Week 6: Book: Born to Kvetch

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 45 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 17 hours
I have reviewed 549 vocabulary words

I don't have a lot to say about my Yiddish studies this week, except that I am starting to plug in a lot more phrases, and it's a trickier proposition. A lot of Yiddish is idiomatic, and Google Translate seems fairly oblivious to Yiddish idioms, instead providing maddening literal translations of phrases like "What is your name?" and "Where are you from?" As a result, I need to just type the phrases into my cell phone myself. I do this with the aid of a program called Keyman, which makes it relatively simple to type Yiddish.

I also briefly did an experiment where I translated a Yiddish nursery rhyme and plugged it into my flash cards, but I quickly discovered that I lack both the vocabulary and the grammar to do so effectively, so that's a project I will return to when I have bolstered both. At this point, my flashcard creation consists of new vocabulary words from a themed list of 1,000 words, Yiddish sentences from "Der Yiddish Lerer" intended to teach me rudimentary vocabulary, and useful phrases from Berlitz.

I alternate between a page of each, and I have just started to see to my first sentences from them showing up when I go to study my flashcards. I have a feeling that when I have done a hundred or so sentences and know a hundred or so basic phrases, I'll feel a lot more grounded in Yiddish.

In the meanwhile, I read a book called "Born to Kvetch," which was a surprise bestseller for author Michael Wex when it debuted in 2005. The book is a tour through Yiddish words, phrases, proverbs, and slang, roughly grouped into sections based on themes -- sex, for example, gets an entire section to itself.

The book also offers an introduction to the history of Yiddish, which is necessarily condensed but nonetheless informative. I started studying this language with very little formal knowledge of it, and so I knew there were different accents, but didn't know how many or if they were mutually intelligible. I also didn't know what accent I was learning or how it differs from others. As it turns out, the accent I am learning is based on the Litvish accent. This was the dialect of Yiddish spoken by Jews in the northeastern Pale of Settlement. Literally, Litvish means Lithuanian, but in practice versions of the dialect were spoken in a variety of places, including Belarus, where my grandmother came from. The version of the accent I am learning, as well as its vocabulary and sentence structure, was codified by a group called YIVO, the Yiddish Scientific Institute, which began in 1925 in Poland and is currently in New York.

From what I understand, the Litvish dialect is seen as being somewhat dry and academic, and the YIVO version even more so. It's main competitor is called the Poylish dialect, which literally mean Polish, but as with Litvish it was spoken in a variety of places; since it is the accent favored by Hasidim, it is one of the most common in the United States. The accents are quite a bit different from each other -- almost every vowel is pronounced differently. There were other accents as well -- the accent used for Yiddish theater was the Ukrainian accent, and I have no idea what that was like.

It is easiest for me to learn YIVO Yiddish, because that's what most Yiddish instruction offers, but it also sounds like that results in a lifetime of people telling you that you are pronouncing things wrong. I'm not really sure what dialect would be the most appropriate for me, as, along with my Belorussian grandmother, I had ancestors from Romania, Poland, Russia, Moldova, and possibly Ukraine, as well as relatives in Western Europe. I can claim almost any Yiddish accent as my own. The YIVO accent is actually probably the best one for me, since YIVO is now an American institution and theirs is the accent taught to non-Hasidic American Jews, so I'll just stick with what I am learning, but with an awareness that it may be a long time before I recognize or understand the other accents.

"Born to Kvetch" is a terrifically interesting book, but also, by virtue of its structure, a terrifically limited one. I might not know Yiddish well enough to offer a real critique of the book, but I am a former yeshiva bokher, and so can spot one a mile off, and author Michael Wex has the perfume of the yeshiva all over his writing. As a result, his book is heavily informed by the culture of traditional Jewish education; Wex particularly likes to discuss Yiddish phrases that have their origins in Biblical passages or comments from the Talmud, and he details a variety of phrases that rise out of Orthodox Jewish life in Europe.

