The ProsenPeople

Publishing the Unpublishable

Friday, February 14, 2014 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Michael Wex wrote about creating the sound of Yiddish in his novel and the beginning of his literary career. His newest novel, Shlepping the Exile, will be published by St. Martin's Press next week. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

It took me more than three years to finish Shlepping the Exile. I had a job as a researcher in pediatric neurosurgery to go to and a dissertation on the Middle English Pearl to try to avoid, and more than disappointed, I was positively crestfallen to discover that nobody in the exciting, high stakes worlds of commercial and small press publishing really cared. I sent queries, unagented and unsolicited, to various publishers, submitted selections to every literary magazine whose address I could find. The encouraging rejections usually included a Yiddish word or two—le-chaim at the end instead of yours truly, or "Mazl tov on a stunning achievement, but it's not for us at this time." The less friendly ones tended to come from editors who'd received my manuscript from one of their writers. To many of them, I was an anti-Semite; to a few others, a disgrace to my people—"Would you let your parents read this?" Virtually all of them saw the use of Yiddish as an anachronistic drawback. The only thing that might have interested them about my adult characters was their experiences during World War II: "You can clearly write," one of them told me, "give us more Holocaust." After letters like that, I was almost happy to have the manuscript called "pornography in dialect," a put-down that didn't really sting, though I'd have been even happier if the woman who'd handwritten it on the title page put "pornography mit a heksent" instead.

After two or three years of this, I was starting to get desperate. I forgot about publishing and took the book back to its origins, presenting self-contained excerpts in comedy clubs, storytelling venues, theatres, anywhere where I could get onto a stage. I'd done enough storytelling and stand-up that finding places to appear wasn't much of a problem, especially because I only held a piece of paper in my hand if the event was called a reading. Otherwise, I gave performances of material from the book, selling photocopied, perfect-bound copies of the texts wherever sales were allowed.

They moved surprisingly briskly, even though they didn't look like much, and proved beyond any doubt that the suspicions I'd been nursing for so long were true. Jews liked the stuff, gentiles liked the stuff; English-speaking Francophones really liked the stuff. Young people, old people, women and men. Everybody liked it except people who worked in publishing. I like to think of it as the dawn of a tradition.

Five years after I finished the book, I performed part of it at a party in honor of the great Chilean poet and artist, Ludwig Zeller, who was living in Toronto at the time. After I'd finished, his Canadian publisher came up to me and asked if I had any of it written down. "All of it," I told him, and explained what I was up to. He told me to send him a copy; I did. Two years later, it came out. There was no line-editing, no copy-editing; aside from typos, it was the text as submitted, but it took two years to come out.

If he'd ever sent me any money, it might not be coming out again, corrected and plumped up, a good forty pages longer than it used to be. People ask me how you fit new stuff into the midst of material up to thirty years old. The answer deserves a book of its own.

Read more about Michael Wex here.

Normal English and the Novel

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michael Wex wrote about the beginning of his literary career. His newest novel, Shlepping the Exile, will be published by St. Martin's Press next week. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Plot was the last thing on my mind when I sat down to make a novel out of the stories about Jews in Alberta that I'd written for A Night in Odessa. I didn't want to capture a landscape or a moment; I was after a sound, the breathless, slightly strangulated blast of dissatisfaction and unsublimated pain that was the aural blanket in which I'd been swaddled. A jumble of demotic English and storm-tossed Yiddish that flowed in and out of each other with utter indifference, it was a world away from the quaint and cutesy Yinglish of satire and dialect jokes. This was the argot of thoroughly bilingual people who knew that they were never at home.

I was damned if I was going to let it disappear, so I made it the book's setting, its subject and leading character. The people in the book might live in Alberta, but the space inside the walls of this non-Phil Spector sound is its real locus. I wasn't terribly interested in foreign accents or mangled syntax; I wanted to portray a way of thinking that didn't want to squeeze into the patterns of proper English any more than it had wanted to fit those of the German from which Yiddish arose in the first place. I was a huge fan of Ishmael Reed's early novels, especially The Free-Lance Pallbearers and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, both of them tours-de-force of African-American English, and I wanted to do something similar with the non-standard English that I was supposed to have been educated out of. It was the next best thing to writing Yiddish.

I wanted to talk about people who were using Yiddish in places where they weren't supposed to be, post-War lower middle- and working-class people living thousands of miles from anything that could called a major Jewish community, and—in the case of the protagonist and his family—retaining their commitment to Orthodoxy. Anyone who has spent ten minutes as an Orthodox Jew knows that it's a twenty-four hour a day job, and I wanted to show people of unshakable Orthodoxy trying to make their way in a world in which Jewish law is a joke to everyone else—and doing almost nothing about it. I was aiming for an anti—bildungsroman. If people change, it's because they've aged, but no one learns a thing.

