Book: Wex. Born to Kvetch.

Posted by T on December 15, 2006

When I was young, I had a friend whose father but not mother was Jewish; thus, by the rabbinic rule, he was not Jewish; he was raised Methodist. But from his father he knew a lot about the Jewish ways. One thing I remember him saying was that Yiddish was basically a slang German that allowed Jews to insult the people of their host county without being discovered. I’ve quoted that for the last couple decades, but wanted to know more, and confirm it. So it was with interest that I saw a display case full of copies of a book that give as much information on Yiddish as anyone could wish short of actually learning it.

The full title information is: Michael Wex. Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of its Moods (St. Martin’s Press, 2005). In the following, page number references are given in parentheses.

The language

The language is built from German (15), plus words and phraseology from the Romance and Slavic languages, as well as Hebrew or Aramaic (15ff; 24ff). There are also a number of dialects (47ff).

A Yid is a Jew, and yiddish is contrasted with goyish as Jewish and Gentilic, or better: like a Jew, versus like a non-Jew (17). However, “unless otherwise specified, a goy is usually assumed to be a Christian” (18).

A Jewess would not be called a Yid, but rather, a yidishe tokhter (cf. Ger. jüdische Tochter = Jewish daughter) or yidish kind (jüdisches Kind = Jewish child) (65). [In this we can see an exemplar of a general delicacy on the street toward applying ethnic terms in bare form to females: I can’t imagine any woman being called a dego, wop, mic, honky, or nigger. This fact itself will be worthy of further exploration another day.]

The kvetch

Wex highlights pain and longing as the common factor creating the dynamic of yiddish. This led to a common ethnic tendency to kvetsh, or complain: hence, the title of the book. The original kvetsh was in Ex. 14:11-12, when the Israelites were for a moment trapped against the Red Sea: “And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (3). Continuing in the OT, prophecy, Wex says, was an ongoing kvetch.

However, anchoring the tendency in the Bible must be regarded as a reading back into history, for Wex makes it crystal clear that Judaism has next to nothing to do with the Bible: “Judaism relates to the Bible only as it is refracted through the Talmud and the Talmudic way of thinking” (12).

Presumably following from this Talmudic view of the world, are a variety of themes embedded in the language.

Philosophy and sociology built into the language

  • “Metaphysical realism” is claimed, in this form: that the name of something is not arbitrary, but part of its essence: a rose by another name would not be a rose. (99ff.)
  • Demonology. There is a plethora of names for demons, gremlins, goblins, and devils (91ff.) This leads to a kind of linguist bribery to hold these spirits at bay, by a laconic habit of speech that gives the devil his due in order to make him go away. Thus, a sick child might be called “old man” to reduce the prize value in taking him. Similarly, the well-known custom of smashing the glass at the wedding is, according to Wex, a form of apotropaic, “to give the demons their due so they can leave.”
  • The previous two themes lead to antiphrasis, or calling something by its opposite: as a funeral service listed in the directory as “matters pertaining to happy occasions” (104).
  • In turn, these themes make it easier to understand Jewish superstitions about counting. An exact number would give the devil a chance to reduce the count. Thus, sometimes “non-counting” is done: not-1, not-2, not-3, not-4 (105).
  • Likewise, we begin to understand the Jewish “niggardliness with compliments and pleasant remarks” (111). This too is tied to superstition.

Word clusters of the language

As one might expect, there are lots of words for money (154-158).

The food proscriptions which ratify the “difference between yidish and goyish, sacred and profane, proper and improper” (175) are especially extensive with respect to food. Treyf comes from references to beasts discovered with torn (Heb. taraph) flesh in Ex. 22:30 and Lev. 22:8; now it essentially means non-kosher.

There is an endlessly rich (or should we say: fetid) reserve of words for private parts (249ff).

A great number of words covering life from birth to death are explained by Wex with literary panache.

Civic posture

Here is the civic spirit of the Jew, according to Wex: “The yiddish tendency to rain on parades and deflate the expectations of others arises from a similar impulse to see everything sub specie aeternitatis and wonder if it’s good for the Jews.” (24) Note well: the category of the eternal is identified by Wex with, “what’s good for the Jews.” This is set in radical contrast to their regard for their hosts: “The Jews are not merely out of step with Christian civilization, they hold it in utter contempt” (24). Note well, that Jewish hatred is not merely religious (if merely is the right word) but extends to our entire culture as well.

