My earliest memories of Yiddish are as a child listening to my grandparents tell jokes that I could not understand. Later, my mother’s parents taught me a series of random Yiddish words – probably because I asked them to teach me random words – such as the words for “horse” and “goat” and “goose.” For some reason, my questions had this agrarian bent, and I would end up making sentences like “The geese are eating the snow in the field, and the dog would like hamburger for dinner Wednesday night.” Not so effective for communicating with Yiddish speakers perhaps, but amusing to me nonetheless. So even though I don’t really speak Yiddish, I do have a certain affection for the language, which is probably why I picked up a copy of Born to Kvetch, by Michael Wex while I was in the Brookline Booksmith the other day.
While I am just starting to delve into this book, one of the things I really like about it is that the author makes a serious effort to look back into the biblical, Talmudic and post-exilic roots not only of particular Yiddish words, but of the ideas and experiences behind these words as well as Yiddish itself. Wex writes of the origins of Yiddish that “Countries come and countries go, and until the Messiah puts an end to our exile, a Jew’s own brain is as close as he is ever going to come to a homeland. For centuries, the Jews’ only real home was a way of thinking designed to make their exile meaningful, a way of thinking designed to arm them against the threats and attractions of the people around them and make them prefer the danger and instability of their own homelessness to being at home with anyone else.”
For cultures around the world, and especially for cultures which have been uprooted or subject to persecution, language has been a vital tool for preserving a sense of identity and peoplehood, and for the Jewish people, this has certainly been the case. Even though many Jews today do not speak or understand Yiddish as a daily language, I would argue that Yiddish expressions and sensibilities have stayed with us. Although life is perhaps much safer and easier for Jews in the Diaspora today than it was a century or even fifty years ago, there are still threats to the continuity of Jewish life and culture. Yiddish – both speaking it and learning about it – remains for me one way to resist the assimilationist assault on Jewish identity, and as Michael Wex makes clear in his book, it offers a way to do it that not only connects us to the last thousand years of Jewish history and culture, but it does so with warmth and humor.
-Daniel E. Levenson
Publisher and Editor-in-Chief