Author Archives: Michael Wex

Old and Grey and Only in the Way

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Earlier this week, Michael Wex, author of The Frumkiss Family Business, wrote about writing about intermarriageHe will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’sAuthor Blog.

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 BusinessHe has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

Posted on January 7, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Being the “Kvetch” Guy

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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 Author Blog.

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.

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

Posted on January 5, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Birth of a Family Business

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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.

Posted on January 3, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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