3/31/2006

A few comments on two books I read recently

Born to Kvetch, by Michael Wex is entertaining, but, for the non-Yiddish speaker, gets boring pretty fast. The author does a good job of finding and characterizing Yiddish expression, but unless the terms and moods are at least somewhat familiar, reading those phrases is of relatively academic interest. To the degree that the Yiddish phrases were familiar to me – hackn a chainik, for example – demonstrating their origin, meaning, and usage was entertaining. The chapter on cursing, however, was foreign and, therefore, dull. It held my interest for a few pages, but spent too much time describing the psychological effects of the Yiddish curse and gave to many examples of curses that I didn’t find either terribly humorous or terribly cruel.

The author contends that Yiddish expression is rooted in the Talmud. I didn’t see it. I think I’ve got a pretty good sense of Talmudic expression, at least enough to know it when I see it. I understand how someone without much exposure to Talmud can be convinced that Yiddish expression is rooted in the Talmudic. They share phrases, a similar penchant for very concrete metaphor, and a dialogic orientation. All that means, though, is that they’re both Jewish.

I ended up not finishing the book. Rather, I gave it to my father, a ‘native’ Yiddish speaker, who I think will enjoy it much more than me.

I also recently read God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s one of the most enjoyable novels I’ve read in a while. It’s as funny as it is serious, and it’s very funny. It’s a story about philanthropy, what passes for it and what it is for real, and what chesed is all about. It addresses the problem of ‘useless people’, those rendered completely unproductive by the advent of industry, and the need to assert a humanity that goes beyond all utility. One of the more clever subtexts calls the sanity of those who care too much into question.

A word of caution, don’t read this book if you dislike descriptions of body hair.

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