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The Story of Yiddish: How a Mish-Mosh of Languages Saved the Jews

The Story of Yiddish: How a Mish-Mosh of Languages Saved the Jews

by Neal Karlen

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A delightfully unconventional tale of a people, their place in the world, and the fascinating language that held them together.

Yiddish is an unlikely survivor of the ages, much like the Jews themselves. Incorporating antique German dialects and elements from more than a dozen other tongues, the Yiddish language bears the imprint of


A delightfully unconventional tale of a people, their place in the world, and the fascinating language that held them together.

Yiddish is an unlikely survivor of the ages, much like the Jews themselves. Incorporating antique German dialects and elements from more than a dozen other tongues, the Yiddish language bears the imprint of the many places where European Jews were briefly given shelter. Neal Karlen's unique, brashly entertaining, yet thoroughly researched telling of the language's story reveals that Yiddish is a mirror of Jewish history, thought, and practice—for better and for worse.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Karlen (Shanda: The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew) offers an often pleasant but clunkily written romp through Yiddish and Yiddishkeit (the culture of Ashkenazic Jews) in America. There are some colorful anecdotes about figures as varied as Bob Dylan, the philanthropist Jacob Schiff and the contemporary Hasidic rabbi Manis Friedman, as well as an introduction to many useful witty Yiddish phrases (the literal Yiddish for "she's good in bed" is "she knows how to dance the mattress polka"). But, oy, are there problems. The book is replete with repetition of anecdotes and observations, and there are errors of fact (Moses Mendelssohn never converted to Christianity, nor does the Bible say, "you shouldn't cook beef in its own calf's milk"). Worse, Karlen provides cartoon versions of Jewish history, shtetl life and scholarship. He makes only a thin case for the thesis stated in his subtitle. As an introduction to Yiddish, Michael Wex's Born to Kvetchis not only more erudite but funnier as well. (Apr. 8)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In this witty, lively, thoroughly engaging, and thought-provoking book that is part memoir, part anecdote, and part linguistic history, literary journalist Karlen captures the impressive and exhaustive history of Yiddish as a language: how it came about, its metamorphosis throughout the ages, and its place in Jewish culture and history. He also attempts answers to larger philosophical and cultural questions, e.g., "What constitutes 'Yiddishkeit'?" examining a dazzling array of personages through the alembic of Yiddish language and culture to help define this ever-changing, all-inclusive, and somewhat amorphous concept. He devotes much of the text to examples with translations from Yiddish, how Yiddish is distinguishable and distinctive from German, and the sometimes uncomfortable relationship between the two. In addition to being a wonderful popular history of Yiddish, this is an accurate (albeit abbreviated) account of how Yiddish found legitimacy in America and a place in the academy that manages to capture both the linguistic diversity of Yiddish and the cultural diversity of Yiddishkeit. With an exhaustive, well-documented bibliography; essential reading for anyone interested in Jewish culture and the Yiddish language. Highly recommended for all libraries.
—Herbert E. Shapiro

Kirkus Reviews
New York Times contributor Karlen (Shanda: The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew, 2004, etc.) proffers an idiosyncratic take on Yiddish, the heroic vernacular that gets no respect. He comes to praise, not to bury a language often lamented as moribund. Yiddish, the lingua franca and soul music of Jews around the world for a millennium, is ever-dying and evergreen, Karlen reports. Its vibrancy has been regularly and popularly proclaimed, from Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish in 1968 to Michael Wex's Born to Kvetch in 2005. Nowadays, universities teach Yiddish. This wide-ranging survey rejoices in Jewishness rather than Judaism. The author sporadically quotes Lenny Bruce, Isaac Bashevis Singer's Nobel speech and Three Stooges movies to support his notions. He attempts, with easygoing chutzpah (you know, "nerve") to draw apt lessons in linguistics and philology from history, philosophy, sports, literature and showbiz in the old countries as well as here in the goldene medina ("golden country"). In full spritz mode, he offers ironic illustrative jokes embroidered with bubbemeises ("old wives' tales") and bupkis ("goat droppings" or "beans"; i.e., worthless fare). Regrettably, his well-intentioned effort is overwritten, under-researched and frequently sloppy in two languages, with petty factual errors and mistranslations that may stem from secondhand English versions. For example, a mitzvah is a "commandment," not a "good deed," and a vinkl is a "corner," not a "circle" where people gather. Karlen's narrative doesn't merely wander like the Jews; it strays seriously and repeatedly. Still, even from this mishmash, Yiddish will survive. Not for those who know their babka from theirbupkis. Agent: Suzanne Gluck/William Morris Agency

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Story of Yiddish
How a Mish-Mosh of Languages Saved the Jews

Chapter One

You Don't Have to Be Jewish to "Get" Yiddish

To begin to understand the soul of Yiddish, one needn't understand the homely language as much as its bipolar worldview. Mere answers of how this mutt language saved the often fatally stubborn and proud Jews over the last thousand years doesn't begin to tell the full tale of the mamme-loshn (mother tongue) any more than the correct answers on Jeopardy! reveal anything beyond the memorization of trivia.

