This is a guest post by Alexander Tolchinsky. It was originally published in the American Jewish World Newspaper on November 11, 2011 as “The Frumkisses of Toronto.” “Frumkiss” Author Michael Wex to speak at Twin Cities Jewish Book Fair on Saturday.
Yiddish, a language spoken by fewer and fewer people, in which almost no books or plays are written anymore, may seem like a relic from the last century.
It is hard to find relevance in a language that cannot be used for most conversations about the modern world. And yet, the magic of Yiddish lies in the very fact that it can be used to describe and relate the finest and most subtle details of the human experience.
An odd blend of German, Hebrew and Slavic, it captures the pathos of the Jews living all over Europe and America. Its words and phrases can often express grief and joy, pain and triumph, love and sarcasm in single words. Its turns of phrase are comical and yet laden with the sorrow of those oppressed.
In Yiddish you can tell a story or put on a play that embodies satire, scorn and hate — with scenes and dialogue that cut to the very bone of those who tormented the Jews, and yet to them (even if they could understand the language) it would seem like any other everyday performance.
Such is the glory of Yiddish nuance! That comedy could always be present, no matter the circumstances, speaks of the incredible ability of the Jews to survive, and not only survive but retain their traditions all the while.
Michael Wex has managed to continue the revival of this beautiful tradition in The Frumkiss Family Business. Though in his book there are only Yiddish words and phrases, with occasional sentences in Yiddish, he still captures the language’s ability to thinly veil mockery, use allegory, and make remarks that will leave you laughing and crying and all together verklempt.
Wex does a wonderful job of putting into English some of Yiddish’s finer intonations, making it accessible to all readers regardless of graduation status from Hebrew day school. His language is direct and expressive; it takes the form of the speaker’s meaning without the filter that would dilute its impact. This makes for an honest telling of the depths that human baseness, perseverance, humor and reason can take.
Wex treats the characters with a truthful and unbiased light — illuminating their strengths along with their weaknesses; he makes us think twice about each one, even after we think we understand them. There are heroes and villains, but he gives us reason to love and hate each one, so that reading the story becomes a process of evaluation of our own beliefs and predispositions.
The book takes us over the course of almost 100 years as we discover Faktor, the quintessential yidishlech mentsh, and his progeny. Each of the characters is both typical and abnormal, loveable and detestable, relatable and yet with at least one part of each of their personalities at some extreme.
Faktor, or Der Mazik, embodies Yiddish wit and humor, as he lives through the time of pogroms, the Yiddish Golden Age, Hitler and immigration. Something that so many of our grandparents and parents went through — we feel we know him as we see our forbears in him. However, he is born wealthy and manages to safeguard that wealth during the purges and thefts of the Nazis.
He works as a journalist, a writer and playwright in the Yiddish theater. But he lives a bohemian life and has countless affairs until he finds love. His idea of a good time is playing practical jokes on people and ridiculing those around him, and yet he is a caring father and good husband. He is outrageous, but that part of him is somehow tempered and focused by his second wife, Chana.
She too is wealthy, but she created her wealth by her ingenuity and perseverance. She represents the greater Jewish woman in her ability to take dust and turn it into sculpture, and to be patient when facing powerful forces that would destroy her family, livelihood and stability.
Wex goes a step further with Faktor and Chana’s offspring and grandchildren: it seems each receives a blessing and a curse. They are brilliant but disturbed, beautiful but malicious, kind but unlucky. It’s almost as if they represent the duality of the Jewish existence (staying true to tradition and being part of the larger social context), and the hidden meaning behind so many Yiddish stories.
Their ultimate battle comes when they face the very meaning of being Jewish. This is something very familiar to us, but again Wex presents the cause of their struggle on an almost absurd level. He sculpts the issue with the details and magnitude of Michelangelo’s David: a human like each of us, and yet so much more — that is the magic of The Frumkiss Family Business.
As part of the closing celebration of the 2011 Twin Cities Jewish Book Fair, on Saturday, Nov. 19, Michael Wex will talk about The Frumkiss Family Business at the St. Paul JCC. This closing event is co-sponsored by TC Jewfolk.
Excellent review Alex! I look forward to your next one!
Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
The next one is coming around mid December and will be a review of The Free World, by David Bezmozgis