The yid calls our women shikse. I used to naively think this was a cute variation of “chick,” but we learn far different from Wex.

The masculine form is shekets. Even an ignorant unobservant Jew could be called shekets; “how much more so, a gentile” (68). In Lev 11, the word to describe unclean animals is abomination in English, which translates the Hebrew shekets. This is what he is calling our women: lizards, unclean animals. “But that doesn’t mean that the gentile’s bestial daughters are lacking in animal magnetism” (68). [This raises the question: then in their hearts, is their fornication not properly to be placed sub specie bestialitatis?]

The religious posture

Yiddish is everything my friend said, only more so. It is actually explicitly based on blaspheming our Savior, according to Wex. “Yiddish started out as German for blasphemers, as a German in which you could deny Christ…” (21).

To say, in effect, “hogwash,” they mutter “nisht geshtoygn un nisht gefloygn” (he did not rise, he did not fly). In short, their denial of our Savior’s mighty work is an everyday grunt for them. Jesus, according to Wex, is “the bastard son of an unclean woman. Official Jewish opinion has nothing in common with, say, the Muslim view of Jesus as prophet.” (18) We need to look this fact hard in the face, especially in view of the American love-affair with the Jew. Wex does not mince any words:

Contrary to the usual ‘people of the Book’ shtik (the phrase, incidentally, comes from the Koran), Judaism is a Talmudic, not a biblical religion; without the interpretive guidance of the Talmud, the Hebrew Bible can lead to Jesus on the cross as easily as to me at my bar mitzvah. (11-12)

In other words, what’s the Savior of the world compared to me?


First, as a quick side note on the yiddish vulgarities: Many of these words have crept into current slang even by Christians, who obviously don’t know what they mean. At least, I hope they don’t know what they mean. For a recent example, skip to the bottom of this article. I wish all the Christian vulgaristas out there on the web would go down to Barnes and Noble and cop a read of chapter 12, as a step toward cleaning up their language by un-yiddishizing it.

Wex gives numerous examples of jokes and mannerisms by which the yid mocks and torments his hosts. Indeed, if Wex is right, it is hard to imagine a group of people more insufferably obnoxious: full of aggression, disdain, insult, blasphemy, sedition, corruption and arrogance. The pogroms of eastern Christendom come into a new and more sympathetic light, even if they cannot finally be justified.

Any one who, in contemplating the Prince of Peace, who was bruised for our iniquities, who willingly laid down his life that men might live, sneers something about “the skinny guy on the cross” (14), is surely an illustration of man in his totally depraved condition. Here, the Jew partakes in the wickedness of all men, but adds an aesthetic to the mix that is shocking and dehumanizing.

As Christians, we must of course love this stiff-necked people and pray for their Holy Spirit-induced conversion. But at the rhetorical level, this love must take on the tone of firm contradiction: the Antithesis must be pressed hard.

At the civic level, we need to make it clear that a people that behave this way have forfeited their right to dwell as a nation within a nation; let alone to be coddled and favored as is the case in modern America. Just to repeat one small aspect: a tribe that at once impurely lusts after our women and insults them, needs to be firmly confronted, if we would stand up and be men.


14 Comments to Book: Wex. Born to Kvetch.

  • I learned quite a bit from your post. I don’t follow the conclusion though. It seems your committing the fallacy of etymology: the contemporary meaning of a word comes from its development. So if a word was used in a vulgar way historically its contemporary use is still infected with this meaning. But this is false.

    Who cares if shikse was historically loaded with the belief of gentile women as unclean animals? Doubtless no one intends it in that way today. The word “nice” comes from the latin word for “ignorant”. Does that mean I shouldn’t use it as a compliment because it really means “ignorant”? I don’t doubt that Yiddish historically was all the things you say it was, but that has nothing to do with Gary North calling a group of people “putzes”.

    If someone calls me a schmuck I’m not going to treat him as though he has called me “gentile foreskin”. I know Yiddish speakers and they do not use it as way to insult their Gentile hosts. Oy vey, I think you might be a mashugina on this one. Thanks for the informative post.

  • Alfred Edersheim, a nineteenth century Christian converted from Judaism, and a Biblical scholar, had this to say of the Talmud: “If we imagine something combining law reports, a Rabbinical ‘Hansard'[parliamentary debate], and notes of a theological debating club–all thoroughly Oriental, full of digressions, anecdotes, quaint sayings, fancies, legends, and too often of what from its profanity, superstition, and even obscenity, could scarcely be quoted, we may form some idea of what the Talmud is.”

