The Story Of Yiddish: How A Mish-Mosh Of Languages Saved The Jews, by Neal Karlen
My own relationship with Judaism and the Jewish culture have long been deeply ambivalent and complicated. Belonging from birth to an religious tradition that has a high degree of respect for Jewish law, I was circumcised on the eighth day in accordance with the Torah. A couple of lines within my mother’s family can be traced to “Jewish” ancestry (one of which is a priestly line), and yet the Jewish parts of my own background acculturated a long time ago, with one line becoming filled with reform-minded Unitarian ministers and the other seemingly nonreligious. In my own personal life my engagement with Jewish matters has been similarly halting and ambivalent, for my knowledge of Hebrew and Yiddish is not particularly profound but I have traveled to Israel and prayed at the Western Wall and have an immense fondness for books relating to Jewish history and culture and mindset , of which this is one. Moreover, it can be said that my own highly anxious temperament and tendency towards self-effacing humor and an existential struggle against despair are themselves at least in part a heritage of my background and family upbringing. I say this at the outset because the author himself appears to be a cultural but not particularly religious Jew who has a similarly ambivalent but ultimately fond view of the culture and language about which he writes, and the ground from which I come is distinct but not unrelated.
The contents of this book, which take up about three hundred pages of material, are divided into fifteen chapters. The author begins with encouragement to Gentile readers that one does not have to be Jewish to get Yiddish, just have the right mindset, a certain degree of compassion on other people and a sense of melancholy or self-loathing, of which this book is full. The author then talks about Yiddishkeit, a concept that is repeated often, or the acceptable cultural way of Jewish thinking. The author spends a few chapters discussing the soul of Yiddish, the complicated history of Yiddish and how it acquired words someone promiscuously from other languages, as well as the sounds and secrets of Yiddish. The author spends time talking about the incessant tendency for Jews to ask questions, the relationship between Jews and celebrities, the hostility within the Yiddish-speaking community concerning the Chasidim (Hasidic movement), the envious nature of much Yiddish discourse concerning famous Yids like nobel-prize winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, the way that old world shetl culture became imported into the Jewish ghettos of the United States, and what coming to America was like for both Jewish elites as well as common folk. The author closes the book with a look at the institutions of Yiddish daily newspapers as well as the state of Yiddish and Yiddishkeit in America today.
Ultimately, this book has a melancholy feel to it. Yiddish as a language is always said to be dying, and there are many more scholars of the language than those who live it and breathe it. Yet at the same time the author writes about aspects of Yiddish culture that are vibrant and growing. In grounding his book on Yiddish in history, the author uncovers a great deal of humor, but the humor has a dark edge to it. Those who forsake Judaism retain some aspect of their culture about them, there are concerns about assimilation, about what it means to be a Jew, and about the relationship between Jews and themselves, each other, outsiders, and even to God. Obviously, a book like this is most of interest to those who have a fondness for or a connection to the world of American Jewry, but at the same time those who read this book deeply are likely to have the sort of nagging feeling after laughter where one returns to reality a bit sadder and wiser despite having found much to laugh about here.
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