Questions & Answers: A conversation with Michael Wex
Scholar and popularizer of Yiddish, whose latest offering draws from two millennia of Jewish tradition to serve as a primer for being a mentsh.
Michael Wex is the extraordinarily entertaining and no-less erudite scholar and popularizer of Yiddish who burst onto the scene in 2005 with "Born to Kvetch." That book was subtitled "Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods," but it definitely put the emphasis on the "culture of complaint" -- that jaundiced approach to life that has characterized, in the author's view, Ashkenazi Jewish day-to-day life since Medieval times.
Following a review in The New York Times which described it as "altogether wonderful" and praised Wex for his "perfect pitch," the title became a best seller. It was followed, two years later, by a practical guide to everyday use of Yiddish, "Just Say Nu," and this fall by "How to Be a Mentsh (and Not a Shmuck )" (Harper, 224 pages, $24 ) which, despite a juvenile name, is a fairly sophisticated look at how Jewish tradition, especially as filtered through the Yiddish sensibility, has provided guidelines for decent behavior.
Wex focuses on the Talmudic explanation for the destruction of the Second Temple, which is attributed to a feud between two Jews of first-century C.E. Jerusalem. The servant of a man throwing a party mistakenly invites Bar Kamtso, an enemy of his boss, instead of his friend Kamtso. The host, rather than making the best of an awkward situation, pointedly refuses to admit Bar Kamtso when he shows up at the gathering. An embarrassed Bar Kamtso offers to cover the cost of the entire party if he is only allowed to stay, but the host kicks him out, humiliating him before his peers, none of whom bothers to come to his defense. Bar Kamtso decides to take his revenge by sabotaging an offering of a calf that the Roman emperor has sent to the Temple. In a fatal display of small-minded pettiness, the Temple's priests refuse to accept the blemished offering, thereby insulting the emperor, who then orders the city attacked and the Temple destroyed.
In Michael Wex's -- and the Talmud's -- eyes, everyone involved in the tale behaved badly, schmuckishly in fact, and with devastating consequences. Each character allows his anger to get the better of him -- and self-control, the author argues, is one of the most basic lessons of Judaism.
Having grown up in a Hasidic family in Alberta, in Western Canada, Wex, today 55, spoke Yiddish at home, and had a traditional religious education. As an adult, he left Orthodoxy, and pursued a secular education -- first in Medieval studies and later in Yiddish -- stopping just short of a doctorate in the former. He has taught at both the University of Toronto and the University of Michigan, but has also had to rely over the years on work as a stand-up comic and cab driver to make a living, the latter as recently as earlier this decade, when he was writing "Born to Kvetch." He spoke with Haaretz from his home in Toronto, Ontario.
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Q "Born to Kvetch" was about an inbred negativity in Yiddish culture, about seeing the world through "cataract-colored glasses," as you put it. Your new book is about how to be a positive and constructive member of society. Isn't there a contradiction here?
A I don't see it as a contradiction. If you look at the "Mentsh" book, it rests on the statement of Hillel -- that what you hate, you shouldn't do to other people. The question has been asked, Why do the rabbis use negative language here? Why not say what Jesus said, 100 or 150 years later: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you? That difference struck people even then. But Hillel's not saying "Be a good person," he's saying "Don't be a bad person." This is echoed in the commentary on Psalm 37, which says to turn away from evil and do good. One of the standard Hasidic interpretations is that to do good, you first have to turn away from evil.
One of the things I was trying to do in the Mentsh book is this: We all know what we don't like. I like to think of it as the kvetch nexus. Hillel realizes that on that level, we're all the same -- and remember, he was speaking to a non-Jew who had asked him: Teach me the whole Torah while I'm standing on one foot. He couldn't have put his answer in strictly Jewish terms. If he had started talking about Torah and mitzvot and learning, that would have been utterly meaningless to someone standing outside of Judaism. If the Pope asks you what the essence of Judaism is, and you say "shlogn kapores" [the pre-Yom Kippur ritual of waving a chicken around one's head before sacrificing it as a penitential offering], the guy will have no idea what you're talking about.
Q Your writing is so sharp, so perfectly on-key, that I can't help wondering where you've been all these years. Why was "Born to Kvetch" only published when you were 50?
A The answer is pretty prosaic: It took me years to find an agent who would talk to me. And it was only when I bumped into a guy -- my friend Seth Rogovoy, who wrote "The Essential Klezmer"; poor guy, he just finished a book on Bob Dylan and Judaism, and now Dylan comes out with a Christmas album -- and he asked me, why aren't you publishing this stuff? He put me in touch with his agent, who took me on and then managed to sell the book.
