In an attempt to capture the nuances of Jewish-American life, Molly Katz presents “Jewish as a Second Language,” a mildly entertaining cultural analysis of the people who disguise compliments as insults, use rhetorical questions as threats and swap stories about their digestive problems for fun. Nominally designed to translate it all for her goy husband, Katz describes everything from Jewish sports (tennis, ping-pong, comparing cars) to vacation protocol (slather on pounds of sunscreen, complain about not getting tan). There are some insightful lists — like Items You Won’t See in a Jewish Home: A TV tray, a peek-a-boo nightie, Chef Boy-Ar-Dee — that might elicit a giggle or too. And props to Katz for asserting that Jews are not obsessed with money, just “making ourselves nauseous about everything else while dealing with money.” But “Second Language” is by no means a new take on Judaism; it’s bubbe humor. (This is a revised edition. And the original probably wasn’t all that original even twenty years ago.)
From the neurotic dinner party hostess to the father bent on getting his son into law school, the book paints broad profiles that peaked sometime in the 70s, and are now just campy fun. It might have still worked, but the book relies almost entirely on gimmicky lists. The whole thing could be boiled down into a single sentence: Jews like expensive things, overcomplicating simple situations and worrying. Yes, we get it, but the joke sits heavier than Thursday night Chinese take-out.
It might make a cute Mother’s Day present, if your mom wants to relive the neuroses of her overbearing Jewish mother. Otherwise, just take Katz’s own advice: borrow something from the library, complain how little time you get to read it and hate the book. You’ll probably get the same satisfaction, and Godforbid you should spend money on things you don’t need.
“Jewish as a Second Language: How to Worry, How to Interrupt, How to Say the Opposite of What You Mean” is on sale now.