Author brings a bissel Yiddish to East Bay festival

As Yiddish scholar Michael Wex travels America promoting his book “Born to Kvetch,” he finds readers asking him one question more than any other:

“Is that you on the cover?”

They refer, of course, to the scowling little yeshiva bocher who looks like he’s about to plotz.

“No, it’s not me,” says Wex. “I was never that happy.”

Still, the book’s success had to bring at least a smile to his face. “Born to Kvetch” made the New York Times best-seller list. A review in j. last year called it “either the funniest academic book or the most academic funny book in many a year.”

Wex will get his Mamaloshen on when he appears as a guest speaker at the 18th Annual Contra Costa Jewish Book Festival on Saturday, Nov. 11.

His topic, as always, will be that lingua franca of European Jewry, the 1,000-year-old sprach that many say should have died out by now. It remains alive and zetzing, thanks to Wex and others leading the Yiddish revival.

Wex is one of those rare baby boomers who actually grew up speaking Yiddish. His parents were Polish immigrants who settled in Canada before the Holocaust.

In grad school, he specialized in Old English and Old Icelandic. Because of his fluency in Yiddish and his grounding in ancient Germanic, a career in Yiddish studies was born. He went on to teach at universities in Toronto and Michigan.

Wex blends scholarship with a heartfelt love of the language (not to mention a wicked sense of humor). His skills as a translator proved lucrative as academic institutions turned to him for help. And he even created the first Yiddish translation of Kurt Weill’s “Threepenny Opera.”

“Born to Kvetch” probably brought Wex more notoriety than anything else in his career. A compendium of history, linguistics and humor, the book put Wex on the map. He spends most of his time these days on the road, giving lectures, attending symposia and talking up Yiddish every chance he gets.

One trend he’s noticed: Jewish audiences can be tougher than non-Jewish crowds.

“Jewish audiences tend to take umbrage, especially if I talk about non-Jews,” says Wex. “If I talk about the word ‘goy’ or ‘shiksa,’ it’s invariably pejorative. Yet I’ve had surprising numbers of Christian clergy who read the book and they don’t seem to have any trouble with it.”

With his wit and multiple gigabytes of knowledge of all things Yiddish, it’s hard to imagine anyone having trouble with Wex. He’s one of those lucky people who found his passion and shared it with the world.

It’s enough to make you verklempt.

Says Wex: “I turned what had been a hobby into a living.”

Michael Wex appears at the 18th Annual Contra Costa Jewish Book Festival at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11, at the Contra Costa JCC, 2071 Tice Valley Blvd., Walnut Creek. Tickets: $10. Information: (925) 943-5238. He will also appear at an event sponsored by the Progressive Jewish Alliance, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 8, at Black Oak Books, 1491 Shattuck, Berkeley; and at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12, at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. Tickets: $10. Information: (510) 527-8680.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.