What really turned the tide for "Born to Kvetch" was that incredible review in the New York Times by William Grimes. The book took off.
Q And how did the next book, "Just Say Nu," do?
A Not as well as expected. The first book had a novelty value. After all, there hadn't been a comprehensive popular book about Yiddish since Leo Rosten's ["The Joys of Yiddish"], in 40 years, which was about Yiddish words that had made their way into English. Rosten certainly knew his Yiddish, and it's a fun book, but there was nothing more serious that was also accessible to an audience of non-specialists and non-Jews.
Q So I understand you wanted to shift gears with the new volume. But where did you get the audacity to write a book about how to be a good person?
A Yeah, people keep asking me: Are you a mentsh? Talk about a loaded question. Basically, if you say yes, you're a schmuck, and if you say no, you're a schmuck. But one of the points I try to make is, that from mentsh to schmuck -- it's a continuum. Nobody is either of those things all the time. The idea is to try to control all these impulses that will lead you to behave like a schmuck, by using your mentshlikhkayt. It's not a book about how not to be Pol Pot. Pol Pot's got no use for an instruction manual about how to turn himself into Gandhi. It's about the stuff that tends to get overlooked in philosophy and that Jewish tradition makes a big tzimmes about. Namely, if you don't have beyn adam lehavero [if people don't treat their fellow human beings with respect], then you won't really have beyn adam limakom [they won't be respecting God].
You can keep all the mitzvahs, all the ritual and ceremonial commandments, very strictly, you can be very careful about what you eat, and still be a complete jerk. This theme goes all the way back to Hosea, who said "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" [Hosea 6:6]. As long as you're oppressing widows and orphans, I don't want your sacrifices.
Judaism is all about refinement of character and becoming a better person; if performing ritual or ceremonial commandments or studying all day is not making you a better person, then there's something wrong with the way you're doing it. And we've got a couple of thousand years of popular ethical manuals, starting with Pirkei Avot, to help show average people the right way to do things.
Post-Holocaust we've been given a rosy picture of pre-Hitler life in Europe, in which every Jew was a talmid haham [learned person]. That just wasn't the case. People stammered out the prayers, but didn't necessarily know that they meant. Much of the joke with Sholom Aleichem's Tevye is that he's always mistranslating biblical verses and rabbinic sayings, and people still argue about whether or not he -- Tevye, I mean -- was supposed to be doing so on purpose. What you got as a sort of counterbalance to the traditional exaltation of scholarship, was this idea that character is as important as anything else. This is really just an idea that was re-expressed, that regained prominence, in early Hasidism. I talk a little about earlier instances of it, and the way people looked at things. In part it's the idea about having the basic Jewish common sense to know when something of anything is too much. You look at something like the story in the Talmud about the destruction of Jerusalem, about Kamtso and Bar Kamtso. Ultimately it turned on a piece of khnoykishkayt [hypocritical sanctimoniousness], about being punctilious about the wrong things at the wrong time.
Q Your writing can be pretty profane, and you also shine the spotlight on bad behavior among Jews. I would imagine you get a fair amount of hate mail, no?
A I get some, not vast amounts. Most of it has to do with my transcriptions of Yiddish into English. Most people who don't work with Yiddish professionally won't be familiar with the standard YIVO translation scheme, which I use. So I get a lot of letters that say things like, "That's not how you spell chutzpah. Why don't you learn Yiddish?" I also have had some complaints about my supposed [negative] attitudes toward Christianity, which as I keep pointing out, are not my personal attitudes. People seem to be very uncomfortable with the idea that we Jews may have disliked our tormentors as much as our tormentors disliked us. As Naomi Seidman recently said: After the Crusades and the pogroms, you'd think they could take a little ribbing now and then.
Q So are you able to make a living now as a writer?
A I pretty much write full time now, yes. A lot of people say to me: You must own 12 Bentleys. Hardly, but I get by. And I'm not driving a cab anymore.
Q Something I've wondered about since I first laid eyes on "Born to Kvetch" -- who is that child in the cover photograph?
A I'm sorry to disappoint you, but that's no child at all, he's a composite. I had nothing to do with it, it was done by the art department at St. Martin's Press. We had already been through a number of proposed covers, all of which I had rejected angrily, and then I received an e-mail with this one attached and the note: "This is the cover -- whether you like it or not." It was a Photoshop composite, a picture of a Hasidic boy, with hat and peyes -- who I think was actually smiling in the original -- and another child's face superimposed. The funny thing is that, because of the way I grew up, I noticed that the peyes were in the wrong place. Where they start on the boy's head is not quite at the temple. Apparently, I was the only person to notice this.
Haaretz Books Supplement, November 2009