Yiddish: A Nation of Words


With its rich history, comic-stoic worldview, and unforgettable phrases, Yiddish has become part of the world’s culture. In Yiddish: A Nation of Words, Miriam Weinstein takes the reader on a witty romp through a language and a lifestyle that has mostly vanished. Weinstein consulted everyone from language mavens to her own relatives to trace the crucial part Yiddish has played in keeping alive a culture often under siege. Through its daily use across the globe, it linked European Jews with their heroic past, their...
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Yiddish: A Nation of Words

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With its rich history, comic-stoic worldview, and unforgettable phrases, Yiddish has become part of the world’s culture. In Yiddish: A Nation of Words, Miriam Weinstein takes the reader on a witty romp through a language and a lifestyle that has mostly vanished. Weinstein consulted everyone from language mavens to her own relatives to trace the crucial part Yiddish has played in keeping alive a culture often under siege. Through its daily use across the globe, it linked European Jews with their heroic past, their spiritual universe, and their increasingly far-flung relations. Impoverished and marginalized by much of the world, Yiddish speakers created their own alternate reality. Weinstein doggedly tracks that reality, from the early days when Yiddish was spoken only by women and the untutored, to the present, when chutzpah is part of everyone’s vocabulary and Americans of all ethnic backgrounds shrug dramatically and say, “What am I, chopped liver?”
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Once the mother tongue of 8 million people, Yiddish has been impoverished and marginalized around the globe. Award-winning journalist Miriam Weinstein charts the course -- and the potential -- of a language that continues to inspirit even strangers.
From the Publisher
“[A] charming and highly readable history of the language . . . Weinstein succeeds in her efforts to recreate the sound of a world that is gone forever.”
The Washington Post

—The Boston Globe

“Almost everyone knows a little [Yiddish], a word or two, a joke perhaps, but what do they really know of the history, the tragedies, and bitter controversies that characterized a language now on the U.N.’s endangered list, but once spoken by eleven million people. . . . Part of the problem has been the lack of a serious, yet accessible book to fill the gap between glib entertainments. . . . Weinstein’s [book] aims to do that and her success . . . is substantial.”
Los Angeles Times