There is a larger world hinted at in his book, but never examined in as much depth. I may not be a scholar of Yiddish, but, in my time, I was a scholar of Jewish life in Europe, and I know that it was a vast, complicated, and frequently contradictory world. There were an awful lot of Jewish criminals -- a story that has mostly gone untold, probably out of embarrassment -- and they had their own cant, which makes an appearance here and there in this book. There was an enormous amount of folk superstition, and my reading of history suggests that a lot of the Judaism of Israel was folk Judaism, rather than academic Judaism. Hints of this appear as well.

Wex also presents Yiddish as a language that betrays a deep conflict with European Christianity, noting all the little potshots the language takes at Christian faith and practice. I am suspicious that this masks a more complicated story. When Yiddish turns a mocking eye toward Christianity, it often shows a surprising familiarity with the world of Christians, and of course it does. Jews may have had a unique culture and language in Europe, but they did so in a profoundly Christian world, and they interacted with Christians constantly -- even in the bedroom. I grew up with a lot of Russian Jews who were redheads, and there is a part of Russian that has 10 times as many redheads as typically appears in the population. DNA studies of Jews have shown that the average Jew has about 30 percent European ancestors, and there was one study that argued that 80 percent of the maternal ancestry of European Jews comes from European women, suggesting that the early Jews who settled Europe took European women as wives.

There is a term coined by Sigmund Freud that I always try to remember in these circumstances, the "narcissism of small differences," in which you highlight minor points of contention for the sake of minimizing how similar you are. Jews often paint a portrait of themselves as an alien people in Europe, and European people will offer a mirror reflection of that painting, but, if Jews were aliens, there were aliens who had extraordinary familiarity with their new world, and the people in it, to the point of sharing children with them. I suspect that Yiddish often deliberately magnified differences, for the same sort of reasons we still see nowadays: An attempt to battle assimilation, an attempt to highlight what is unique about Judaism, an attempt to take small differences and make them the things that define us, to help create a border around the question of what is a Jew and what isn't.

This may be especially interesting to me, because I live on that border. I am a secular, atheist Jew who was raised in the Reform tradition, but educated by Orthodox Jews. I was adopted, and my biological family is Irish Catholic, and as a result I have a blended identity -- I absolutely see myself as Jewish, but I also absolutely see myself as Irish, and I investigate and live both heritages. I went to a Jewish high school, and was a Jewish studies major in college, and so I know how firmly the ultra-religious side of Judaism tries to build fences and then fences around fences. But I also know how interesting things are when you hop over the fences, and how much authentic Judaism can be found outside spaces that the ultra-religious would circumscribe.

And so I find myself drawn to the parts of Wex's book that touch on those uncircumscribed worlds more than the parts of the book that reflect a yeshiva bokher's contained sense of the world. In fact, one of the book's central ideas -- and I think it's most interesting -- comes more from the superstitious world of folk Judaism that the stuffy world of the kheyder. Wex argues that European Jews saw themselves in a demon-crowded world, constantly surrounded by invisible monsters that would seize any opportunity to create mischief. So they developed habits to ward off these monsters, and one of those habits was to develop ways of speaking that would not invite demonic jealousy. As a result, there is an awful lot of the world that Judaism refuses to describe, instead using tortured circumlocutions to gesture at what they mean, and sometimes saying the exact opposite of what they mean just to be extra careful.

(I'll quickly note that Yiddish is not unique in this. The English word bear literally means "brown," because, for whatever reason, some of our linguistic ancestors refused to use the actual word for the animal, ursa, and just called them a color instead.)

Wex believes that this causes a culture in which irony is an essential tool, as Yiddish-speaking Jews must suss out the meaning of a phrase that refuses to be explicit, and often says exactly the reverse of what it means. And any people with irony embedded so deeply in their language are necessarily going to develop a world-class sense of humor, which the Jews famously did. The book's title, "Born to Kvetch," suggest that Jews are not merely notorious complainers, which they are, but that their complaints are often an extraordinarily ironic interaction with the world, expressing, well, almost everything. Our humor rises out of our complaints, because the complaints give us the ironic language for humor.

I think Wex is right about this. I will eventually get around to memorizing the hundreds of Yiddish phrases his book offers, but it might be a while before I do so. In the meanwhile, that insight alone has made reading the book worthwhile.