Yiddish: A Nation of Wordsby Miriam Weinstein
For a thousand years Yiddish was the glue that held a people together. Through the intimacies of daily use, it linked European Jews with their heroic past, their spiritual universe, their increasingly far-flung relations. In it they produced one of the
This first-ever popular history of Yiddish is so full of life that it reads like a biography of the language.
For a thousand years Yiddish was the glue that held a people together. Through the intimacies of daily use, it linked European Jews with their heroic past, their spiritual universe, their increasingly far-flung relations. In it they produced one of the world's most richly human cultures.
Impoverished and disenfranchised in the eyes of the world, Yiddish-speakers created their own alternate reality - wealthy in appreciation of the varieties of human behavior, spendthrift in humor, brilliantly inventive in maintaining and strengthening community. For a people of exile, the language took the place of a nation. The written and spoken word formed the Yiddishland that never came to be. Words were army, university, city-state, territory. They were a people's home.
The tale, which has never before been told, is nothing short of miraculous - the saving of a people through speech. It ranges far beyond Europe, from North America to Israel to the Russian-Chinese border, and from the end of the first millenium to the present day. This book requires no previous knowledge of Yiddish or of Jewish history - just a curious mind and an open heart.
—The Washington Post
“[YIDDISH: A NATION OF WORDS] READS LIKE A FOLKTALE PEPPERED WITH PASSIONATE CHARACTERS.”
—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
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A Nation of Words
By Miriam Weinstein
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2001 Miriam Weinstein
All rights reserved.
Long as the Jewish Exile
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A yid hot lib dem geshmak fun a yidish vort in zayn moyl.
A Jew likes the taste of a Yiddish word in his mouth.
At the beginning of the High Holy Days that mark the Jewish New Year, Yiddish speakers often eat carrots. They eat them raw, they eat them cooked with other vegetables in sweet hearty stews. Farvus, you ask; why? Ah, let me tell you. They eat them because of their love not of vegetables but of puns. The Yiddish word mern has two meanings. As a noun it means "carrots." As a verb, it has a very different definition: "multiply." The carrots convey the hope for more years to come, making mern a two-fer; the tastiest kind of Yiddish word.
After Rosh Hashonah and its carrots, the Days of Awe unfold, a week of contrition and introspection. As these solemn days approach their finale, a bowl of cabbage soup often appears on the table. All right; cabbage. Lowly, penitential, no?
You should be so lucky, an explanation that plain. The Yiddish dish comes from the phrase that passed directly from German into Yiddish, kohl mit vaser, cabbage with water, the unadorned fact of cabbage soup. Much tastier, however, is the play on the Hebrew phrase kol mevaser, a voice proclaiming. It is a phrase that the carrot-eating soup slurpers will soon be hearing as part of the service that ends the solemn time. Here is the classic Yiddish take on life: the voice of God translated into soup, soup transmogrified into the voice of God — and all in the form of offhanded punning culinary theology, learned around the supper table at home.
Thanks to their linguistic life story, Yiddish speakers have a full bag of multilingual tricks. A generation of Americans reared on tales of cowboys and Indians amused themselves by spinning elaborate jokes about Jeronowitz, Pocayenta, and their daughter Minnie Horowitz. Today, this same agile wordplay is skipping around the Internet: Recent Yiddish joke offerings included goyfer, a gentile messenger, and blintzkreig, a late-night refrigerator raid.
Yiddish began with the same impudent spirit, a hardy weed thrusting up between the cobblestones of the walled cities of medieval Europe. In our story, we will watch the scruffy language grow and branch out and blossom and bear fruit. Time and again we will see the heels of assault crush it down. And time and again we will watch it rise up, altered slightly but still itself, growing skyward once more. ("I rise once again and stride on" is the refrain of a Yiddish poem that, it should come as no surprise, became a popular song.)
