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.
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Jesse Tisch is a writer, editor, and researcher. He lives in Manhattan.