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Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Dec 6 18:27:18 UTC 2005

>>From the Chronicle of Higher Education,

>>From the issue dated November 25, 2005

'The Tongue Is the Pen of the Heart': As Yiddish 'Dies,' Yiddish Lives

In his precise, already canonical The Meaning of Yiddish (University of
California Press, 1990), Israeli-American scholar Benjamin Harshav
recalled how Max Weinreich (1894-1969), author of the magisterial
four-volume History of the Yiddish Language, noted that the beloved
mame-loshn ("mama tongue") of Ashkenazic Jews at first possessed "few
names for flowers but three words for 'question': frage (derived from
German), kashe (from Aramaic) and shayle (from Hebrew)."

That's hardly chopped liver for a language and culture whose arc
purportedly curves from initial respect for biblical authority to
skepticism about absolutely everything. No wonder that while we wait with
bated breath for a tome entitled The Joys of Ladino, the flow of
rest-lessly inquisitive books on Yiddish  incisive studies such as David
G. Roskies's A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling
(Harvard University Press, 1995), or labors of love such as Miriam
Weinstein's Yiddish: A Nation of Words (Steerforth Press, 2001)

Jewish and American fascination with Yiddish mixes nostalgia and delight,
ambition and appetite for irreverence, critical insistence and deference
to ironic wit. Twentieth-century Jewish-American comics and Hollywood
types infiltrated Yiddishisms from "klutz" to "yenta" into "American," and
Leo C. Rosten, in his Joys of Yiddish (McGraw-Hill, 1968) and Joys of
Yinglish (McGraw-Hill, 1989), documented the invasion while bridging the
world of popular culture and academe. (Anyone remember that he taught at
Yale and Berkeley and boasted a University of Chicago Ph.D.?)

Who couldn't love a language Weinstein credits with "the world's best
sense of humor," a wisdom tradition that teaches, "When you go to a
restaurant, choose a table near the waiter," or, more somberly, "When you
add to the truth, you subtract from it"?

The pleasure taken in Yiddish's survival, in its occasional odd surfacings
in American life  witness Colin Powell's pride a couple years back in his
adolescently acquired facility  draws on layered ore: its contribution to
European letters in masters like Solomon Jacob Abramovich, Sholem
Aleichem, and I.L. Peretz; its force as a reliquary of faded Jewish life;
its magic as a resource for aphorism. Harshav's description of Yiddish as
"a fusion of lower-class attitudes with the pride and aspirations of a
fallen aristocracy of the mind" suggests a snug fit with America's arc as

As new studies follow old ones, attention to the history of Yiddish
remains telescoped more toward its end than its beginning. Formed around
AD 1000 as a German dialect that took on Slavic elements when European
Jews moved eastward, it issues into the first Yiddish newspaper only in
1862. The move of Jewish writers to Yiddish, exemplified by Aleichem's
turn to it in 1881, allied Yiddish with a sense of reform and
enlightenment in Jewish life, just as the Holocaust persuaded many to
regard it as moribund.

Yiddish and its boosters, however, have traditionally refused to say
kaddish. Others wanted to declare the language safely honored and buried
when the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Isaac
Bashevis Singer in 1978. Singer, however, who delivered his acceptance
speech in Yiddish, observed that it had been dying as long as he'd been
alive. The 1980 founding of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst,
Mass., like the many anthologies of translated Yiddish literature
published in the past decade, weigh against a death watch.

Two new books, however, speak volumes about different approaches to
celebrating the subject. Yiddish Civilization, by Paul Kriwaczek (Alfred
A. Knopf, 2005), is a solid, well-meaning cavalcade of there to here,
festooned with memoir. A longtime BBC producer turned author, Kriwaczek
rarely breaks a smile. Instead, he appears to have been mesmerized by a
fundamental fact: "Yiddish" simply means "Jewish" in Yiddish, which is
why, in the world of our immigrant fathers and mothers, they often
referred to "talking in Jewish." That linguistic fact could tempt an
author writing a book titled Yiddish Civilization to instead write a study
of Jewish civilization, which proves to be Kriwaczek's misstep.

Kriwaczek advises us that "Yiddish-speaking Jews were no mere religious or
linguistic minority but formed one of Europe's nations, ultimately more
populous than many others. ... The Yiddish people must be counted among
the founder nations of Europe." He consequently rejects reducing Yiddish
history to "a long saga of constant pogroms, oppressive laws invoked by
civil authorities, anti-Jewish edicts by the Church, massacres,
expulsions, tortures, and burnings at the stake." Instead, the author
favors "the less frequented but happier and perhaps more important
pathways: those that celebrate the success and even occasional splendor of
the Yiddish civilization, its contribution to Europe's economy, society,
religion, and intellectual progress."