We will use the language as a way to mark the meandering path of Jewish history. Then it will be time for a rest, maybe a glezele tey, a shtikl broit, a shnapps — a little glass of tea, a piece of bread, a drink of whiskey — in the shtetl, that archetypal Jewish town. We will track the language through the industrial and intellectual revolutions that swept Yiddish into the modern world. The language will blossom as its people, freed from the shackles of the past, stripped of the comforts of tradition, search for a future. Then we're going to talk some geopolitical specifics — what happened in Eastern Europe, Russia, Israel, and the United States. The Holocaust will shut the curtain on much of the world we have come to know. We will pause to mourn and to pay our respects. Then, like the Yiddish language and the people who speak it, we will gather our strength and our memories, pick ourselves up, and stride on.
Yiddish will teach us about the resilience of the self and the construction of boundaries against "otherness." It will show the deep satisfactions that come from community. We will learn how to make something from nothing, staring grim reality down the nose, one of the most popular subjects of Yiddish proverbs: With weeping you pay no debts. Neither with cursing nor with laughter can one remake the world. And one must always, in some way large or small, remake the world.
To understand how Yiddish arrived at its apparently weightless way of carrying such a heavy load is simple: We just have to start at the beginning of the world.
Jews measure time by cycles of exile and ingathering. They note episodes of destruction and, when they are lucky, rebirth. Mostly, though, it's been wandering. In the distant, sunny biblical past, Jews dwelt in their God-given land of milk and honey, Eretz Israel, the land of Israel. It was the home of the prophets, the Matriarchs, and the Patriarchs, anchored by the Holy of Holies, the Temple, in Jerusalem. The Jews who lived and worshiped there spoke Hebrew, the same language in which, according to rabbinic lore, God spoke to the angels before He created the world. For traditional Jews the language is that ageless, that intertwined with the Jewish soul.
If you like numbers, you will want to know that scholars locate the beginnings of Hebrew somewhere in the middle of the second millennium before the Christian, or common, era. The name Hebrew is the English version of the biblical ivriim, Hebrews. Referring to Abraham and his family or, as he is called in Yiddish, Avrom aveynu, Abraham our ancestor, it means "the people who crossed over." They were wanderers even then. It is not clear whether Abraham actually spoke Hebrew, but we know that Moses did, some four hundred years later on. The parting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Law at Sinai, the wandering in the desert — these core events of the Jewish ethos, to whatever extent they really took place, took place through real Hebrew words.
In the infancy of the common era a related language, Aramaic, gradually supplanted Hebrew in daily speech as well as in some religious texts, such as the late-written Book of Daniel. We know that the two languages lived together for several centuries because, for example, of the practice of reciting certain prayers three times. This comes from a period when they were read twice in Hebrew, for tradition, and once in Aramaic, to make certain that everyone in the congregation actually understood them. Even then, there were a few whose Hebrew comprehension might have been a tad under par. For the purposes of this story we will say "Hebrew" and mean "Hebrew/Aramaic," giving ourselves the benefit of pretending that history is simple. If everyone pulled in one direction, the world would keel over.
Hebrew is written in an alphabet all its own, although many of its letters make sounds that correspond to utterances in English. There are letters for sounds we would recognize as b, for example, as well as t, m, and n. But it is harder for non–Hebrew readers to pick out the familiar sounds because, unlike European languages, Hebrew is written from right to left. It does not distinguish between upper and lower cases, and several letters take special forms when they appear at the end of a word. Hebrew also has a different way of noting vowels: They are expressed as a system of dots and slashes that hover around their consonants, moons to their suns. Many books, including the Bible, are written without any vowels at all.
This is how you would write this sentence in vowel-less Hebrew:
.rbh sl-lv n cntns sht trw dlw y h s sht
Even if two people speak the same language, if they write it differently the language is perceived in a slightly different way. If we are literate, even as we speak words we have some mental sense of the way they are written. The fact that Jews have written a great variety of Jewish languages using the very same letters across continents and millennia is tremendously important. For Jews, the letters are in a sense alive. They have numerical equivalents suffused with mystic significance. In Yiddish-speaking Europe, small boys on their first day of cheder, school, would find the letters spelled out in honey, to let them know that learning was sweet. These delicious letters led the way back and forth, across oceans of exile, linking each child with that distant, golden land. We Jews have many sicknesses, but amnesia is not one of them.
