I have to ask — as we close in on the second full year of the global pandemic, does anyone feel like kvetching?
I know I do.
Life has not yet returned to anything like normal. During December and January, many of us retreated to the isolation of the beginning of the pandemic and are just beginning to cautiously emerge. If we are vaccinated and boosted, we know we are unlikely to be hospitalized. But still! During the omicron surge, if we went anywhere, we were almost sure to get covid. Our backs and necks ache from the never-ending Zoom meetings. We are stuck inside much more than we wish, because it has been COLD. And dreary. We know we should feel lucky because we escaped the worst of the blizzard that hit the Northeast.
But still! Who doesn’t feel like kvetching?
Our people have a long tradition of complaining. In the annual cycle of Torah readings, we are trudging through the wilderness with the Israelites. And they are constantly complaining. They are tired of eating manna every day; they want meat; they are thirsty; they blame their overworked leaders for getting them into this mess; they even want to go back to Egypt. Really?! Egypt?!
For those of us who trace our ancestry to Eastern Europe, our psyches have been shaped by Yiddish (even if we are a few generations removed from familiarity with the mama loshn). Yiddish is the language of kvetching. In the New York Times review of Michael Wex’s book “Born to Kvetch,” William Grimes writes: “Yiddish is not a ‘have-a-nice-day’ language. How are you? — a perfectly innocent question in English — is a provocation in Yiddish. How should I be? Is a fairly neutral answer to the question. Theoretically it is possible to say ‘gants gut’ (‘real good’) but this is a phrase that the author says he has never heard in his life.”
I would add that Israel, our Jewish homeland is not a have-a-nice day country. I have visited Israel many times and lived there for two years in the 1980s, and I don’t recall anyone ever wishing me a nice day. When I returned to the United States and a gas station attendant wished me “a nice day,” I was so grateful that I burst into tears.
At a virtual teaching for alumni, Hebrew College President Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld asked us to write our own and our congregants’ complaints in the chat. Many people wrote about the losses we’ve experienced during the pandemic — loss of life, loss of community, loss of joy. Finally, someone said, “These don’t feel to me like complaints. They feel like laments.” This led to a deep and rich conversation about the difference between complaint and lament, and whether complaint is ever useful.
In Egypt, when the Israelites groan under the weight of bondage and cry out to God, God takes note of them and delivers them. This is lament — crying out from a place of deep, intolerable pain. This is different from their complaints against Moses and God in the wilderness.
In our discussion, one person was bothered by the Israelites’ complaints, and pointed out that bringing complaints to our leaders takes away our own responsibility to solve problems and throws it onto someone else. Another person countered that when he was a community organizer, he felt that complaint was essential. If people could not verbalize what was wrong, they could not do anything about it.
Rabbi Anisfeld suggested that “there are times when complaint feels understandable, necessary, and even fruitful. And there are times when it feels the opposite. Complaint can open things up, and it can shut things down.”
I think we are living in a time when complaint is necessary and understandable. In praise of kvetching, Michael Wex asks, “If we stop kvetching, how will we know that life isn’t supposed to be like this?”
I admit that kvetching sometimes feels petty. In the face of real and tragic loss, how can I complain that my hair salon had to close its doors? Or that I can’t go out to dinner? But maybe our ancestors understood something essential — that there was a danger of getting accustomed to life in the wilderness, or even to grow comfortable with it. We might forget that we want more. We want the promised land; we want full and vibrant lives; we want community and connection.
Maybe we need to kvetch so we can remember that life isn’t supposed to be like this.
Hannah Orden is the rabbi of the Reconstructionist-affiliated Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. She is a past president of the Summit Interfaith Council and is a founding and active member of the council’s anti-racism committee.