Synopses & Reviews
Yiddish—an oft-considered "gutter" language—is an unlikely survivor of the ages, much like the Jews themselves. Its survival has been an incredible journey, especially considering how often Jews have tried to kill it themselves. Underlying Neal Karlen's unique, brashly entertaining, yet thoroughly researched telling of the language's story is the notion that Yiddish is a mirror of Jewish history, thought, and practice—for better and worse.
Karlen charts the beginning of Yiddish as a minor dialect in medieval Europe that helped peasant Jews live safely apart from the marauders of the First Crusades. Incorporating a large measure of antique German dialects, Yiddish also included little scraps of French, Italian, ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, the Slavic and Romance languages, and a dozen other tongues native to the places where Jews were briefly given shelter. One may speak a dozen languages, all of them Yiddish.
By 1939, Yiddish flourished as the lingua franca of 13 million Jews. After the Holocaust, whatever remained of Yiddish, its worldview and vibrant culture, was almost stamped out—by Jews themselves. Yiddish was an old-world embarrassment for Americans anxious to assimilate. In Israel, young, proud Zionists suppressed Yiddish as the symbol of the weak and frightened ghetto-bound Jew—and invented modern Hebrew.
Today, a new generation has zealously sought to explore the language and to embrace its soul. This renaissance has spread to millions of non-Jews who now know the subtle difference between a shlemiel and a shlimazel; hundreds of Yiddish words dot the most recent editions of the Oxford English Dictionary.
The Story of Yiddish is a delightful tale of a people, their place in the world, and the fascinating language that held them together.
Yiddish is as unlikely a survivor of the ages as the Jews themselves––unlikelier, actually, considering how many Jews have also tried to kill the oft–considered "gutter" language. That Yiddish is a mirror of Jewish history, thought, and practice––for better and worse––underlies Neal Karlen's narrative, as he charts Yiddish from its beginnings as a minor dialect in the 11th century France and Italy, to the time before World War II when 13 million spoke the language; and on to unlikely resuscitation and electrifying 21st century Renaissance.
THE STORY OF YIDDISH will be told chronologically. Scholars usually date Yiddish from the 11th century, when modern linguists believed the language began as a German dialect spoken by newly arrived Jewish immigrants from France and Northern Italy living along the Rhine. Over time, it became an actual language incorporating elements of Hebrew, Aramaic, and the Slavic and Romance languages. As the story proceeds through the centuries, Karlen highlights the intertwining fates of Judaism and Yiddish. The language would reach literary heights in the 19th century and 20th centuries. Yet in the middle of the 20th century, while the language and culture was at its zenith, Yiddish faced two of its gravest enemies––the genocidal Nazis and the early, proud Zionists who founded Israel in the wake of the Holocaust and decided that with a new Jewish homeland, there would also have to new kind of Jew, speaking a different kind of language. It wasn't until roughly a decade ago that a new generation has begun to work zealously to recapture Yiddish before it disappears.
About the Author
Neal Karlen is a veteran freelance writer whose work now most often appears in New York Times. He was also a staff scribe at Newsweek (which was cool) and a contributing Editor at Rolling Stone (which, surprisingly, was not.) The author of Babes in Toyland: The Making and Selling of a Rock and Roll Band, he is no stranger to traveling with his subjects for years on end in order to write about them. Mr. Karlen lives in his hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, but his spirit resides in St. Paul.