When Jews recall their history, much of it is tragic. In ancient Israel, the Temple was destroyed twice. In Yiddish these cataclysms are referred to as der ershter and der tsveyter khurbns, the first and second destructions. The First Temple was destroyed in the sixth century B.C.E., before the common era, and signaled the beginning of the Babylonian Exile. The Temple was rebuilt, but this Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., after which the long exile began. Although Jews today commonly use the Greek word diaspora for "dispersion," the Yiddish term is golus. Of all the hundreds of thousands of words in the language, this one has gotten more than its share of use.
The stage for all this wandering was set in Hebrew. As Jews saw their Temple in ruins they cried in Hebrew, mourned in Hebrew, rent their biblical robes with Hebrew moans. The most primitive impulse of language, whether of a person or of a people, is often suffused with emotion. The baby's unmediated sound only little by little gets formed into words. For tiny individuals or mighty nations, language lets us know who we are. Hebrew was the first language in which people consciously defined themselves as Jews.
After these Jews had finished covering themselves in efer, Hebrew for "ashes," these cast-out Jews, without homes but with a clear sense of community, picked themselves up and moved on. They traveled on foot — entire families and clans. Often they ignored irony and seized oppportunity, making their living as traders in the wake of those same Roman armies that had destroyed the epicenter of their ritual cult and evicted them from their ancestral home. ("Choose life" is one of the all-time popular biblical quotes.) And so, in time, many Jews found themselves on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Southern Europe.
As the Jews walked farther and farther from Jerusalem, their holy city, the one thing they always carried with them was words. Words are infinitely light and can be fashioned into stories, songs, and prayers. Because Jews venerated them so, they wrote them in perfect Hebrew, without mistake. They rolled the heavy parchment into scrolls and carried these "books" of the Torah, the Jewish Bible, along with them. Even today, in synagogue services, as the scrolls make their way on a symbolic march around the congregation, people eagerly touch their prayer books to the Torah, then kiss the corners of their books. For a people without a homeland, without a centralized clergy, without any universally recognized authority on this earth, the words were all there were. A Jewish thief steals only books.
In time, the wandering Jews settled down. They put down their Torahs and their books, set up yeshivas, religious schools. They waited for the Messiah to come, praying, "Bring us safely from the corners of the earth, and lead us in dignity to our holy land." Every day they recited their Hebrew prayers, studied their Hebrew texts, spoke to each other in the Hebrew they remembered from the old land.
They also developed businesses, raised families, made homes. And because the territories they lived in were owned and ruled by Christians, they learned Christian languages. They had to. Live among Jews, do business with goyim. Sometimes Jews were forced to live in Jewish-only ghettos. More often they lived together by choice. Either way, Jews lived apart from their Christian neighbors. In addition to the obvious — separate religions — they had different holidays, different communal organizations, different social structures, different mother tongues. The Yiddish expression di yidishe gas, the Jewish street, doesn't refer just to the place where Jews work and dwell. It has a sense of comfort, of home.
On that street, language constantly shifted and grew. As Jews encountered new objects and ideas, they needed new names. Similarly, Jews might take a verb they had learned in one nation and conjugate it according to the rules of another. A noun they remembered from Hebrew might get spoken with a new accent or acquire a new way of becoming plural. Rules of this, dabs of that; syntax, vocabulary, and structure simmered in a new Jewish stew.
Medieval Christians did not speak static languages either. When the Roman Empire with its official Latin disintegrated, hamlets and towns folded in on themselves. Dialects, accents, and vocabulary shifted dramatically by region. City boundaries, deep rivers, high mountains, all served to set one community's speech apart from another. Only centuries later would these narrow-band dialects coalesce into national tongues.
European Jews learned all the languages of their neighbors. They had to, if they wanted to make a living. Generally forbidden from owning land, severely limited in trades and professions, Jews became craftspeople, merchants, and traders.
