Of course we bicker. We're Jewish!

There are twice as many Yiddish words for 'argue' as for 'happy', and that's no coincidence
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The Independent Online

My wife's introduction to the Feller family was traumatic. In the first tentative weeks of learning about each other, we met my parents in a swish restaurant. I thought the evening went well until, in a taxi later, Sian asked with a worrying frown: "Do you actually like your parents?"

"What do you mean?"

"All you did was argue, pick faults and were all so rude!"

"Really? I thought we were just talking."

I cannot think of a finer introduction to the peculiar subtleties of Jewish life. Arguing, sometimes just for the sake of it, to needle, provoke and push, is as comforting as a warm embrace. To have a row is to show affection. Feuds are handed down like antiques – nobody knows their origin or is willing to part with them. They are treated with a perverse, fond reverence.

Jews love to pick a fight with another Jew, principally to spark a reaction. That's why Maureen Lipman wrote in Standpoint magazine that she couldn't support Labour while fellow Jew Ed Miliband was leader, after he foolishly backed a Parliamentary motion to recognise Palestine as a state. She'd return when her beloved party is run by mensches – that is, people with integrity.

But, as any Jewish boy with a claustrophobically caring matriarch knows, Maureen isn't rejecting Labour. She's just picking a fight with the vacillating, bacon-eating disappointment of a man who's forgotten his roots.

She's taunting him in a typically withering Jewish manner, just as my grandmother did when she asked whether I wanted her egg and onion or chopped liver. It was always the liver and she always retorted: "What's wrong with my egg and onion?" When I asked for both, she'd wave me away dismissively: "Don't do me any favours." The only recompense was to have three portions of chicken.

The power of Maureen's attack is not that she disagrees with Ed's ideologically crass stance but that she's Jewish. This is gauntlet-throwing by a woman sick of her adopted son's immature posturing and suppression of his heritage. Where others see this as a rejection of Labour, I see it as a love letter – written in an accusatory manner only Jews truly understand.

It's like Woody Allen's best films – they revolve around a broyges (Yiddish for quarrel) that bonds the central characters instead of splitting them apart. Or Larry David's quintessentially Semitic Curb Your Enthusiasm focusing on his combustible relations with fellow Jews who say they'll never forgive him … until the next lunch.

It's no coincidence there's twice as many Yiddish words for "argue" as for "happy". Kvetch is the best, although that's closer to whining. Michael Wex's book, Born To Kvetch, attributes this innate love for winding each other up to religion. The Talmud inspires argument and is inspired by argument – or, more particularly, complaining. Wex says: "They kvetch in Egypt and in the desert. No matter what God does, it's wrong. Whatever favours he bestows, they're never enough."

If we started out questioning God not long after He first got going, no wonder we're such experts now.

So Ed, from one bacon-eating Jew to another, here's my advice: let Maureen kvetch. She'll come back. We Jews are one big happy family; that's why we like to row. So, give as good as you get but don't ignore her. That really would be "unmensch".

Grant Feller is editor at large of 'The Jewish Chronicle'

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