How to speak Yiddish

By JOSH KUN  |  April 28, 2006

Wex is most revelatory in his early chapters. Here he positions the birth of Yiddish in 10th-century Germany by Italian and French Jews (who eventually headed to the Slavic East), and he argues that, from the start, the language captured the mood of three earlier stages of Jewish life: an art of complaint that dates back to the Torah (“What is Hebrew prophecy but kvetching in the name of God?”), a history of exile with Jews as perpetual outsiders (“Judaism is defined by exile, and exile without complaint is tourism”), and a tradition of Talmudic oral interpretation that laid the groundwork for Yiddish’s fluid syntax and questioning speech (“The Talmud is nothing less than Yiddish in utero”).

Shandler’s idea of Yiddishland as a virtual country where Jewish identity is shaped gets echoed in Born To Kvetch, only here, Wex argues that the vernacular birth of Yiddish itself was linked to a desire by Jews in medieval Germany to distinguish themselves from their gentile neighbors. Calling Yiddish “German to spite the Germans, a German that Germans wouldn’t understand,” he urges, “Don’t think of Yiddish as a blend of German and Semitic elements; think of it as a horror movie.” Yiddish, then as now, was not a language Jews spoke, but a language that made Jews Jews.

To riff on Wex’s riff on William S. Burroughs: Yiddish is neither a virus nor a dybbuk to ward off Linda Blair. It is people and homeland at once. It is complaint and longing spilling off tongues that — in the age of both the National Yiddish Book Center and Yiddish refrigerator poetry — are still trying to find new ways to speak.
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