The 100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Kvetch

 I'm going to reclaim the word kvetch. It is inarguably one of the definitive Yiddish words, but I don't like how it has been defined. It's a word to describe a complain, or a complainer, and there is often a sense that the complaint is both irritating and ineffectual. That's how Wiktionary defines it: "To whine or complain, often needlessly and incessantly."

But Yiddish has other words for this. There is grizhen, which literally mean to gnaw, but it used to mean to nag. Nags are constant, and nags are frequently ineffectual, or they wouldn't need to nag.There's also nudge, which probably literally means both to bore and to be a pest. An ineffectual complainer is a nudge.

Jews are complainers, but our reputation is not as nags or nudges. No, we have a reputation for really being able to dig in with our complaints, to get a reaction. What is the stereotype of the Jewish mother but that of someone for whom a complaint is a tool, and who uses it as a master. Here's a classic Jewish mother joke:

Q. How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb?

A. Never mind, I'll sit in the dark.

It's a complain without complaint, a complaint in which both the problem and the solution are implied, but also demanded. Jewish mothers aren't the only ones to do this. Here's another joke:

A Jew calls his waiter over. "Taste my soup," he says.

"Is it the wrong soup?" the waiter asks.

"Taste it," he says.

"Is it too salty?" the waiter asks.

"Just taste"

"Is there not enough chicken?"


The waiter looks around. "Okay, I'll taste. Where is the spoon?"

"Aha!" the Jew says.

Again, no actual complain is articulated, but the kvetch is there. Yiddishist Michael Wex identified it as one of the definitive Jewish behaviors, titling his bestselling book on Yiddish "Born to Kvetch." He presents complaining as a sort of Jewish martial art, a duel of competing desires:

"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 the other is usually considered excessive in English, Yiddish tends to take a homeopathic approach to kvetching: like cures like and kvetch cures kvetch."

Kvetch, it should be noted, doesn't mean complain. It means squeeze or press. The proper kvetch applies pressure, again like a martial art. You find the weak point and crush it. Guilt? Apply guilt. Shame? Apply shame. Fear? Make them afraid.

Guilt usually works, though. I read a story recently from a fellow whose father took care of rental properties. When clients wouldn't pay up, he would call and say to the, what are you doing? What are you doing to me? Are you trying to make me into a landlord?

They always paid. I don't know if the rental manager in the story was Jewish or not, but I do know he knew how to kvetch.

This is why I want to reclaim the kvetch: Because it is the tool of the powerless. If you're a European Jew, from the past few centuries and something goes wrong for you, there is not a lot of recourse. The authorities don't much care about your problems, or for Jews in general. Other Jews are looking after their own concerns, and the Jewish court is often a useless morass of singsong legalism. You probably don't have any social position, you probably don't have any money, and, unless you're a gangster, you probably aren't going to get very far threatening to beat someone up. So what do you do if you have a problem?

You squeeze. You make sure you're the bigger problem, and that the problem gets taken care of just to get rid of you.

Do this poorly, and you're a gnawer, a nag, a nudge. Do it well and you're something else. You're a superlative complainer.

You're a kvetch.

Some uses of the word kvetch:

Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth "Is this truth I’m delivering up, or is it just plain kvetching? Or is kvetching for people like me a form of truth?"

Graphic Details: Jewish Women's Confessional Comics in Essays and Interviews, interview with  Lauren Weinstein: "Maybe it's the idea of making something funny and sad -- that funny and sad are basically the same thing. Maybe because Jews like to kvetch a lot, there's a kvetching aspect to the work."

Broken Glass, Arthur Miller: "Hitler? Hitler is the perfect example of a persecuted man. I've heard him -- he kvetches like an elephant was standing on his pecker. They've turned that whole beautiful country into one giant kvetch!"