Most children watching "The Three Stooges" didn't realize it, but an understanding of Yiddish was required to get a lot of the jokes. In one episode, when Larry hears that Moe is heading to a hockshop, he says, "While you're there, hock me a tshaynik." What must have sounded like pure nonsense to most viewers was a Yiddish pun, one that Michael Wex, in his wise, witty and altogether wonderful "Born to Kvetch," lays on the table for analysis.
A "tshaynik" is a teakettle. "Hak," or "huk," comes from a verb meaning "to knock." What's the connection? Imagine a boiling teakettle. The more it boils, the emptier it gets, and the louder and more annoyingly the lid bangs. The very popular phrase "Hak mir nisht ken tshaynik" literally means "Don't knock me a teakettle." Figuratively, as Mr. Wex translates it, it means "you don't have to shut up completely, but I'd really appreciate it if you'd stop rattling on about the same damned thing all the time."
Mr. Wex, a Yiddish translator, university teacher, novelist and stand-up comic, has many such examples up his sleeve, but "Born to Kvetch" is much more than a greatest-hits collection of colorful Yiddish expressions. It is a thoughtful inquiry into the religious and cultural substrata of Yiddish, the underlying harmonic structure that allows the language to sing, usually in a mournful minor key.
Yiddish is the language par excellence of complaint. How could it be otherwise? It took root among Jews scattered across Western Europe during the Middle Ages and evolved over centuries of persecution and transience. It is, Mr. Wex writes, "the national language of nowhere," the medium of expression for a people without a home. "Judaism is defined by exile, and exile without complaint is tourism," as Mr. Wex neatly puts it.
To be Jewish, in other words, is to kvetch. If the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" had been translated into Yiddish, Mr. Wex writes, "it would have been called '(I Love to Keep Telling You That I Can't Get No) Satisfaction (Because Telling You That I'm Not Satisfied Is All That Can Satisfy Me).' "
Mr. Wex finds a second source of Yiddish's prevailing tone in the Torah and its attached Talmudic commentary. The Jews who transmuted German into Yiddish were steeped in Jewish law, whose style and phraseology made their way into the developing language and put down deep roots. Yiddish thrives on argument, hairsplitting and arcane points of law and proper behavior. Half the time, Yiddish itself is the object of dispute, a language, Mr. Wex writes, "in which you can't open your mouth without finding out that, no matter what you're saying, you're saying it wrong."
When you get it right, it can be a beautiful thing. Or a lethal weapon. Yiddish excels at the fine art of the insult and the curse, or klole, which Mr. Wex, in a chapter titled "You Should Grow Like an Onion," calls "the kvetch-militant." Americans generally stick to short, efficient four-letter words when doling out abuse. Yiddish has lots of those, too, and it abounds in terse put-downs like "shtik fleysh mit oygn." Applied to a stupid person, it means "a piece of meat with eyes." More often, though, Yiddish speakers, like the Elizabethans, like to exploit the full resources of the language when the occasion requires.
Yiddish is rich in curses that, at their best, leave just enough to the imagination to keep the recipient tossing and turning at night, poring over possible implications. "It isn't a matter of yelling out bad words; the trick is to put good ones together in the most damaging possible way," Mr. Wex explains.
A simple, American-style "drop dead" might be rendered as "a dismal animal death on you" ("a viste pgire af dir"), which, Mr. Wex, notes, carries the suggestion that "you should spend the rest of your tiny life in a Colorado feedlot, then be herded off to some nonunion slaughterhouse to be turned, painfully, into fast-food burgers for one of the less prominent chains."
Yiddish is not a "have a nice day" language. "How are you?," a perfectly innocent question in English, is a provocation in Yiddish, which does not lend itself to happy talk. "How should I be?" is a fairly neutral answer to the question. Theoretically it is possible to say "gants gut" ("real good"), but this is a phrase that the author says he has never heard in his life. "As a response to a Yiddish question, it marks you as someone who knows some Yiddish words but doesn't really understand the language," he writes.
It probably helps to know a little Yiddish to extract maximum enjoyment from "Born to Kvetch," but even readers with minimal "bacon Yiddish" ("schlep," "schmear," "maven" and the like) can appreciate vocabulary words like "kishke-gelt" (literally "gut money," earned by self-deprivation so extreme that it's ripped from the intestines) and expressions like "lakhn mit yashtsherkes," which means "laugh with the lizards" and refers to a bitter kind of jollity, the kind of laughter that keeps you from crying.
Mr. Wex has perfect pitch. He always finds the precise word, the most vivid metaphor, for his juicy Yiddishisms, and he enjoys teasing out complexities. His tour through the vocabulary of traditional punishments meted out to schoolchildren, collectively known as the "matnas yad," or "gift of the hand," may be his finest riff, a subtly differentiated taxonomy of pain that starts with the "knip" ("pinch") and proceeds to the "shnel" ("flick"), the "patsh" ("slap") the "zets" ("hard slap") and the "flem" ("resounding smack").
At the far end lies the "khmal" or "khmalye," "the all-out murder-one wallop that makes its victims 'zen kroke mit lemberik.' " It's so hard, in other words, that the student sees Krakow as his head snaps forward and Lemberg (present-day Lviv in Ukraine) on the return trip.
That hurts. But it's funny, too. All you can do is laugh with the lizards.