn it from their parents (who used Yiddish as a way to talk with each other without the kids knowing what they were saying – as a parent of children who can spell, I can see the attraction).

    I once considered taking a class entitled “Conversational Yiddish” at Berkeley, but unfortunately I was living in Sunnyvale at the time, and the 1.5h each way commute to learn Yiddish seemed insurmountable.

    This is one of my favorite books.

  10. I attended the Arbiter Ring (Workmen’s Circle) in Chicago. My parent’s were from Russia, but only my father spoke Russian. Their conversational language was Yiddish and I picked up a little.

    In high school and college I took the easy language to transition to, German. The only time I used it was during two business trips to Munich and to Hanover. After 20 years of non use, my German turned in to Yiddish.

    My father was a Lino-typist for the Chicago edition of the Jewish Daily Forward. I used to visit him and watch his fingers fly over the keyboard, creating lead slugs that would be assembled in to stories to be printed in the paper.

    I can’t tell if there is still a Chicago edition, but I see there is a Yiddish edition online, although in Yiddish it is spelled Forwards, just as I remember pronouncing it. Of course, we would say if was spelled backwards.

  11. Anyone else heard about the BBC world series about Yiddish in the USA?

    I caught some the ad, it starts on the 13th.

  12. Quiettrickster @ 9: clipe also spelt ‘clype’, Scots never having gotten standardised, since its use was deprecated.

    TNH @ 10: nitpicking; it’s Dunbar, not Dumbar.

    My favourite Scots expression, to be used when one’s interlocutor is talking nonsense (a klots-kashe, for example) is, “Yer arse in parsley”.

  13. As you parenthetically mentioned, Yiddish is far from a dying language among Orthodox Jews. As someone who lives in Jerusalem, I can vouch for the fact that the Yiddish-speaking population — and more importantly, their *belief* in the value of the language — is so strong here, that it even claims a superiority to the use of Hebrew as the language of observant Judaism!

    JamesPadraicR: I must ask whether you happen to be a fan of the Dark Tower novels by Stephen King, in which that expression plays a significant role.

  14. @ 16 No, I actually have never gotten around to reading King. However in the movie ‘Marathon Man’ there’s an early scene where an alter kaker yells it at someone who ran into his car.

    Another note; as a Jew, who’s Scottish on the father’s side, I was happy to come across the reference to Scots-Yiddish on Wikipedia.

    (yes, I should create an account here, maybe soon)

  15. One of my favorite jokes has a Yiddish punchline. (I myself am about as Jewish as a blood pudding, but hey, a joke is a joke.)

    During World War I, a certain Private Rosenzweig distinguished himself on the front lines by going out on daring night raids. He’d go out alone, night after night, and bring back nine or ten prisoners. Eventually, he was awarded a medal. At the awards ceremony, he was asked how he was capable of such daring. “Easy,” he said. “Every night, I go over to the German lines and call out ‘Yidn! Ich darf a minyan auf kaddish!’ (I need ten men to pray for the dead) Sure enough, nine or ten guys come right over.”

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