Yiddish revivalist to speak about sex, bubbe-mayses

He lists his profession as "writer" on his passport, but Michael Wex also teaches Yiddish, delivers monologues and has performed standup comedy.

The Toronto man is a leading figure in the so-dubbed Yiddish revival. His annual series of Yiddish classes at Klezkamp in the Catskills are distinctive enough to have been tagged "Wexology" by participants.

Wex will speak about the mother tongue in two lectures on Tuesday, Jan. 26 in Contra Costa County, as part of the annual Education Day co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay and a dozen other East Bay groups.

Wex's first speech, "No More Bubbe-Mayses," is part of a daylong presentation called "A Humorous Look at Ourselves: Folklore, Bubbe-Mayses and Yiddishkeit," at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.

His evening monologue, at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center in Walnut Creek, sounds a bit racier. "Sex, Sexuality and Jewish Culture," will borrow heavily from his touring show, "Sex in Yiddish."

A jazz bass accompanies "Sex in Yiddish." The title of the monologue was inspired by an interview Wex had on German radio, where the host inquired if there was, in fact, sex in Yiddish.

"You don't think people are doing it in Yiddish," Wex said in a phone interview from Klezcamp last month. "It's so identified as a kitchen kind of language, even when people who spoke nothing else are having 10 or 12 children."

Mixing jazz and Yiddish may not seem compatible either, but to 44-year-old Wex the two forms of expression both have a way of breaking molds.

"Yiddish will never do what you expect it to do," he said. "It's very contrary. It's kind of counter-language, much like jive talk."

The author of the novel "Shlepping the Exile" has been heavily involved in the Yiddish music scene. He has delivered his monologues as an opening act for such klezmer ensembles as the Klezmatics, the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band and Brave Old World. He's also co-written a song, "Mizmore Shir le-Hanef," on the Klezmatics' latest CD, "Possessed."

"The Yiddish revival was spearheaded by the music," he said. "I met some of these people about a dozen years ago and we hit it off. Everybody knows everybody. We're all in the same general age group. There's a lot of jazz buffs and ex-hippies."

The wealth of irony built into Yiddish is one of its inherent beauties, in Wex's eyes.

"`No' means `not', but so does `yes'. You can say the opposite of what you actually mean and the people who speak Yiddish know what you mean."

Sarcasm in Yiddish has its own flavor too, according to Wex. "A good Yiddish curse is open-ended. It leaves the person who gets cursed to do the real work."

For instance, being told in Yiddish, "Doctors should need you," said Wex, tends to linger a lot longer than telling someone to "drop dead."

Wex insisted a Yiddish insult can also be a compliment. "It depends on the intelligence of the person getting cursed. You take the Yiddish comment home with you and think about it for a long time. The idea [for those being insulted] is that you are complicit in your own degradation or destruction."

The revivalist didn't come to Yiddish as an adult. He was raised in a primarily Yiddish-speaking home.

He grew up in a town of about 22,000 called Lethbridge, in the Canadian province of Alberta. There were about 90 Jewish families in the close-knit community, but not many of them were as religious as his Chassidic clan.

Wex remembered wearing a black hat as a kid, but that's as far as he would take the Chassidic garb. "You couldn't wear the whole thing," he said. "You would have been mocked to death.

"I grew up completely bicultural," he added. "I knew what was on the radio. I played hockey. I did regular kid stuff with regular kids."

He attended yeshivas in Toronto and New York. But in his later teens, as hippie culture became more influential, he gradually separated himself from the Chassidic lifestyle.

"Some of it is very nice, but it's moved much more to the right

in the last 20 years. It's much less tolerant of anything. Like, you're written off if you marry someone who's not from a religious home," he said. "It looks very monolithic from the outside and very fragmented from within."

Wex, who has a rebbe cousin in Israel with 10,000 followers, still attends an Orthodox synagogue.

But it's the Yiddish scene that holds the biggest chunk of Wex's attention and time. His lectures will reflect that passion.

"The lectures," Wex said, "are aimed at people who know Yiddish and want to get more out of it. People who don't know Yiddish will get a sense of why Yiddish is so unique. I'll point out what makes it so weird."