Publishers Weekly
"How did a language that cursed and crooned for a thousand years fade in the course of one little lifetime?" asks freelance journalist Weinstein. Her engaging, elegiac popular history fills a gap between more academic tomes and lexicography ? la Leo Rosten. She traces the language's roots in German lands and in Poland, then sketches Yiddish-drenched shtetl life, drawing on the writing of Israel Joshua Singer and Isaac Bashevis Singer, before describing how Yiddish both influenced and was shaped by two late-19th-century movements, Bundism and Zionism. In the Soviet Union, Yiddish garnered its first recognition as an official language only to be constrained to Communist expression. Pre-Soviet Yiddish literature, therefore, was not to be found in schools. In Israel, Weinstein reflects sadly, the fervor for Hebrew led pioneers to reject Yiddish with contempt. Early 20th-century New York boasted a wide variety of Yiddish schools and radio stations, yet the urge to assimilate led Jews to "squander" their national treasure. After half the world's Yiddish speakers died in the Holocaust, Yiddish has survived mostly thanks to the Hasidim who emigrated to America and elsewhere and built large families. The language has made some recent gains in America thanks to the 1980s klezmer revival and the upstart National Yiddish Book Center but serves more as linguistic influence than common tongue, the author concludes. While not comprehensive, this evocative, informative and accessible book should perform solidly on the Jewish book circuit. 16 pages of photos. (Oct. 1) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Freelance journalist Weinstein here makes the story of the Yiddish language accessible to the general reader. Complete with two time lines, a glossary, and a bibliography, her work outlines the rise and decline of the language that united a dispersed people. Especially effective are biographical sketches of influential individuals such as playwright Sholem Aleichem and the Nobel Prize-winning writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. Weinstein presents these profiles as part of the language's development in various countries, including Poland, Russia, and the United States. Aspects of 20th-century history, such as the Holocaust, the revival of Hebrew, the popularity of klezmer (Yiddish) music, and the language's future, receive special attention. Complementing Weinstein's international view, Sol Steinmetz's Yiddish and English: The Story of Yiddish in America (Univ. of Alabama, 2001. 2d ed.) closely examines this language as spoken in the United States. Recommended for larger public libraries, academic libraries, and specialized collections. Marianne Orme, Des Plaines P.L., IL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Filmmaker/journalist Weinstein's first book is an ambitious but disappointing treatise on the "nation" that existed only as a language. Although most of the world's Jews spoke Yiddish in the period before WWII, they were scattered across the globe. Growing out of medieval German, with elements drawn from Slavic languages and the holy tongue of Hebrew, Yiddish was a lingua franca for Ashkenazi Jews throughout Eastern Europe and Germany, gradually spreading to far-flung Jewish communities in the US and Australia. But history played a series of ugly tricks on Yiddish. The Nazis wiped out half of its speakers in the Holocaust, and Stalin crushed another large segment, but in some ways the worst damage was done by the comforts of the US, as assimilation drained Jewish-Americans of the need to speak a language all their own. This compelling story has been told piecemeal many times before, but seldom with a focus on the language. Regrettably, Weinstein lacks the understanding to tell it well. Her version of the Jews' millennia-long saga is grossly oversimplified and often romanticized in ways that betray a lack of familiarity with recent literature on either linguistics or history, particularly in her recounting of the birth of Hasidism. She frequently makes generalizations that lead to errors, describing Yiddish, for example, as "a conscious part of the identity of European Jews," which will come as a shock to Ladino speakers from Greece, Turkey, and Italy. And her prose is rife with irritating mannerisms, especially the gratingly coy humor and the frequent and distracting recourse to Yiddish proverbs to underline points. Though they exhibit the same flaws, chapters on developments in Russiaand the Soviet Union nonetheless make for compelling reading. Would that the rest of this study were so good. Max Weinreich's classic History of the Yiddish Language first appeared 21 years ago, so the time is definitely ripe for a cogent new interpretation. This isn't it. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345447302
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/27/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 1,382,701
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Copyright 2002 by Miriam Weinstein
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Table of Contents

Cast of Characters
A Note on Yiddish Spelling
Map of Yiddish Lands
Introduction: Talking Jewish 1
Pt. 1 Birth and Growth
Ch. 1 Long as the Jewish Exile 9
Ch. 2 Poland: Rest Here 25
Ch. 3 Shtetl: A Separate World 32
Ch. 4 Enlightenment and Hasidism: The Head and the Heart 42
Pt. 2 The Modern Era
Ch. 5 Eastern Europe: Opening the Gates 57
Ch. 6 The Road to Czernowitz: The Politics of Language 71
Ch. 7 Russia: Kissed by a Thief 84
Ch. 8 The Soviet Union: Marching and Singing to Birobidzhan 100
Ch. 9 Israel: Language Wars in the Holy Land 112
Ch. 10 America: The Golden Land 129
Ch. 11 Poland: Drinking in the World 146
Ch. 12 Eastern Europe: Language as History 160
Pt. 3 Annihilation
Ch. 13 Singing in the Face of Death 173
Pt. 4 Aftermath
Ch. 14 Europe: Life from the Ashes 191
Ch. 15 America: Golden Land, Goyish Land 202
Ch. 16 Russia: The Heartthrob Yiddish Poet 217
Ch. 17 Israel: A New Nation, a New Tongue 229
Pt. 5 Present and Future
Ch. 18 Europe and Israel: Bulletins from Now 241
Ch. 19 America: Preserving Tomorrow's Song 257
Glossary 275
Sources 279
Acknowledgments 291
Index 293
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 28, 2001

    Amazingly Informative Book

    This book is easy to read, it taught me the history I've always wondered about while keeping me interested. The small 'yiddishisms' and stories, kept the book light and fun. I couldn't put it down! I have always been interested in Jewish studies but never studied it formally. This was a great introduction.

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