I should have learned something from the storyteller who disapproved so strongly of the original sketch. While non-Jews seemed to like the stuff no less than the Orthodox Jews who got all the jokes, a surprising number of people who don't keep shabbes or worry about kashrus found it offensive: "Religious people don't behave that way." Thirty years of klezmer bands and increasing interest in all aspects of Yiddish culture (not to mention recent scandals in the Orthodox community and the popularity of off-the-derekh memoirs) have gone a fair way to familiarize the general reader, Jewish and non-, with ritual behavior so deeply ingrained that it can be practiced in circumstances that would seem to make it absurd. When a teenaged boy sends his Jewish girlfriend to the mikve, it isn't offensive, it's merely consistent.

Read more about Michael Wex here.

Beginning a Literary Career

Monday, February 10, 2014 | Permalink

Michael Wex is the author of Born to Kvetch. His newest novel, Shlepping the Exile, will be published by St. Martin's Press next week. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Although St. Martin's Press would probably prefer me not to mention it, Shlepping the Exile, which comes out next week and would seem to be my newest book, is really my oldest; the first version was published in Canada–with fewer pages and many more typos–in 1993. I can understand why a publisher might not want to call attention to a new book's having been available as an import for twenty years; what scares me is having a book begun before the writer was thirty judged as the work of a man about to turn sixty. People might read a young man's book as an old man's–and in this kind of novel, it makes a difference. If I were starting it today, I'd write from the narrator's parents' point of view.

But I started it in 1983, after being invited to take part in a storytelling show called A Night in Odessa. Ninety percent of what I knew about Odessa, I knew from Isaac Babel, and Babel, I was told, was already covered; the other storyteller on the show had called dibs. What they wanted from me was forty-five minutes of material "in Babel's spirit," but not necessarily his neighborhood. They were more interested in psychic than physical ambience–and in something new, if at all possible.

"So you want, like, original material?" Forty-five minutes of it, breezy and slightly transgressive.

Had my parents' English been better, Breezy-and-Slightly-Transgressive might well have replaced Yisruel as my middle name, but even for the breeziest, forty-five minutes of new material isn't something you leave to chance, especially when there's nowhere to run it in front of an audience before the show goes up. I decided to write the whole thing down, contrary to my usual practice, if only to have a map of where I was going and how to get there.

I came up with an early version of what eventually became the first forty pages of Shlepping, a faux-autobiographical piece about a teenage boy ten years my senior living in circumstances similar to my own, but in the mid-50s, when I was a toddler, not a teen. I gave the other storyteller a copy–a carbon fresh from my typewriter–and he called me that night to tell me that he wouldn't cross the threshold of any building where such filth was being presented, let alone allow it on the same stage with him. "I threw it in the garbage and took the bag outside. It offends me as a man, as a Jew, and as a human being."

"And how do you tell the difference?"

The other storyteller hung up.

Much to my chagrin, management took his side. "It's a bit strong, Michael." 

"Jewish gangsters killing people are less offensive than frustrated teens and lusty old men?"

"Can't you just give us a folktale or something? Something a little more heartwarming ?"

I guess they'd forgotten about breezy and transgressive. I sat down and wrote the silliest fake folktale I could come up with–"They want folktales, I'll give them flanken folktales"–about a potato kugel that talks. It, too, became part of Shlepping the Exile and has been anthologized a number of times.

I guess that's what they mean by "having to eat humble pie."

Read more about Michael Wex here.

Michael Wex's Indiegogo Campaign to Fund Translation of Yiddish Novel

Tuesday, May 14, 2013 | Permalink

Michael Wex, author of Born to Kvetch and well-known Yiddish scholar, is currently trying to crowd-fund his next project, a translation of a classic Yiddish novel by Joseph Opatoshu, on Indiegogo, a widely-used website that enables individuals to collect contributions for their intellectual or entrepreneurial pursuits from users all over the world.


The novel in question is called In Polish Forests and is said to contain a stunningly accurate portrayal of Jewish life in rural Poland, outside of the major cities and cultural centers where Jews were normally known to reside. According to Wex, Opatoshu wrote “some of the best prose ever published in Yiddish.” Opatoshu’s writing, while fairly well-known in his own time, never successfully made the transition into English. In Polish Forests, written in 1921, has already been published once in English in 1938, but the translation, which is characterized as lackluster, has virtually faded into oblivion.