Over the centuries, experts have thought Yiddish had as many linguistic meanings as the word oy. At various times it was considered a jargon, dialect, vulgar street slang, language, secret code, medium of high art, punishment, Jewish Esperanto, or even an embarrassment to its people. Yet it's always been anything but trivial.

Not that Yiddish doesn't bear enough Neat Facts to titillate Alex Trebek. How could it possibly be, for example, that Steve McQueen, Jimmy Cagney, American war hero General Colin Powell, and Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann all knew Yiddish—while few of Israel's prime ministers have had even a passing knowledge of the language.

Yet this is not a history of Yiddish, but the story of Yiddish. True, there are names, dates, and places important to the language's development lurking not too deeply in its one-thousand-year history as perhaps the world's most loathed and loved patois.

These historical truths are critical. Still, this is really the story of how Yiddish's heart and spirit evolved from its status as the worst-ever,quasi-linguistic equivalent of the 1962 New York Mets into, simultaneously, the most sonorous, wisest, ironic, funereal, and joyous language in the world.

Yiddish has forever been granted least-favorite-nation status by the Jews' enemies. Never mind that der yidn (Jews), wandering forever in Diaspora, never even were a nation, as they were kicked around like an always-deflating soccer ball in a match of global proportions that was never good for the Jews.

Yet there were good times, many of them, and all reflected in Yiddish. I hope that joy will be captured in these pages; Yiddish is as much about the humor and magic of life as it is about seemingly never-ending pogroms and cataclysm. Many of those laughs have come through clenched teeth and lost hopes. Yet Yiddish, in all of its feeling, longing, and laughter, is available to anyone. You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy Levy's rye bread, as in the famous ad read in New York subways; nor do you have to be Jewish to read this book.

In fact it might be better if you're not. Besides gaining a further insight into the Yiddish-based mind of many Jews, there is always the enjoyment that comes with going up to a group of Chasidic or ultra-Orthodox men at a gas pump or convenience store, and begin talking to them in Yiddish.

For Jews, Yiddish is the easiest way to see who we and the world are, and were, to der yidn and der goyim (Gentiles). It is understanding Yiddishkeit—the spirit and essence of living life like a Jew—at a time when too many yidn have forgotten or never knew the story of the language that saved them more than any rabbi ever did.

The book can be read out of order, by pages, paragraphs, or sentences. This is a book to be carried and tattered; in a world of A.D.D. and short attention spans, including my own, I have tried to write in digestible giblets as well as chunks. Five hours of reading time? Fine. Five-minute intervals, just long enough to learn a filthy Yiddish phrase? Also fine. As the Band sang, "Just take what you need and leave the rest"—but in this book please feel free to take whatever you feel is Yiddish's very best.

The oft-repeated tale, complete with names, is a staple of Yiddish: It was how Jewish history was memorized and one's own dead relatives kept alive. I include a couple of twice-told tales in honor of that tradition. I believe German poet Heinrich Heine's declaration of insincerity after he converted from Judaism to Catholicism is worth hearing twice. (Heine, who switched teams for social mobility, said no such conversion to Christianity could be honest, because no Jew could believe any other Jew was Divine.)

The question this book tries to answer is short, as many Yiddish queries are. Not long ago, this mish-mosh of other peoples' languages and worlds was thought to be a dialect of Jewish pig Latin. How could such a mongrel tongue save the Jews at the same time it was so derided?

The answer is this: The Story of Yiddish.

During their diaspora, in place of a spot on the map, Jews made Yiddish into an invisible homeland with unmarked boundaries, encompassing virtually any place on the planet where yidn lived, or were violently bounced, whether they were in a cluster of three million, or three. With no place to turn as they wandered a world that largely despised them, Jews had to settle on the mamme-loshn (mother tongue), wrote journalist Miriam Weinstein, as their borderless "nation of words."

"Yiddish culture was more than ever an international culture," wrote Irving Howe, author of the magisterial World of Our Fathers, "a fraternity of survivors across the globe."

To foes of the Jews, Yiddish was the chicken-squawk gibberish of a historically chickenhearted people literally demonized as horned Christ killers with yellow stripes down their backs. That might be expected. Curiously, however, Yiddish is also the story of a language almost equally loathed by its own.

Nevertheless, Yiddish saved the Jews from assimilation or disappearance. Yiddish—this forever-dying language with no mother, father, or, as with Hebrew, Divine roots. Instead, it sprung naturally from the Jewish experience and need to survive the murderous sabers of Crusaders on the way to Jerusalem. The language, for good and rotten over the last thousand years, held the Chosen together with their own Esperanto as they were chased and kicked around the world.

The Story of Yiddish
How a Mish-Mosh of Languages Saved the Jews
. Copyright © by Neal Karlen. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Neal Karlen was speaking Yiddish at home well before he was a staff writer at Newsweek and Rolling Stone. A regular contributor to the New York Times, he has studied Yiddish at Brown University, New York's Inlingua Institute, and the University of Minnesota's Graduate School of Journalism, where he teaches nonfiction writing.

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