To put a curse on someone, insult them, or complain up a storm, there's no better language than Yiddish. The 1000-year-old tongue, perpetually in danger of dying, boasts colorful expressions such as "six feet under baking bagels," which means a person is in an untenable situation, or "don't knock me a teapot," which means stop droning on about the same issue. According to writer, storyteller, teacher, translator, songwriter, and so-called Yiddish revivalist Michael Wex: "Everything in Yiddish means stop kvetching (complaining), because what you're trying to do is get a chance to kvetch yourself!"
Wex, who likens his irony-laden mamaloshen (mother tongue) to unique forms of speech such as jive talk, will aid in the attempts to resuscitate and elucidate it when he delivers a lecture titled "Six Feet Under Baking Bagels: A Humorous -- and Accurate -- Look at Yiddish" on Thursday. Author of the novel Shlepping the Exile, Wex grew up speaking Yiddish almost exclusively at home, which was not a bustling Jewish enclave but a small town in western Canada where his Polish parents had immigrated. The graduate degree in Medieval English literature he holds left him virtually unemployable, so about twenty years ago he began working in the Yiddish world as a hobby. "It's a lot more fun than teaching Chaucer in Iowa," he notes. Soon his pastime became a full-time pursuit. "It suddenly hit me one day that this stuff didn't look very healthy and there weren't too many people left that both had some knowledge of it and were interested in doing anything with it," he recalls of his motive. "And if people in my position didn't do anything, it was going to vanish."
Since then the Toronto-based Wex has gone all over the world with his work, offering talks and providing opening monologues for bands such as the Klezmatics and Brave Old World. "Beats having a job," he laughs. And while he understands it's impossible to revive Yiddish in the pervasive way it existed before World War II, he feels a sense of mission about its importance and his role in keeping it active. "You can only enrich yourself by finding out about it," he says. "You don't even need to be Jewish. The way the language works and what goes on in it is interesting and valuable to anyone."