Wex is trying to raise $75,000 by June 7th—if he doesn’t reach his goal, he’ll abandon the campaign and any individuals who have contributed will have their money refunded. If he does reach his goal, Wex plans to offer the translated novel as an e-book/PDF on his website for free, making it completely and indefinitely accessible to everyone who wants to read it. This, he claims, is immeasurably better than having the book published by a university press, which would only pay a small advance for the project and would likely only publish it under a small press run.

Having the translation funded through indiegogo also satisfies the project’s need for immediacy. As Wex argues, the potential for a new translation only continues to diminish as time goes on and the community of scholarly native Yiddish speakers gets smaller. For this project to ever be successful, it’s imperative that those involved in the translation still retain an authentic sense and knowledge of Polish Jewish culture as it was in the nineteenth century.

It’s clear that there are some very good reasons to contribute to the translation of this novel, besides for the perks that are being offered for donations. For contributions as small as one dollar you can get your name on the sponsor list—$5,000 and up, you can even dedicate a chapter of the novel. $60 and above will get you that print, posted right, on a t-shirt. From a cultural perspective, though, the novel would certainly be an excellent medium through which to sustain a connection to one of the most historically significant Jewish communities. And ultimately – whether you’re Jewish or not—if the prose is actually as engrossing as Wex claims it is, one dollar is a small price to pay for an enduring work of fiction that is both enlightening and entertaining.

You can learn more about the Opatoshu's novel from Wex's video, posted above, or from the project's Indiegogo page.

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Old and Grey and Only in the Way

Friday, January 07, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michael Wex, author of The Frumkiss Family Business, wrote about writing about intermarriage and being the kvetch guyHe has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I had the misfortune last night to turn on the television just as some self-appointed spokesman for today’s hip, young Jewish culture was saying that certain Jewish approaches to the outside world might have been all right, oh, for people of Mordecai Richler‘s generation, but this idea of the Jew as somehow outside of mainstream North American society was –– winced the shmendrick –– dated, as relevant to today’s Jewish experience as country music.

Well, I don’t know. I grew up in an Orthodox family in a small town in southern Alberta, not far from the Montana border, and spoke nothing but Yiddish at home. My hometown was the kind of place where country singers like Hank Snow and Wilf Carter were more popular than Jesus — for the simple reason that my father, who ran a furniture store that also sold records, refused to stock any gospel L.P.s.

He liked country and western, though; he used to play it on the radio in the store to make the farmers feel comfortable, and before long he was listening to it at home. His record collection consisted of nothing but cantors and cowboys, and I think he sometimes lost sight of the difference: “Dave Dudley Davens Six Days On The Road and On Shabbos He Davens At Home.”

I still recall Saturday nights, right after havdalah, when the holy Sabbath had just departed, Dad would light his first cigarette of the week and put on some Marvin Rainwater or Lefty Frizzell, while Mom barricaded herself in the bathroom and turned the taps on full-blast.


“Tateh,” I asked him once, “bist dekh a frimer yid, you’re a religious Jew, for God’s sake. How can you listen to this stuff?”

He picked up a copy of Hank Snow’s Greatest Hits. “Look at these songs,” he said. “ ‘I’m Movin’ On,’ ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’––they’re all about golus, about exile, about not having a home and not knowing if you’re ever going to get one. And what’s most of the rest of it? Hurtin’ songs.”

You have to imagine this the way it really took place, with my father still in his Shabbos best, a leisure suit from eighteenth-century Poland, and “hurtin’ songs” the only words not in Yiddish. “And what’s a hurtin’ song but a kvetch, a kineh––a lament for something that you’ve lost. And who understands loss better than a Jew?”

Let the shmendriks with their voluntary tattoos go chase the up-to-date and snuffle for paradigms of change. I’m gonna sit home with a bottle of whiskey in my hand and a Gemara on my knee, while Tammy Wynette tells me all about her gimel-tes, ‘cause I’m just like everyone else.

Michael Wex is the author of The Frumkiss Family Business

Being the Kvetch Guy

Wednesday, January 05, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Michael Wex wrote about the birth of his idea for his new novel The Frumkiss Family Business. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Visiting Scribe.

It’s nothing to complain about, really. Ever since word got out that I’m supposed to know something about Yiddish, I’ve been receiving scores of e-mails every week. Most are very nice; someone has read something that I’ve written and wants to let me know that they’ve enjoyed it. Some of the correspondents even enclose their own stories about specific Yiddish words or phrases, reminiscences of things that their parents or grandparents used to say.

These are good. Now that snail mail from anybody but billing departments and lawyers is pretty much a thing of the past, e-mails of this type help to give authors the feeling that they haven’t been working in vain.

