Arts & Culture

Is Kvetching a Natural Part of Jewish Culture?

In Peggy Orenstein’s memoir about her lust to become a parent, Waiting for Daisy, she writes about her marriage to a Japanese-American man and their cultural differences: “I’m a Jew – I consider kvetching my birthright, a way to connect … Read More

By / January 8, 2009

In Peggy Orenstein’s memoir about her lust to become a parent, Waiting for Daisy, she writes about her marriage to a Japanese-American man and their cultural differences: “I’m a Jew – I consider kvetching my birthright, a way to connect to those I love, to communicate. If I have a hangnail, you’re going to hear about it.”

When I first read that, I thought, how spoiled. How annoying. And then, like most things that annoy me, I realized that it annoyed me precisely because I do the exact same thing. I am not stoic and humble, strong and silent. My natural urge, when things are going well or they’re decidedly not, is to write about it. How else to explain most of my Twitter stream, where I can be vound venting about the evil that is the L train and the MTA, my annoying cold, or some other frustration?

Today, I slept fitfully and woke up woozy, my head heavy and pounding, sick and not yet packed for my trip to St. Louis. I was stressed because my passport, my only official form of photo ID, expired two days ago, and apparently the TSA has tightened its rules about traveling with expired ID (it worked out okay for me, there’s a grace period). I’ve been stressed about the passport for weeks but only in the last few days did I look into what I have to do to replace it. All this even though last year, I wound up traveling to London on an expired passport, and wasn’t allowed to return home without getting a 1-year renewal. (See, kvetching already!)

Since reading Orenstein’s words, though, I’ve been trying to watch myself, to catch myself in the act of complaining, because I know from being on the receiving end from family, friends and lovers, that it’s not useful. I tend to feel sorry for myself when things go awry, to leap to the worst case scenario in my head immediately, and only when I’ve truly hit rock bottom, try to figure out a way out of my messes. When your world feels like it’s falilng apart–your heart’s been broken, you’ve gotten laid off, you’re in debt, whatever–complaining seems like it’s the equivalent of taking action. It’s doing something. It’s getting things off your chest.

But really, it’s not. It’s passive rather than aggressive. Intead of telling my friends that I often want to move just so I won’t have to suffer the L train anymore, I should be writing to the MTA and telling them how inept they are at informing their customers of late-night train changes. Instead of feeling like I will forever be under the thumb of Sallie Mae due to a three-year mistake called NYU Law School, I should be looking into ways to invest and save money, rather than prowling bookstores and clothing boutiques on my way home.

I think so many behaviors, like the ones Orenstein is talking about, seem comforting to us when we engage in them, but horrific when others do. They keep us in a suspended state of anger and despair rather than helping us assess the situation, self-made or not, and plan a way out of it. I try to look to the people I know who, while their lives are not always smooth sailing, project both confidence and dynamism, who are all about moving forward rather than staying stuck.

Also, if what Orenstein says is true, I don’t want to simply succumb to a stereotype of some neurotic, whiny Jew. At the same time, I think documenting our daily ups and downs is a powerful act, as Orenstein demonstrates. Her multiple miscarriages and spirited quest to become a mother are moving precisely because we know how much work it took for her, the constant uphill battle.

Then again, kvetching has its fans, such as Dr. Barbara Held, author of Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching: A 5-Step Guide to Creative Complaining. I will give her one thing: she made me laugh, especially because I thought her site, Kvetching.com, was a joke!

Maybe kvetching isn’t really so bad, as long as it’s done in moderation, and to a rotating cast of people, so the main listeners don’t get too sick of you. Still, I want to try to nip my kvetching in the bud, even that makes me just a little less Jewish.

Rachel Kramer Bussel, author of Spanked: Red-Cheeked Erotica, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and she’ll be here all week. Stay tuned.