Michael Wex’s Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods is entertaining, informative, sometimes uncomfortable, and uneven. I’m glad to have read most of it and skimmed the rest.
Faint praise, huh? But it really wouldn’t be in the spirit of the book to praise it, now would it?
Wex ranges widely through Yiddish, covering life from birth to death, including everything in between and beyond. There’s usage, etymology, and culture. I particularly enjoyed chapters four, “Pigs, Poultry, and Pampers: The Religious Roots of Yiddish,” and five, “Discouraging Words: Yiddish and the Forces of Darkness.” The chapter on curses is pretty good, too.
Parts aren’t really written for a popular audience; part way through chapter three, Wex writes:
If you’ve never wondered about the difference between kugl and kigl or meshuge and meshige, the remainder of this chapter could prove a little heavy going. You might want to go on to Chapter Four and return to this section after reading the rest of the book.
And much of the reality of the world and way of life in which Yiddish evolved is harsh. Unsurprisingly (but no less uncomfortably), the Yiddish language and mindset reflects its birth in oppression.
Finally, the structure and pacing, in my opinion, could use a lot of work. And the author photo? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse one.