  • John– re shicksa: my discussion of that usage cannot be the etymological fallacy, because I am merely taking seriously what Wex says he/they mean when they use it. My claims were all based on Wex, not speculation about origin.

    On the goyish appropriation of private part vulgarities, the answer is a bit more complex… more later.

  • T,

    So on the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine has “shicksappeal” (being found attractive by Jewish men), do the writers mean to speak of Elain as an unclean animal or sexual relations with her as akin to beastiality.

    My point is that a lot of the people (the majority I think) who use Yiddish don’t load it with the meaning you have attributed. And it is in their use that I think the true meaning of their statements lies. Hopefully this won’t launch us into to Wittgensteinian theories of meaning and language use as understanding.

  • Hey Fraiser,
    …I just got an e-mail today saying that there was a new book on Wittgenstein’s phil. of lang.

    It’s impossible to say how many people know what the yiddish words really mean. Maybe the writters of Seinfeld knew what it meant and simply thought it would be a funny inside joke… who can say. The average honkey may not know what “shickse” means but I’m sure the meaning is more familiar to Jewish people.

  • Let’s try it this way. On the playground, some bullies tell little Johnny, “your mother is a whore.” But Johnny is a good-hearted little boy, and is too embarrassed to ask them what “whore” means, so he simply appropriates it with his best guess — it means his mother is beautiful–, and goes home and announces at the dinner table– “Mommy, the kids at school really love you; they said you were a whore.”

    After the dust settles, and everything is explained, Mom is not going to hold the remark against Johnny. But after things have been explained to him, if he does it again, he should have his mouth washed out with soap.

    Now, Wex has asserted (a) this is what we mean when we use these terms, (b) for us, the word used defines the reality of the referent, (c) this is part and parcel of our loathing of you and your civilization.

    I think we should take him at his word.

  • Jonathan,

    I have trouble reconciling these two statements of yours, “It’s impossible to say how many people know what the yiddish words really mean”….I’m sure the meaning is more familiar to Jewish people.” How can you be sure that Jews are more familiar with the meaning than non-Jews if its impossible to say how many people know what yiddish words really mean? Perhaps you only mean that its impossible to come up with an exact number of people who know what Yiddish words mean. If so, I agree. But this doesn’t really relate to my argument. Perhaps you intend something else that I am unable to discern.


    A fine illustration, minus a few flaws. The word “whore” is nearly opposite to the meaning of beautiful. Whore is an insult and beautiful is a compliment. This doesn’t parallel what I’m saying about Yiddish words. I am not saying that Yiddish words used by those unfamiliar with their base meaning have turned words like “schicksa” or “putz” into wholesale compliments. I am saying that many Jews who use Yiddish do not use them as insults. I think many of them use “schicksa” as just “gentile woman” and do not load it with the more vulgar meaning. This, I think, points to another disanalogy in your illustration. In order for your illustration to be true to the state of things, Johnny can’t be the only one using a word a particular way. He must be one of many who use a word that way. Furthermore, he needs to be using a foreign word one that is not as obviously transparent as “whore” is.

    So a better illustration would be that kids at school are calling Johnny’s mom a jabberwocky meaning “whore”. Johnny goes home and calls his mom a Jabberwocky thinking it means “adult female”. He’s heard lots of people use Jabberwocky with this meaning and therefore thinks his use is legitimate. His mother, unfamiliar with Johnny’s use, is horribly offended. He explains to his mother that he didn’t know that word could be used to mean “whore”. He thought it just meant “adult female”. But perhaps the boys at school only meant “adult female”. To find out what the boys at school who first called his mother a jabberwocky meant he will need to ask them or observe them using it consistently with a particular meaning. Johnny’s use as it turns out is legitimate because it is widespread enough, but it turns out he’s wrong in thinking that the kids at school only meant to call his mother an adult female when they in fact meant to call her a whore. Now that we’ve sufficiently insulted Johnny’s mother, I’ll cite’s definition of “shiksa”: “Often Disparaging.
    1. a girl or woman who is not Jewish.
    2. a Jewish girl or woman whose attitudes and behavior are felt to resemble those of a gentile.”

