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Published: Sunday, 4/2/2006

Enlightening, entertaining study of Yiddish


BORN TO KVETCH: YIDDISH LANGUAGE AND CULTURE IN ALL ITS MOODS. By Michael Wex. St. Martin s Press. 303 pages. $24.95.

Years ago, Levy s bread was advertised with little posters on New York City subways. One featured an Afro-American child grinning ear-to-ear as he munched on a pumpernickel sandwich. You don t have to be Jewish to love Levy s, the headline read.

The same can be said of Born to Kvetch, a humorous, insightful study of the intricacies of language as a definer of people, using Eastern European Jews and Yiddish as the medium.

Michael Wex, a novelist, teacher, translator, and performer of one-person shows, brings the qualities of all his incarnations to this book, which opens with an analysis of the word kvetch as in, my mother kept kvetching at me to clean my room.

The book s appeal to non-Jewish men and women is that so many Yiddish words have made their way into English. It was an Irishman in Maine who, more than 50 years ago, first opened the Yiddish door for me, referring to his boss as totally meshugge. Totally nuts, he translated. Translations of other phrases Wex suggests the bottom line is one of them rev up English today, as imports from many other languages have.

Wex s engaging discourse considers the Yiddish language s rich heritage that provides insight into the lives of Jews, who used it in its many dialects to comment on life, their lot, and the non-Jewish world around them.

In all, Born to Kvetch is a compelling, loving insight into a culture that still exists, though these days the language, but for a few persistent words, is rarely spoken.

Still, the thought processes it verbalized shaped Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and continue to do so wherever their descendants have gone. This is a swell book for those who don t know the language well, and for the fun of its passing through Wex s fab persona.

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