They also became linguists. Jews created their own versions of more than a dozen European languages. They spoke Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-French, and the most widely used, Ladino, the Jewish language of the Iberian peninsula. They wrote all of these languages in the Hebrew alphabet, right to left.
While they were speaking these new tongues day to day, Jews continued to recite their Hebrew prayers. They also pursued their unique goal of having every man a scholar. Throughout what Christians call the Dark Ages, roughly from 500 to 1100, when reading and writing in the Christian world were reduced to the province of a few monks living in isolation, almost all Jewish men knew how to read — at the minimum the daily, Sabbath, and festival prayers. They could probably sound out a bit of rabbinic commentary as well.
So medieval Jews were almost always literate and at least bilingual: familiar with Hebrew and with a European tongue. They were also watchful, living with their bags packed. Because their Christian protectors could abruptly change their minds and cast them out, Jewish occupations were often portable. Jews lent money, and they traded in lightweight luxury goods — spices, silks, jewels, and fur. Fellow Jews provided ready-made trading contacts all through Europe and back toward the Middle East. They understood their far-flung cousins' precarious position in the world.
Throughout this time, anti-Jewish massacres broke out with the senseless repetitiveness of thunderstorms or earthquakes. When the Crusades raised much of Europe to a fever pitch in the defense of Christianity in 1096 and 1146, Jews were an obvious target for mob violence. But here is the striking thing: Although they were continually at risk, Jews felt secure in their peoplehood, creating a country of the mind through their books and their prayers.
As the years of dispersion stretched on into centuries, little by little Hebrew lost the elasticity of daily speech. Although it was still used for prayer, commentary, and legal contracts, as well as for an extremely basic form of communication (when in doubt, Jews could always trade biblical quotations to get their meaning across), the old language ceased to be anybody's first, native tongue.
It was after almost a millennium of exile, in the ninth century, that a population shift set the stage for a change in speech that marks the real beginning of our tale. Jews from what are now France and Italy began moving into a region of what is now western Germany, in the land bordering two rivers, the Rhine and the Main. These two groups of Jews spoke early Romance languages — one a medieval form of French, the other a medieval form of Italian. And, like Jews everywhere, they also (at least haltingly) read and spoke some Hebrew.
In the Germanic lands these new arrivals met not only each other but also the local Jews, who spoke a Jewish version of medieval German. And because conditions were relatively safe and stable over the course of several centuries, Jews from three different parts of Europe lived together in the German cities and towns. They did what people do all over the world. They raised children, earned their living, tried to make sense of their place in the world. Sometimes the things they saw or did or thought were new to them, so they labeled them with new words. These words came from the various languages the Jews had on the tips of their tongues. Sometimes they came out in new combinations, one sound from here bumping up against part of a meaning from there. Like purim-shpil.
The Jewish holiday of Purim celebrates the time, in ancient Persia, when the Jewish beauty Queen Esther helped her people to escape a death sentence at the hands of a wicked minister. Jews have come to celebrate this holiday with raucous good spirits. As they read the megile, the chronicle of the events, they are encouraged to drink so much that they cannot distinguish the name of the hero, Mordecai, from that of the villain, Haman. And since at least the fourteenth century, Jews have mounted elaborate, costumed plays, often using hyperbole, turning reality on its head, called purim-shpiln. The word comes from the Hebrew plural noun purim, meaning "lots," referring to the lots that were cast in ancient Persia to determine the fate of the Jews, and spiel, the German word for "recite" or "tell." The n plural ending is typically Yiddish.
Excerpted from Yiddish by Miriam Weinstein. Copyright © 2001 Miriam Weinstein. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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Meet the Author
Miriam Weinstein grew up in the Bronx following World War II, a time and place where Yiddish was standard fare. Once a documentary filmmaker, she is now a freelance journalist whose features have won several awards from the New England Press Association. Her other books include The Surprising Power of Family Meals, also available from Steerforth Press.
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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.