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.