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Born To Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods

3.56  ·  Rating details ·  1,085 Ratings  ·  145 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 ...more
ebook, 320 pages
Published April 1st 2007 by St. Martin's Press (first published January 1st 2005)
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Sep 27, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Somewhat interesting...
Occasionally funny...
Sloggy & Dry at times

To understand Yiddish, one must understand the Yid and the deep tie to Torah and
observance. Author Michael Wex gives us history - explanations - and interpretations
of the Yiddish language -from ancient roots to present day kibitzing.

When looking at Yiddish Heritage from the Eastern European Jews, ....Wex covers a wide range of topics and themes:
Marriage & sex, money, disease, literature, cursing, nature, births, deaths, K
Petra Eggs
I really wanted to like this book and like the curate's egg, it was good in parts. Wex tells us early on that Yiddish is the language of complaint and sets out to prove that statement the entire rest of the book. The book is very scholarly and much of it is of interest but still, towards the end I was so depressed it was a struggle to finish it. Yiddish may be the language of complaint but its complaints turned humorous in possibly the most onomatopoeic language in the world. (Does schmuck sound ...more
Apr 22, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: linguistics
The Yiddish language is alive and well in Kiryas Joel, New York, materially the poorest but presumably spiritually the richest town in the United States, where the Satmar Hasidic residents' pious lifestyle is subsidized by the impure Gentile United States via food stamps and Medicaid. It survives in a few more similar places: from Williamsburg in Brooklyn to Stamford Hill in London to Mea Shearim in Jerusalem. Millions of descendants of Ashkenazi Jews in the United States have switched to Americ ...more
Carrie O'Dell
I love this book, but I also have an unnatural facination with all things Yiddish, considering I'm a lapsed Prebyterian of Irish extraction who grew up in Tennessee. Wex takes his own sweet time explaining a variety of Yiddish expressions and obscure idioms as well as Yiddish the goys use daily (hint- schmuck is a much nastier name for someone in Yiddish proper). He digs into the cultural roots of a variety of idioms while explaining the development of the language. Reading may take some patienc ...more
Steven Williams
This book is about the Yiddish language, giving its origins and history through life events and occasions. Starting out with the origins of Yiddish, the author provides some examples and various dialects. He emphasizes the importance of religion, which to him is the key to understanding the Yiddish language, borrowing from both the Torah and the Talmud. From here he examines the Yiddish culture on evil and what goes wrong in life, the environment, food, of course, the life cycle, very important ...more
Dec 15, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people interested in Yiddish
Shelves: jewish
I read this with my book club at Temple. It is one of the few books that everyone didn't kvetch about a lot. Usually we pick a book and then spend about 1/4 of the time complaining about why we don't like it. But this one seemed to be pretty well liked. It wasn't as funny as I expected from the online summaries and reviews I had read. But it was very interesting. A lot of Jewish culture comes along with Yiddish and we had some good discussions about that. I was frustrated with not being able to ...more
Aug 02, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I really, really wanted to like this book. I've always been fascinated by language, and I wanted to learn more about the Yiddish I have heard bits and pieces of throughout my childhood. What I have learned from this book is that I don't know ANY Yiddish.

The book starts out well, explaining the mindset that gave rise to a language like Yiddish that has no homeland. However, Wex quickly turned the rest of the book into a litany of definitions. Without knowing any Yiddish at all, or even how it's c
Jul 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Oy, did I love this book! Serious exploration of how Jewish culture, particularly Ashkenzic Jewish culture, is reflected in the Yiddish language. The scholarly stuff is good. But what makes this book for me Wex's writing. His presentation of the material is funny, and wry and fabulous. Here are a few examples :

On Yiddish reflecting the Jewish condition of exile: "Judaism is defined by exile, and exile without complaint is tourism, not deportation."

On a phrase that translates as "lying in the gro
Aug 28, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I didn't really "like" this book so much, but I am glad for the new information it gave me, and I'd probably actually give it 3.5 stars, but I really didn't enjoy reading it all that much, so three stars it gets.