Not everything is so pleasant, though. Some e-mails claim that I don’t know Yiddish, that I’m a disgrace to the entire Jewish people. I’ve yet to receive an e-mail of this type with a correct “correction.” Most authors enjoy these kinds of e-mails; they read them out loud to their author friends, usually someplace where alcohol is being served. Everybody has a good laugh, especially when the disgruntled e-mailer admits to having borrowed the book from the library.

And then there are the real nudniks. Like the guy who wanted me to read his grandson’s high school essay on Elie Wiesel and “feel free to make any changes that [I] think necessary.” Like the “novelist” who sent me a page of dialogue that he wanted translated into Yiddish; he was prepared to put my name on the acknowledgments page of his book, just as soon as he could find a publisher. Like the woman who asked for the “origin” of the word shikse. I wrote back and told her on what pages in which of my books she could find a detailed explanation of the origins, development and various uses of the word. Her response? “I wanted the origin and you gave me page numbers. Thanks for nothing. Somebody told me you were an expert. Some Goddamed [sic] expert you turned out to be.”

And my all-time favourite, this one via telephone: “Would you speak to an audience of 400 dentists for 400 dollars?” I explained that, at a dollar per dentist for the lecture, the 400 dentists would be paying ten times as much to park their cars as they’d be paying for me. “Yeah, but what else have you got to do on a Sunday morning?”
“I was hoping for a free root canal.”
I could hear the dentist breathing.
“No? No discount?” I asked. “Then I suggest you get the parking lot guy to entertain you––him, at least, you’re willing to pay.”
“How dare you? No one has ever been this rude to me.”
“That makes two of us,” I told him and said goodbye.

Exactly a week later, the dentist called back. He wanted to know if I’d changed my mind.

Come back all week to read Michael Wex’s blog posts. His new novel, The Frumkiss Family Business, is now available.

Birth of A Family Business

Monday, January 03, 2011 | Permalink

Michael Wex is the author of Born to Kvetch, and the new novel The Frumkiss Family Business. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.

A couple of years ago, Diane Martin, an editor at Knopf Canada, told me a story about an acquaintance of hers, a Jewish man living with a gentile woman who had become so fascinated with her partner’s cultural background that she had taken the plunge and converted to Judaism a couple of weeks earlier.

While the man had no ideological objections to a decision that could do nothing but make his parents, if not happy, at least happier than they had been about his relationship, he was concerned with a far more fundamental problem. According to Diane, he took his wallet from his pocket––he was a writer and Diane was his editor––flipped the photo holder open and showed Diane a picture of a California blonde in a bikini. “She doesn’t look hot to me anymore.”

Whatever this couple’s relationship had been, it owed too much to the woman’s forbidden quality, her psychic role as bacon and eggs in briefs and a bra, to survive her passage into kashrus. The man was alienated by the idea of a woman who wasn’t an alien and the couple split up not long afterwards.

“Nu, Michael,” asked Diane, who’d discovered the Yiddish word only a short time before, “think you could do a novel about something like that? About a non-Jew who finds out that they’re Jewish and how that affects their marriage to a Jew?”
“Of course,” I said.

I lied. But not completely. I could have written that book, but I didn’t. I turned Diane’s idea inside out. An attempt to look at the nature of intermarriage became an examination of what it means to be Jewish in circumstances where Judaism has more to do with feeling than with religious observance or belief; what it means to be Jewish in a society like ours, where such phrases as “Jewish atheist” or “Jewish Buddhist” are no longer seen as contradictions in terms.

As I did more and more work on the book, though, I noticed strange things happening to me. The more I wrote, the less consistent my opinion of the photo that I keep on my desk: the then-future Mrs. Wex in sash and bikini during her reign as Miss Camp Sheynvelt.

Come back all week to read Michael Wex’s blog posts. His new novel, The Frumkiss Family Business, is now available.

The Oy of Yiddish

Thursday, April 15, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

This week on Schott’s Vocab (a blog by Ben Schott for the NY Times), vocabularists were invited to pose questions to Michael Wex (Born to KvetchHow to Be a Mentsh and Not a ShmuckJust Say Nu). Questions included: Can you tell me anything about the word “broiges” or “broygas”?, Anyone have the etymology of the explicative “feh!” (expresses disgust and disdain)?, Is faklempt a real Yiddish word–or something that was invented on SNL’s Coffee Talk?

For the answers to these questions, and more, please visit part 1 and part 2 of the post:

The Oy of Yiddish, Part 1

The Oy of Yiddish, Part 2