June 10, 2009
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Born To Kvetch

by Michael Wex

We were visiting my aunt and uncle, who were renting a house on the Cape. It was breakfast; my aunt was making matzoh brei, as a special treat. My dad loved matzoh brei, which my mom wouldn’t make (because it's traditionally fried in schmaltz and Mom was a low-fat girl with a vengeance). So we were all sitting around, talking politics and eating just a little more matzoh brei, and a close friend of my cousin’s fiancée comes over because he wants some matzoh brei too. He’s a nice guy, a curator for an art museum, full of good stories. And he mentions this book, Born To Kvetch, whch naturally I note down in my iPhone so it can get into my Tinderbox projects file, and onto my reading stack. And now I’m reading it.

The first essays are absolutely terrific, especially the fascinating study of kvetching, “Kvetch Que C’est,” that opens the book. I’d always assumed that kvetching – that familiar style of complaining so familiar to Jews whose ancestors spoke Yiddish – was a 19th century style, but Wex makes a great case that it’s old, perhaps very old. I’d missed, for example, Exodus 14.11, which has a certain familiar ring:

Is it from lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the desert?

Wex argues that kvetching is very close to the center of Jewishness. It’s fascinating. The later chapters of the book tend to bog down in odd facts and curious sayings, but even there we encounter treasures. For example, you probably know schmuck, and putz, and maybe schlong. But what are them feminine equivalents? You never hear them. Wex explains why.

Then there’s lign in dr’erd un bakn beygl — a phrase that explains that things are going so well that you’re dead, you’ve got to spend eternity in a hot kitchen, you’re baking bagels that (being dead) you can’t eat, and since down there everyone is dead it’s really hard to sell them, but thanks for asking. (I’ve never understood why, when people ask “How are you?” I never feel right saying “Great!” This became a regular shtick with Dorie Friend, who was president of Swarthmore when I was a student, because I’d always have some complaint, and then when it became a shtick I’d get myself tangled up to his endless amusement. Now I know that my ancestors thought it was impolite, and possibly dangerous, to say how wonderfully things are going...)