As someone with hardly any knowledge of Yiddish, parts of it were pretty boring and useless. Although all of the cultural aspects were fun to read about, sometimes it seems like pages and pages of a phrase in Yiddish followed by its English translation. All of that went "into my left ear
Born to Kvetch is about Yiddish. Specifically, it’s a combination history and cultural study, filtered through the study of a language. Wex does a very nice job of explicating not only how Yiddish evolved, but how the very character of the language is uniquely Jewish, and indeed, uniquely Diaspora Jewish. Along the way, he also traces the development of the language, including how it split into various sub-types, where certain words and phrase came from, and how the language and culture deal wit ...more
Erica Verrillo
Oct 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I can't kvetch about this book because it was great. (In spite of all the dated pop culture references.) Michael Wex does an excellent job of describing Yiddish and conveying the underpinnings of the culture that gave it birth. He does so with profound insight, with an impressive breadth of scholarship, and with an occasional one-liner that will have you laughing out loud. (My favorite was "The kvetch is a living nightmare; the curse, a dream deferred.")

Wex does not spare his readers the socioli
Daniel Polansky
very much admire the sort of person who is able to start a book, realize they don’t like it, and not finish it. I’m not that sort of person. Even back when I was the sort of person who didn’t finish every book that they started I never seemed to give up for good reasons like I didn’t like the book, but rather for bad reasons, like the book was too hard, or I had impulse purchased another one. A friend gave this one to me intending an unexpected kindness, but in fact it just exhausted time that ...more
This is a demanding but very funny read that is unlike any other book I have ever read. It gives an over view of Yiddish (mainly its idioms), structured by the phases of Jewish life (in the shtetl). I cannot conceive of a similar book covering Russian, Spanish, or French. I can imagine such a book for Mayan; maybe books like this are only possible for rare languages associated with a lost world.

The world Wex describes is alien to me. After reading this, I understood why my ancestors were so prou
4 Stars - lots of fun if interested. A rollicking trip through the history of Yiddish and its speakers. I skimmed the more scholarly bits, not too many, not because I'm not interested, just knew I wouldn't remember. The joy of the book is in the author's trenchant observations about Jewish culture and tradition, the derivations and connotations, of various terms, and the best situations for the use of each juicy term. For added richness, read the material at the end - an interview with the autho ...more
Bob Mendelsohn
Wex is clever on so many levels and kept my interest with his mix of phenomena and Bible and holiday/situational considerations. I liked the history of so many phrases and learned much from his book.

I did NOT like the diatribe against Christianity, but even what Wex said was helpful to see Yiddish in contradistinction to the claims of Yeshua and His followers. So historically it was useful. In its obvious hostility to things Christian, Yiddish makes more ironic and subtle sense. That Wex was agr
Dave Maddock
Jan 28, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language
Pretty cool book, but it got a little formulaic in the middle. Thankfully, the ending was rescued by the awesome chapter on swears with sexual connotations.

Being a language dilettante with a soft spot for dead or rare literary languages, I was pretty fascinated with Yiddish going in. Learning about Yiddish culture has cooled that somewhat since it seems so heavily permeated with religion.

