Shlep­ping the Exile: A Novel

  • Review
By – February 10, 2014

Yid­dish is still thriv­ing in at least three places. Brook­lyn. Acad­eme. And wher­ev­er Michael Wex does his writ­ing. This is Michael Born to Kvetch” Wex we’re talk­ing about, the author of Just Say Nu and How to be a Mentsh (And Not a Shmuck). Yes, he goes heavy on the shtick. But don’t be fooled by those titles. Wex does­n’t triv­i­al­ize Yid­dish, or make it kitschy or cutesy. Unlike the author of Yid­dish for Dogs and oth­ers who want to pick Yid­dish up and dan­dle it, Wex is seri­ous about the mamaloshn. Seri­ous­ly eru­dite, seri­ous­ly devoted.

After sev­er­al works of non­fic­tion, Wex is back in his oth­er guise — nov­el­ist — with Shlep­ping the Exile. Parts of the book, Wex said recent­ly, were work­shopped in com­e­dy clubs and per­for­mance spaces. Wex pitched it to U.S. pub­lish­ers, got bup­kis, and end­ed up shelv­ing it. If Shlep­ping the Exile reads like the work of a younger author, that’s because it was writ­ten dur­ing Rea­gan’s first term. The book, then, is old­er than its narrator/​main character.

Teenage Yoine Lev­kes is com­ing of age in remote Alber­ta, Cana­da. In the mid­dle of sev­er­al dis­as­ters, includ­ing puber­ty, he bris­tles at the strait­en­ing con­ven­tions of Ortho­dox life. He fan­ta­sizes about shik­sas, but finds a new, less treyf desider­a­tum, a Jew­ish girl with the brains of Ein­stein and the breasts of Phyrne.” Will our hero invei­gle his way into Sabi­na Mandelbroit’s bed? While we wait to find out, we’re immersed in an utter­ly con­vinc­ing Jew­ish world in which the char­ac­ters and the Yid­dishkeit are nei­ther clum­sy nor car­i­ca­tures. Well, maybe just a lit­tle. (Nu, what did you expect?)

Through­out, the com­e­dy is tem­pered by sad­ness, the shad­ow of suf­fer­ing that dark­ens post-Holo­caust Jew­ish life. Turns out, the come­di­an can also do pathos. The book’s real theme is dis­lo­ca­tion — his­tor­i­cal, famil­ial, geo­graph­i­cal. There aren’t many laughs in that, but that’s not always what keeps you turn­ing the pages.

Relat­ed Content:

Read Michael Wex’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Begin­ning a Lit­er­ary Career

Nor­mal Eng­lish and the Novel

Pub­lish­ing the Unpublishable

Discussion Questions