Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish

Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish

4.7 3
by Dovid Katz

From one of the world's foremost scholars of Yiddish, a sweeping history of the language, its culture, and its literature-with a provocative argument about its future as a living language


From one of the world's foremost scholars of Yiddish, a sweeping history of the language, its culture, and its literature-with a provocative argument about its future as a living language

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Yiddish was the common language of central European Jewry before the Holocaust. The catastrophic loss of millions of Yiddish speakers has led to the impression that Yiddish is a dying, if not dead, language. Not so, claims Katz, head of the Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University, and in this ambitious, comprehensive and entertaining history he makes clear not only its past but its future. Most scholars claim that Yiddish began around A.D. 900, but Katz argues that many elements can be found "in a continuous language chain that antedated ancient Hebrew, progressed through Hebrew, and then Jewish Aramaic." Katz clearly explicates not only Yiddish's linguistic history, but how it helped shape, and was shaped by, Jewish culture. Much of the history is fascinating-for instance, 16th-century rabbis, worried that the printing press would allow women access to secular popular European stories, offered sacred writings in popular forms (plays and prose based on biblical themes and midrashic tales) that shaped Yiddish literature for centuries. Katz argues that Yiddish will continue as a spoken language not because of conscious efforts to "save" it (which, he writes, can "border on the downright meshuga") but because of the rapid growth of Yiddish-speaking ultra-Orthodox movements. This scholarly work is quite readable and a strong contribution to the ongoing academic and popular interest in Yiddish. B&w illus, maps. Agent, Scott Mendel of Mendel Media Group. (Oct.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Basic Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.56(w) x 9.48(h) x 1.22(d)

What People are saying about this

Ruth Gay
This is a book whose time has come. Dovid Katz presents the complex and international origins of Yiddish over a thousand years in a delightfully readable narrative that belies the enormous scholarship in many languages that underlies his work.
—(Ruth Gay, author of The Jews of Germany: A Historical Portrait and Unfinished People: Eastern European Jews Encounter America)
Elie Wiesel
Dovid Katz's book on Yiddish reflects the beauty, the variety, and the warmth of a language that refuses to be extinguished. Its miraculous survival brings joy to its readers.
Alan Dershowitz
I love this book. It's a treasure trove of nostalgia and a beacon of hope. It warmed my heart to read how the rich emotional Yiddish jargon became an elegant language of literature; then it broke my heart to read about the near-total destruction of Yiddish civilization, one of the great cultures of the world. This book revives hope that Yiddish will still flourish, even in a small way.
Jonathan Safran Foer
"Words On Fire is not only a great history, it's a great read. Dovid Katz writes with the precision of a scholar, and the heart of a poet.
—(Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything Is Illuminated)

Meet the Author

Dovid Katzis one of the world's foremost academics in the field of Yiddish studies. He has a B.A. from Columbia and a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of London. He taught at Oxford for 18 years, where he established the University's Yiddish program, as well as at Yale. He is currently at Vilnius University, as research director for the new Vilnius Yiddish Institute, and was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002.

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Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book is perhaps the best available popular introduction to the history of the Yiddish Language. Although scientifically rigorous, it is directed to the general public, interpretative rather than simply factual, and presents many highly subjective views of the author (which only makes it more interesting). Language politics (Hebrew/Yiddish dichotomy) within the modern secular Jewish world are frankly discussed. One obvious problem with the book is the hypertrophied 'litvak patriotism' of the author. This results in skewed choices of literary figures individually presented (almost without exception from the Northern Yiddish dialectal area), with flagrant disregard to details when it concerns other Yiddish dialects and areas. Northern Yiddish toponimics is meticulously presented up to the tiniest of the shtetls, whereas Bessarabia is consistently placed in Ukraine, Kishinev (Chisinau) is repeatedly spelled 'kishenev', Chernowitz is also misspelled and the birthplace of Sholem-Aleichem is not spelled out at all (compare to any litvak author in the book). Equally biased is his dealing with the contemporary secular Yiddish writers of the younger generation and with the Soviet Yiddish literature (which produced many of the former). Having said all this, no better review of all things Yiddish seems to exist.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It is refreshing to read an informative, accurate and well-written book about the real history of Yiddish, particularly by as gifted a writer as Katz. As usual, truth is vastly more interesting than mythology, and Katz handles the truth with an academic's intellectual razor but with a writer's soul. My only complaint is a slighly fawning attitude towards Haredim demonstrated at the end. They may well carry Yiddish forward into the 21st century but the culture they carry along with it is as far as can be from the vibrant, intellectual, open and secular Golden Age of Yiddish.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A truly great work of a major scholar of Yiddish. It presents a highly readable and thought provoking saga of Yiddish language and culture from its origins at the beginning of the last milenium well into our own days. Its relevance to contemporary Jewish cultural politics and to the possible survival and continuation of Yiddish creativity will attract many intelligent readers who had their fill of popular schmaltz books 'on Yiddish' and who wouldn't mind to take a respite from the heavy artilery academic writings on the subject.