The Joys of Yiddish
Bubkes, gelt, meshugenehs: the heritage of one of the world's most expressive languages.

Reviewed by Jeremy Dauber
Sunday, December 25, 2005


Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods

By Michael Wex

St. Martin's. 303 pp. $24.95


The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation

By Paul Kriwaczek

Knopf. 357 pp. $27.50


Great Tales from the Treasury of Yiddish Folk Literature

Translated and compiled by Joachim Neugroschel

Overlook Duckworth. 429 pp. $35

Has any language been celebrated, mourned, execrated and valorized quite so much as Yiddish? Over its thousand-year history, the language that was at one time or another the vernacular of most of European Jewry has constantly stepped forward to serve as more than the sum of its German, Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic parts. It was a thieves' cant to 17th-century Germans; a corrupt jargon abandoned by Enlightenment-minded Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries; a standard to rally round for many 20th-century Jewish nationalists and socialists; a shameful reminder of Diaspora passivity for some after the Holocaust and a newly sacred reminder of the murdered millions for others; and, let us not forget, a half-forgotten repository of curses, health complaints and punch lines for plenty of American stand-up comedians, both amateurs and professionals. It's hardly surprising, as a result, to find that the word "Yiddish," in Yiddish, also means "Jewish." To understand this language and its history is, in some significant part, to understand its speakers.

Certainly this is the argument posed by Michael Wex's Born to Kvetch , one of the latest entries in a deluge of recent books on Yiddish that has ranged from detailed studies of East European Jewish culture to a Yiddish translation of Winnie the Pooh . Wex straddles both the high and low end of that spectrum in a work that manages to be simultaneously entertaining and erudite. Wex explains Yiddish culture by unraveling, in great detail, the words and phrases used by Yiddish speakers in the various areas of their lives. In doing so, he draws deeply on the complex traditional and religious roots of Jewish culture while engaging in what can only be called national psychobiography.

The results are a joy to behold. But with respect to the joys of Yiddish, Wex's book is so far from Leo Rosten's famous work of the same title -- an alphabetical lexicon of Yiddish and Yiddish-English words and phrases that's the clear ancestor of Born to Kvetch -- that you'd have to use the Yiddish phrase lehavdl (to distinguish between two things you're comparing) or perhaps even lehavdl be'elef havdoles (to make that distinction a thousand times over). If you're unsure which one to use, I refer you to pages 62 and 63 of Wex's book; as you read, you'll learn, among many other treasures, such useful information as the real reason a glass is broken at Jewish weddings and some particularly juicy euphemisms for naughty body parts that haven't entered the English lexicon.

This isn't to say the book is perfect; Wex, according to his jacket copy, is a performer of stand-up, and there are moments throughout the book where his hyperkinetic verbalizing -- or, as Lenny Bruce might have called it, his good old-fashioned shpritzing -- gets exhausting. And sure, sometimes he falls back on Jewish stereotypes a little too much and Jewish history a little too little, sacrificing nuance and gravity for mood and tone, but when the results are this good, who can hold it against him?

Wex's book, perhaps ironically, better describes Yiddish civilization than the book that actually bears that title. Paul Kriwaczek's history admirably hopes to provide a view of that society that doesn't focus on its tragic destruction. The problem is that Yiddish Civilization is, to put it mildly, a little odd. In his attempt to tell the story of Yiddish-speaking Europe, Kriwaczek gives extremely short shrift to almost the entire century and a half preceding the Holocaust; in what is, essentially, a 300-page book, he devotes 37 pages to East European and American Yiddish life in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is almost exactly the same space he gives to the period from the Roman Empire to the beginning of Islam, around four centuries before Yiddish first developed. Kriwaczek, a London-based journalist, doesn't reach that period until page 110 or so. It's curious that a book called Yiddish Civilization glosses over one of that civilization's major eras to discuss, at length, a period before it actually began.

Perhaps more alarming, though, is Kriwaczek's logic for his shifting emphasis: He describes the late 19th and early 20th centuries as "the sad closing decades of a backward-looking, impoverished and brutalised Yiddish world" -- inspired, it seems, by the classic photographs of Roman Vishniac. But in presenting his model of a pre-Holocaust East European Jewish life that was already at death's door, Kriwaczek paints as narrow a picture of that life as do the Holocaust-obsessed writers he attacks. What about the cultural explosion of Yiddish newspapers, of journals of literature and of opinion, and of poetry circles in the major East European capitals in the interwar period? Yiddish Civilization includes almost nothing, for example, on the entire history of the Yiddish theater -- an extraordinarily vibrant cultural institution in Yiddish life if there ever was one. Instead, Kriwaczek's idiosyncratic choices and digressions throughout the book illustrate his tendency to include anything and everything he feels is interesting throughout the history of Yiddish-speaking Jewish Europe -- that is to say, most of the history of Jewish Europe. Yiddish Civilization is not about Yiddish civilization -- at least as most of us would normally define the term. Caveat lector .

Joachim Neugroschel's anthology of Yiddish folklore should also bear its own warning label, but this one might read: "Caution: Readers May Be Exposed to High Modernism Posing as Folk Art." Folklore is -- as Neugroschel himself writes in his brief introduction to Radiant Days, Haunted Nights -- an extremely wide and nebulous category, and Yiddish writers over the centuries have taken Jewish stories of demons, dybbuks , princes and holy men and transformed them according to their own aesthetic sensibilities and polemical purposes. Neugroschel is one of Yiddish literature's most indefatigable translators, having published four previous significant anthologies of his own translations. Here, as in many of his other books, he presents a dizzying array of reworked literary pieces cheek by jowl with orally collected folktales: adaptations of Arthurian sagas, tales of the town of fools known as Chelm and even a pseudo-scientific analysis of Jonah's whale. Many are by Yiddish literature's modern masters, and all make for absorbing reading.

But some of Neugroschel's less pleasant habits are on display as well. There is the fairly scanty introductory material, often for works of literature from a culture that needs substantial explication for the modern American reader. Also, Neugroschel is unwilling to include material he has translated elsewhere or, indeed, to retranslate material already translated by others. While, admirably, this does yield a volume of all-new material, it also often means that the most interesting literary works of Yiddish folklore and neo-folklore, like S. Ansky's The Dybbuk , are nowhere to be found -- except, that is, in another of Neugroschel's anthologies. The result, to the knowledgeable reader, feels something like an anthology of gingerbread-house-related stories that does not mention Hansel and Gretel. Still, these works -- even standing alone -- are absorbing enough, alerting us to the breadth and depth of the Yiddish imagination.

In the end, all three authors present us with a Yiddish culture of their own making and definition, for better or for worse. In doing so, they seem to follow in a long line of Yiddish speakers, readers, lovers and haters. An old Yiddish saying has it that one doesn't speak Yiddish, it speaks itself; these books are a great way to hear what it has to say.

Jeremy Dauber is the Atran Assistant Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture at Columbia University.

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