Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish

Overview

From its ancient roots in Hebrew and Aramaic, through its rise as the common language of Jews in medieval Europe to its blossoming as sophisticated modern literature, the story of Yiddish mirrors the history, tenacity, and humor of the Jewish people. In Words on Fire, leading Yiddish scholar Dovid Katz recounts the sweeping history of this evocative and multifaceted language. Drawing on thirty years of research, Words on Fire traces the arc of a language identified from medieval times onward with women and ...
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Overview

From its ancient roots in Hebrew and Aramaic, through its rise as the common language of Jews in medieval Europe to its blossoming as sophisticated modern literature, the story of Yiddish mirrors the history, tenacity, and humor of the Jewish people. In Words on Fire, leading Yiddish scholar Dovid Katz recounts the sweeping history of this evocative and multifaceted language. Drawing on thirty years of research, Words on Fire traces the arc of a language identified from medieval times onward with women and uneducated men, and relates how efforts to raise its prestige were often met by opposition from the powers that be. Katz highlights the rise of literary Yiddish in the Renaissance-widely read translations of knightly epic poems and guides for daily living-particularly by and for Jewish women. In the wake of secularizing and modernizing movements of the nineteenth century, Yiddish rose spectacularly in a few short years from a mass folk idiom to the language of sophisticated modern literature, theater, journalism, and scholarship. From the rise of the Hasidic movement to the fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer, from its complex relationship with the Zionist movement to its appearance on the Internet, Words on Fire argues that Yiddish represents a high point in Jewish civilization. Decimated by the Holocaust, the once-thriving secular Yiddish culture is in deep crisis, but Katz shows that-far from being a dying language, as many claim-Yiddish is making a resurgence among religious Jewish communities and will still be thriving well into the next century. Gracefully narrated and generously illustrated, Words on Fire is a definitive account of this remarkable language and the culture that created and sustained it.
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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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465037285
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 9/27/2004
  • Pages: 430
  • Product dimensions: 6.56 (w) x 9.48 (h) x 1.22 (d)

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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Table of Contents

1 Genesis 11
2 The three languages of Ashkenaz 45
3 Old Yiddish literature 79
4 What should a lady read? 89
5 Yiddish and Kabbalah 113
6 In the east 131
7 Westernization and language 173
8 New visions of Judaism 225
9 The twentieth century 257
10 In the twenty-first century 349
11 The future of Yiddish 367
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 12, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Words on Fire is Riveting

    A fascinating book that I couldn't put down. It raises issues about Jewish life and practices during the past thousand years, the relationship between Jews and non-Jews in Europe, the dispersion and wanderings of Jews across the old world, the relationship of men and women in Jewish culture, the role of talmudic scholars in controlling the spread of knowledge, as well as telling the story of the development of Yiddish as a language.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2009

    Fascinating in ways I never expected

    This is an extraordinary and compelling book. I received it as a birthday present and expected a somewhat dry discussion of a subject in which I have some personal interest. Instead I was captivated by a story of the Yiddish language presented as a vivid, very human history of the Ashkinazi Yiddish speaking Jewish communities offered as a guidepost to the evolution of the Yiddish language. The writing sparkles and while I lack the background to comment on the scholarship of the contents, from the depth and breadth of the information offered, I sense it is formidable. Rather than a one or two-hundred year story of relatively recent Jewish speaking communities, the book traces Yiddish back to its roots in Germany about a thousand years ago, following the expansion and migration of the Ashkenazi Jewish communities from Germany into Eastern Europe and the resulting evolution of, as well as tensions in, both language and culture. It offers insight into both the everyday lives of European Jews and into the rabbinic influences, and into the manner in which each influenced or was influenced by the evolving Yiddish language and culture. For anyone interested in Yiddish, in Jewish culture or in a little-explored piece of European and Jewish history, this is a must read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2005

    Very readable if biased

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 18, 2005

    No More Oy Vay Schmaltz

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2004

    Words of Fire written with passion and great erudition!

    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.

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