Yiddish redux

Canadian writer and raconteur Michael Wex, who has breathed new life into the Yiddish language, is visiting Australia this month. He speaks to Peter Kohn

Shakespeare has been translated into Yiddish, but let’s face it, the greatest hope for Mameloshen [the Yiddish mother tongue] is in comedy, right?

So many stand-up comics at one time were Jewish, some 90 per cent of working comedians in the United States [in the middle of the 20th century] were Jews. Most would have had some familiarity with Yiddish, even only through having immigrant parents. It was something of a code, a way of identifying yourself to others, especially at a time before Jews had become fully accepted. People like Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson, of that vintage, threw Yiddish words into their material, even when there was absolutely no reason for it other than to slip something by people.

When people think of Moe, Larry and Curly, they rarely think of Yiddish. But should they?

In one of my lectures, I’ve focused on the pivotal role of the Three Stooges in transmitting not just Yiddish words but Yiddish values to millions of unsuspecting schoolchildren who didn’t always realise that what they were picking up, along with the physical violence, had deep-seated roots in Jewish tradition. One of the best was Curly’s routine about “the maharaja of mishigoss”. And some of their Yiddish was fairly spicy; my parents were far more upset about the Stooges’ Yiddish than the violence.

So, was this almost like a separate soundtrack that was being sent out to a Yiddish-speaking audience?

Yes, and later on you got someone like Lenny Bruce who realised that the censors who were keeping him from saying a lot of the stuff he wanted to say tended to be gentiles from the American heartland and wouldn’t know what these Yiddish words meant. That kind of jive started to catch on equally well with non-Jewish comedians because they were facing the same problem in many cases.

What inspired your books about the quirkier side of Jewish life — titles such as Born to Kvetch (a New York Times bestseller), Rhapsody In Schmaltz, Shlepping the Exile, Just Say Nu and How to Be a Mentsh (and Not a Shmuck)?

I’d been doing lectures at Klezcamp, an annual klezmer music and Yiddish culture festival in the Catskills every winter, which the klezmer revival grew out of, and people would come up afterwards and ask where they could get a closer look at my material, so it gave me the idea initially to write the books. And I wanted to explore why people, like my parents, who could speak Polish and whose English didn’t sound like they’d come from somewhere else, still held on to their Yiddish.

Did you want to address a new generation interested in Yiddish?

A lot of the non-academic stuff on Yiddish that’s published tended to be joke books like Leo Rosten’s Joys of Yiddish or it would be highly sentimental. Before Born To Kvetch came out, the last really popular book about Yiddish in English had been Leo Rosten’s which came out in 1968. I wanted something for the baby boomers and even younger. There were all kinds of areas that these older books on Yiddish never touched, including sex, apart from coy references. I wanted to attract those people, rather than the traditional Yiddish speakers who were either very old, or Chassidim, who tend not to have that wider frame of reference.

You grew up in a Chassidic environment but have turned to secular Jewish expression. Were you torn between traditional and secular achievement?

I grew up in Lethbridge, a small town in Alberta, Canada, that had a population of 25,000 and 80-90 Jewish families. My parents were Chassidic and were able to practise there. I studied with my father who had gone to a yeshivah [in Poland] and I also went to cheder [religion school], even though I attended a public school. We later moved to Calgary [Alberta’s capital] where I went to a Jewish school, and then I moved to Toronto where I attended yeshivah. In the summers, I was sent to New York to study.

Did your parents frown upon your choice of comedy as a career?

They weren’t happy about it; they also realised that after a given point, you’re an adult and there’s not a lot they could do. And it didn’t happen in one day, it was a very gradual process and they could see what was coming.

Sydney and Melbourne are very different cities. The harbour city has urbanely invited you to a comedy festival in a popular entertainment precinct, while Melbourne has gone all rustic and invited you to take to the hills for a Yiddish retreat. How prepared are you for these two quite different experiences?

In Sydney, at the Jewish Comedy Showcase, it will basically be stand-up based on Yiddish themes. I’m assuming most of the crowd will be Jewish, but I’m not counting on them being very much into Yiddish. It will be a mix of observational stuff and stuff that was supposed to happened to me, whether it did or not. In Melbourne, at the “Sof Vokh” [weekend Yiddish retreat in the Dandenongs], I know people who have been to that Sof Vokh and I’ve been to many similar events in Canada, the US and Europe.

What are your expectations?

The Sof Vokh sounds like it will be quite cosy – people who are very much into Yiddish. They insisted all my material be in Yiddish, unlike in Canada, where they might ask for one or two pieces in Yiddish. My parents never spoke only Yiddish, of course. They both worked and I was looked after as a child by my grandfather whose English gave new meaning to “crime against language”. I would sit all day and listen to him and his cronies, and they would speak in a mix of Slavic languages and Yiddish. But all in all, it’s my first time to Australia, so it will all be an adventure.

Michael Wex’s Sydney appearances:
Jewish Folk Centre, Woollahra on May 10, 3pm,
the Jewish Comedy Showcase at the Comedy Store, Entertainment Quarters May 11, 8pm
the Jewish Writers’ Festival, Waverley Library, Bondi Junction, May 12, 10am

Michael Wex’s Melbourne appearances:
the Sof Vokh Yiddish retreat in Kalorama, May 15-17
a Bund/Kadimah event, Elsternwick, May 13, 7.30pm
the Jewish Museum of Australia lecture on “Gentile Words, Jewish Meanings”, May 14, 8pm
“Born To Kvetch”, Sholem Aleichem College, May 20, 7.30pm

Michael Wex’s Adelaide appearance:
“Gentile words, Jewish Meanings” talk at University of Adelaide, May 22, 11am.

PHOTO of Michael Wex

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