    It is often a disparaging remark but the fact is that there are legitimate uses apart from that. Legitimate enough to not punch a guy in the mouth who calls my mother a “shikse,” unless I can determine that he means it disparagingly. Furthermore, even when it is used disparagingly, it’s not clear that it means anything other than Gentile woman. To argue that it has connections to beastility you have to make an etymological connection which makes it an etymological fallacy.

  • Fraiser,

    My statement that “It’s impossible to say how many people know what the yiddish words really mean” was directed at your comment “a lot of the people (the majority I think) who use Yiddish don’t…” In other words, I don’t really find this statement to have much value.

    On the hand, I said, “I’m sure the meaning is more familiar to Jewish people.” While we cannot say whether the majority or minority understand the meaning of yiddish, it is more practical to say that people who developed yiddish would be more likely to understand yiddish more than those who did not.

    So I don’t see my two statements as being contradictory.

    I understood T’s last response to be more directed at those of us who have read Wex’s article rather than at the general populous. Either way, if someone speaks yiddish to me I’m going to punch them in the stomach… just to be safe.

  • Why couldn’t the original kvetch be the murmuring of the Israelites in Ex. 19:11-12? I know that many present-day “Jews” cannot actually trace their lineage to the Israelites of Moses’ time, yet it is an ungodly tendency to murmur and to not be thankful (Rom. 1:21). In fact this ungodly tendency will be driven out of Jews who are converted to Christ as the process of sanctification takes place.

    Your article is highly informative.

  • Interesting note regarding the use of euphemism in Jewish writings (mentioned in the above main article):In Job 1:5, the word “cursed” has a notation in the ESV: “The Hebrew word bless is used euphemistically for curse in 1:5,11; 2:5,9.

  • I believe John’s points about “shicksa” have been adequately answered in various comments (3, 5, 6, 8) in this thread. To summarize: Wex says, “this is what we mean when we use the term.” Then either Wex is wrong, or jews do mean that when they use the term. I am not willing to assume Wex is wrong based on wishful thinking.

    There is a deeper objection to the term that I will address later.

    However, I also had promised (#3) to get back on the issue of yiddish vulgarities. (I was travelling in Europe during the latter part of the discussion and it slipped through the crack.)

    It’s true that the terms are often used as a bare insult, in which the literal reference is not in mind.

    That would also be the case in using the ordinary English words for private parts as insults. Of course such usage is not meant to be taken literally. The question, however, is whether there is a linguistic ethic that allows us to say that such figure of speech extensions can be forbidden as improper.

    Note that even the antiseptic and prosaic English words for private parts are themselves metaphors taken (to give even more indirection) from Latin. This is because there is a shyness about such exposure which dates from the Garden of Eden. The linguistic development in English (metaphor borrowed from Latin) shows that that primal shyness extends even to the imagination.

    Thus, I am willing to say that those that flaunt such words (often accompanied by an air of sophistication and worldly-wisdom) are actually sinning against conscience and the seventh commandment.

    How much more, then, if such a word were used as a contentless insult. Then it adds to the sin of bringing an improper image to mind, a vacuous use of language.

    So far, I am talking about the ordinary English (that is, Latin) words.

    With that preliminary observation, now what about the use of yiddish words for private parts?

    Here, we have the added difficulty that a typical goy user of one of the words in question never did know what the primary lexical meaning in the yiddish dictionary was. He thinks shm— simply means “stupid person” or even just “person that I don’t like.”

    First, when the meaning in the borrowed language is explained to him, he should stop using it. And a fortiori the Yid should stop using it also. Both, for the same considerations I outlined in the use of the well-understood English words as insults.

    Second, one should take a warning from this against adding words to one’s vocabulary that have no denotation. Insults should not be words that have no meaning other than “this is an insult.” As if one were to say, “I can’t think of what to say, but INSULT INSULT INSULT to you.” Even our insults should be meaningful. One ought not to fill up language with meaningless linguistic chaff. Might as well just become a barking dog.

    Thus, to say, “I and many others besides are simply using this word as a contentless insult with no particular meaning” is bad enough on its own. But to defend it by accusing criticism of committing the “etymological fallacy” misapplies that hermeneutical insight. Language does change through the eons. But there is also an ethical aspect to the use of language which governs that change at the place where each of us dwells.

  • Good post. You make some great points that most people do not fully understand.

    “Language does change through the eons. But there is also an ethical aspect to the use of language which governs that change at the place where each of us dwells.”

    I like how you explained that. Very helpful. Thanks.

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