Since Yiddish heavily borrows from German and Hebrew, perhaps I'll take a stab at learning it when I already
Darshan Elena
Dec 21, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book isn't for putzes or wusses; it delves into the roots and routes of the pithy phrases for which Yiddish is famous. Fans of lexicographers will adore it; and I, I am such a fan! What I most loved about this book was the knowledge I amassed of Yiddish - that is Jewish - traditions related to sex, food, death, and gender. I love finishing a book and feeling richer for its reading! To gain the fullest benefits from Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods, I will nee ...more
May 26, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
There are many good sides to this book, to be sure; the best thing is the author's vast knowledge of Yiddish idiomatic. But it lets itself sweeping generalizations for the sake of being aphoristic, it’s more witty then clever, more sharp then profound, and overbrimming with redundant and repetitive similes with popular culture motifs that bored me no end. Because of all that,it felt more like a transcript of some stand up sketches than a consistent book.
Rachel Pollock
Sep 21, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book. I thought it was funny, interesting, informative, useful, and pretty much exactly what I hoped it would be. In fact, I would give it five stars if it had a comprehensive glossary, but the glossary is selective. There are a lot of words and phrases discussed and defined throughout the text which don't appear in it.
May 14, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language, nonfiction
I'm actually listening to this book on CD. It's perfect for the car. I enjoy dipping into the book. There are certain phrases that just mean so much more to me - I should have such luck. I like how the book relates words to a frame of thinking. How language has power. I also enjoy Michael Wax's voice. He's perfect to read the book.
Dec 20, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I absolutely LOVED this book! Every page had at least one belly laugh. Wex masterfully demonstrated how the contrarian nature of Jewish humor is reflected in the Yiddish language.
Dan Carkner
Oct 30, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Pretty funny and goes down a lot of cultural rabbit holes. I would recommend getting the audiobook as read by the author if you can, his try tone adds a lot to the experience.
Thom Dunn
Ranks with Leo Rosten's Joys of Yiddish.
Harold Citron
Jun 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: jews
A great read. Lots of fun. Many years ago, I read Leo Royston's book on Yiddish. This book fills in the societal gaps, the shtetl life, both communal and religious, that built the world that formed this language. It was a tremendously fun read. My one kvetch, :-) is that the spelling uses a somewhat less familiar kh instead of ch, for the back of the throat "ch" sound (like the Scottish Loch). It took a bit of time to familiarize myself with the spelling and all of a sudden, words on the page th ...more
May 11, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
It had some good parts but it didn't feel linguistically sound (footnotes? Citations? Or stories from your grandma?), the author had a misunderstanding of what was interesting to non Yiddish speaking readers, and nothing held it together... just above unreadable.
Iñaki Tofiño
Jan 07, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I expected some sort of scholarly essay about Yiddish, its history, its speakers... and although I was disappointed not to find it, I found instead a funny and entertaining discussion on many aspects of the language and its use related to many aspects of life (and death). Full of humor and kvetch, really good!
Jun 22, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I thought that this was a really well-crafted piece of informative nonfiction. It was funny and clever, and I enjoyed learning about orthodox Jewish culture. Yiddish is a beautiful, complex, and fascinating language that I knew almost nothing about before I picked up this book. It's rife with irony, puns, and countless charming idioms. But what I think is unique about it is that it grew organically from separation, secrecy, sorrow, poverty, and general otherness.
I've never been more aware (or r
Philip Mann
Jan 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My first encounter with this book was on my travels. I picked it up in a synagogue library and thumbed through it. When I nearly broke a rib from laughing, I decided to get hold of a copy, somehow, somewhere.
As others have said, this book is most accessible for Yiddish speakers. I was able to glide over the exact pronunciations and accents because they were familiar to me. having said that, the author, a deeply learned man, in Yiddish, the Talmud and languages generally, gives a first rate expl
Adam Glantz
It's best to forego print and listen to this book on audio: You'll hear proper Yiddish pronunciations in both major dialects, expressive Yiddish onomatopoeia, and comparisons with words in other languages. Best of all, you'll hear Michael Wex, whose accent is Yiddish-speaking-upbringing meets the Canadian Prairie Provinces, and whose delivery is part hip professor and part Lenny Bruce. He begins with a historical introduction dripping with Yiddish gallows humor. Yiddish is a language that flouri ...more
The beginning chapters of this book are brilliant and they alone make this book a gem and worth reading. I did not grow up in a Yiddish-speaking household, although I certainly heard plenty of it in my neighborhood and from friends' families. What I have read thus far about Yiddish has portrayed it as something humorous. There is certainly plenty of humor in its expressions. But Wex looks, with real depth, at the origins of Yiddish both as regional dialects and as a cultureand it is quite wonder ...more
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Michael Wex is a novelist, professor, translator (including the only 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 in Toronto.
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“Not only do Judaism in general and Yiddish in particular place an unusual emphasis on complaint, but Yiddish also allows considerable scope for complaining about the complaining of others, more often than not to the others who are doing the complaining. While answering one complaint with another is usually considered a little excessive in English, Yiddish tends to take a homeopathic approach to kvetching: like cures like and kvetch cures kvetch. The best response to a complaint is another complaint, an antiseptic counter-kvetch that makes further whining impossible for anybody but you.” 0 likes
“If the first chapter seems to talk more about the Bible and Talmud than bupkes and tukhes, it’s because the Bible and Talmud are to Yiddish what plantations are to the blues. The only difference is that blues left the plantations behind, while Yiddish—try as it still sometimes does—never escaped from the Talmud. A” 0 likes
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