The commitment makes Yiddish Civilization a dutiful, wide-ranging, yet
ultimately inert chronicle as it meanders from the Jews of ancient Rome
(part of Yiddish history only in the most extravagant sense) to "frontier
towns like Regensburg," where "there first came into being the mixed
Jewish-Germanic-Slavic language and culture that underlies the Yiddish
civilization," to the remnants of Yiddish life in London and the United
States today.

Sample typical Kriwaczek observations: "But as times change, so do
fashions and values. What our parents found an embarrassment may be a
source of pride to us, what we ourselves deplore our children often
praise." Or, "The use of Yiddish words now seems to be considered rather
hip, even among goyim, even in BBC news broadcasts." The tone is less
Yiddish than British, more quaint than wry.

In contrast, Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its
Moods (St. Martin's Press, 2005), by Michael Wex, among the finest living
translators of Yiddish literature and a humorist to boot, is, well, a
hoot. If you can stop laughing long enough to finish it, Wex distills
enough idiosyncratic insight about Yiddish to make any true admirer of its
uniqueness kvell.

Whereas Kriwaczek is the kind of author who writes "dragging," then
includes "shlepping" in parentheses, Wex reminds you of the kid in grade
school who would hold two fingers up behind your head  a compulsive joker.
Kriwaczek is earnest, Wex inspired when he gets beyond schoolyard schtick.

Wex's overarching frame is that "the Bible and the Talmud are to Yiddish
what plantations are to the blues." Eschewing century-by-century plodding,
he zooms in on the logic of Yiddish, centering on its perfection as a tool
of kvetching, or complaint. A typical Wex riff: "If the Stones's '(I Can't
Get No) Satisfaction' had been written in Yiddish, it would have been
called '(I Love to Keep Telling You That I Can't Get No) Satisfaction
(Because Telling You That I'm Not Satisfied Is All That Can Satisfy Me).'"

Consider it parenthetical wit.

"Like so much of Jewish culture," Wex argues, droll and probing at the
same time, "kvetching has its roots in the Bible, which devotes a great
deal of time to the nonstop grumbling of the Israelites, who find fault
with everything under the sun." If Yiddish is, in Wex's phrase, "the
national language of nowhere," one explanation is that "Judaism is defined
by exile, and exile without complaint is tourism, not deportation." The
will to kvetch similarly derives from the peculiar Jewish obligation to
perform the 613 mitzvahs, or commandments, which Wex breaks down into 248
"thou shalts" and 365 "thou shalt nots."

It's the latter that truly annoy the so-called chosen people. "The Jews,"
Wex quips, "have been chosen not to: not to have that BLT; not to sit on
Santa's knee; not to catch the Saturday matinee or blend in with the
people around them."

Born to Kvetch continues in that spirit, capsulizing aspects of Jewish
thought ("The Talmud is nothing less than Yiddish in utero") and the
subversive origins of its target tongue: "The whole point behind Yiddish,
its whole raison d'tre, is the need or desire to talk yidish, as distinct
from goyish, Jewish instead of gentile. ... Yiddish started out as German
for blasphemers, as a German in which you could deny Christ without
getting yourself killed any more often than necessary."

Current scholars of Yiddish often complain, ruefully, that the language
now survives (outside Hasidic neighborhoods and Jewish nursing homes)
mainly in the university, a "mere" subject of study rather than as the
living argot of a community.

To which an appreciator of academe might reply, "If it's good enough for
Plato and Aristotle, for Plautus and Cicero, it's nothing to complain
about for Abramovich, Aleichem, and Peretz." In the modern world,
Weinreich's well-known saw, "A language is a dialect with an army and
navy," might be usefully adjusted to, "A language is a dialect with an
academic department devoted to it."

In short, mere, schmear. But Wex's uncanny amalgam of Yiddish tone and
analytical irony in street-smart American bolsters a further point: A
receding language and its cultural ethos can be kept alive, in
translation, by boldly re-creating its spirit in other words. To indulge a
bit of vernacular, az me ken nit ariber, gait men arunter ("If you can't
go over, go under.").

Carlin Romano, critic at large of The Chronicle and literary critic of The
Philadelphia Inquirer, teaches philosophy and media theory at the
University of Pennsylvania.

Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 52, Issue 14, Page B16

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