Before World War II, the Yiddish language, though not a national language, was spoken by over 11 million people. At the end of 2020, Israel’s population was estimated at 9,291,000 residents. There were more Yiddish speakers over eighty years ago than Hebrew speakers currently in Israel.
The vocabulary of Yiddish contained many colorful words and expressions, some of which have made their way into English. In his book Learning Yiddish, Rabbi Benjamin Blech tells us that Yinglish is the term for Yiddish words that have been anglicized. One of my favorite Yiddish words is the verb “kvetch.” Most people, at least somewhat familiar with the word, often understand it simply as complaining or griping. But in The New Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten, revised by Lawrence Bush, complaining or griping is the third of five uses listed.
As a Verb: Kvetch
- To squeeze, pinch, eke out. “Don’t kvetch the peaches.” “He manages to kvetch out a living.” “He’ll kvetch the deal out to its last decimal point.” “No one knows how someone else’s shoe kvetches.”
- To fuss around, to be ineffectual. “She kvetches all day long.”
- To fret, complain, gripe, grunt, sigh. “What’s she kvetching about now?” (An excellent companion to kvetch, in this usage, is krekhts. “All she does is kvetch and krekhts!” can hardly be improved upon for descriptive precision and power.)
- To delay, stall, show reluctance. “He’s still kvetching around.”
- To shrug. “He kvetches his shoulders.”
Rosten, Leo. The New Joys of Yiddish (p. 199). Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale. Kindle Edition.
An experienced kvetcher can find something to complain about for anything and everything. Here’s a good example: A CHISSOREN, DI KALLEH IZ TSU SHAIN. [A fault-finder complains even that the bride is too pretty.] (Books, Chronicle. Yiddish Wisdom. Chronicle Books LLC. Kindle Edition.)
I’ve known people like this bride fault-finder and may even have a tad of a tendency in that direction myself. I’m writing this in my study. My hands are cold and I am wearing a sweater; my wife just returned from running an errand. When she came into my room, she opened the window to warm me up; it’s 84 degrees outside, she said. I immediately asked her to close it. I was worried that the wind would blow in the dust.
We have just celebrated the yearly festival of Passover. It brought to mind our complaining to Moses while we wandered through the desert on our way to the Promised Land. We complained even to the point of asking that most patient of leaders if he had brought us out into the desert because there were not enough graves in Egypt.
I am currently rereading On Eagles’ Wings by Arthur E. Southon. The book, initially published in 1939, was first published in the United States in 1954. It caught my attention as one of only three extra-Biblical books listed in the credits for Cecil B. DeMille’s classic 1956 movie The Ten Commandments. In the book’s preface, Southon states that his authority in writing the book is “first and foremost” the Bible. He adds that he supplemented the Bible story “with such information from Jewish tradition as seemed to me intrinsically probable.”
In the book’s first chapter, “The Terror in Egypt,” Southon describes a character named Paseah. Paseah is lame—the name is similar to the Hebrew word for lame—having been wounded, we are told, by a rampaging camel. Before his injury, Paseah had a magnificent body, one that had “never known a moment’s pain.” However, after his injury, Paseah can no longer work and spends much of his time with the community’s old men, who don’t work because of their age, not any bodily injury. The book opens with Paseah walking, with the aid of a stick, to the Nile banks where the old men meet and talk in a shady grove of palm trees.
Southon describes an interesting observation Paseah makes about himself specifically, but it also applies to humans in general. After a rather heated discussion in which Paseah is on one side and all the other men on the other side, the men draw apart from him, leaving him “clear thinking” time.
“His thoughts took a fresh turn…that he was always conscious of that shrivelled leg! Its weakness and aching for ever called attention to it. Very rarely did he think about that other sound leg, or of his still strong arms, or any other part of his body. It was the part of him which was wrong of which he was always aware.”
“The part of him which was wrong…” That was the focus of his attention. This tendency to focus on what’s wrong is the kingdom of the kvetchers.
When my wife walked into my study and opened my window, unasked, I focused on what I considered to be wrong in what she did. By opening the window, she was letting dust into my room. I didn’t think about how my wife sees me wearing a sweater, realizes I am cold, has just come in from outside, and knows it’s warmer outside than in my room, and that she was trying to do something good for me. I pinpointed the dust but failed to see the love in her action.
I’ve got a suspicion that I may not be alone in thinking like this. A man I know, very successful in his chosen profession, still remembers a comment his father made after my friend, as a young boy, had cleaned the family’s garage. He was proud of the work he’d done, but when his father came to check it, his father drew attention to something his son had missed. And that, that one thing, was all the father mentioned.
In his book Souls on Fire, Elie Wiesel recounts the following story about the Chassidic master Levi-Yitzhak of Beditchev.
Now that’s how I want to be! Excuse me, I need to talk to my wife about that window thing.
All the best,