Yiddishlands: A Memoir

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A rich, sweeping memoir by David G. Roskies, Yiddishlands proceeds from the premise that Yiddish culture is spread out among many different people and geographic areas and transmitted through story, song, study, and the family. Roskies leads readers through Yiddishlands old and new by revisiting his personal and professional experiences and retelling his remarkable family saga in a series of lively, irreverent, and interwoven stories. Beginning with a flashback to his grandmother’s storybook wedding in 1878, Yiddishlands brings to life the major debates, struggles, and triumphs of the modern Yiddish experience, and provides readers with memorable portraits of its great writers, cultural leaders, and educators.

Roskies’s story centers around Vilna, Lithuania, where his mother, Masha, was born in 1906 and where her mother, Fradl Matz, ran the legendary Matz Press, a publishing house that distributed prayer books, Bibles, and popular Yiddish literature. After falling in love with Vilna’s cabaret culture, an older man, and finally a fellow student with elbow patches on his jacket, Masha and her young family are forced to flee Europe for Montreal, via Lisbon and New York. It is in Montreal that Roskies, Masha’s youngest child, comes of age, entranced by the larger-than-life stories of his mother and the writers, artists, and performers of her social circle. Roskies recalls his own intellectual odyssey as a Yiddish scholar; his life in the original Havurah religious commune in Somerville, Massachusetts, in the 1970s; his struggle with the notion of aliyah while studying in Israel; his visit to Russia at the height of the Soviet Jewry movement; and his confrontation with his parents’ memories in a bittersweet pilgrimage to Poland. Along the way, readers of Yiddishlands meet such prominent figures as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Melekh Ravitch, Itsik Manger, Avrom Sutzkever, Esther Markish, and Rachel Korn.

With Yiddishlands, readers take a whirlwind tour of modern Yiddish culture, from its cabarets and literary salons to its fierce ideological rivalries and colorful personalities. Roskies’s memoir will be essential reading for students of the recent Jewish past and of the living Yiddish present. An audio CD of Masha Roskies singing in Yiddish, Russian, and Polish is also included with this volume.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814333976
  • Publisher: Wayne State University Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

David G. Roskies is the Sol and Evelyn Henkind Chair in Yiddish Literature and Culture and professor of Jewish Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is author of numerous books, including Against the Apocalypse and A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling.
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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2009

    Passionate portrait of Yiddish life, language,and literature

    An entertaining and immensely readable presentation of the stories David Roskies heard as he grew up in a home devoted to honoring the treasures of Yiddish language and literature. You feel as if you're right at the dinner table, listening in on the indignant, funny, scandalous, lyrical stories he grew up on. Along the way, you find you're learning a great deal about the Jewish Old World and the cataclysms and displacements of the 20th century. Highly recommended. -- Ellen Cassedy

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  • Posted February 16, 2009

    A wholly absorbing and moving narrative: highly recommended

    David Roskies guides us on an astounding journey beginning in 1906, the year of his mother's birth, and ending in the 1980s. We begin and end with his mother singing songs, but in between we visit Vilna and Czernowitz before the war, move onward to Montreal, New York, Jerusalem, and Sommerville, MA, after the war, and finally return to eastern Europe and visit Auschwitz in the wake of the fall of Communism. We confront the panoply of ideologies that Jews embraced, rejected, and hotly debated -- from Zionism to Bundism to Yiddishism to neo-Hasidism -- through vivid portraits of individuals who actually lived and died by them. And we hear stories that hint at the real lives of innumerable Jews caught in the crossfire of history, impelled by eros as much as by politics, neurosis as much as ideology, fantasy as much as piety.<BR/><BR/> Through the lens of his own family history, then, Roskies takes us through nothing less than an entire century of Jewish life. As this complicated itinerary suggests, the narrative evokes the departure and return narrative that Roskies has written about so convincingly in his scholarly work. And yet what makes this work so compelling is the way it challenges any familiar narrative of Jewish life. Thus the "old world" is hardly a place of blurry nostalgia; the older generations are hardly a pious bunch, at least not in any simple way; and the very notion of what it might mean to be a true or authentic Jew or where or when or how such a person might live is genuinely thrown into question. Early in the book, we hear the lesson learned by the young Roskies that all time was "riven in two: Time Before / Time After." And yet as we move so fluidly across so many borders, both geographical and temporal, it becomes clear that no binary structure can be applied to a history as complex as this. These lessons are important and illuminating from the standpoint of historiography, but what is most important is that we come to understand Jewish history by encountering a rich gallery of characters and by hearing innumerable stories and anecdotes that are tremendously engaging in their own right.<BR/><BR/> Some of the particular highlights include the portrait of Avraham Sutzkever in <BR/>Israel, the scene with the lively debate between the Zionist Leybl Rochman and the <BR/>neo-Hasidic guru Art Green, the scenes in the Sommerville Havurah (cum ashram), and the invented and fanciful scenes, such as the discussion of Roskies's book itself by a coterie of distinguished Yiddish writers and the dramatic exchange between Roskies and his mother, cast as a dialogue between the biblical Rachel and Joseph. These fanciful moments in the text show that Roskies is pushing up against the conventions of the memoir itself, reminding us on the one hand that all stories are to some extent made up and demonstrating on the other how the frame of fiction can heighten our perspective on the real. All in all, this is an outstanding work that opens new horizons for the tradition of Jewish autobiography.

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