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A Nation of Words

Written by Miriam WeinsteinAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Miriam Weinstein


List Price: $16.99


On Sale: August 21, 2012
Pages: 300 | ISBN: 978-1-58642-210-3
Published by : Steerforth Steerforth Press
Yiddish Cover

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About a thousand years ago, European Jews began speaking a language that was quite different from the various tongues and dialects that swirled around them. It included Hebrew, a touch of the Romance and Slavic languages, and a large helping of German. In a world of earthly wandering, this pungent, witty, and infinitely nuanced speech, full of jokes, puns, and ironies, became the linguistic home of the Jews, the bond that held a people together.

Here is the remarkable story of how this humble language took vigorous root in Eastern European shtetls and in the Jewish quarters of cities across Europe; how it achieved a rich literary flowering between the wars in Europe and America; how it was rejected by emancipated Jews; and how it fell victim to the Holocaust. And how, in yet another twist of destiny, Yiddish today is becoming the darling of academia. Yiddish is a history as story, a tale of flesh-and-blood people with manic humor, visionary courage, brilliant causes, and glorious flaws. It will delight everyone who cares about language, literature, and culture.


MY PARENTS LOVED to travel. They were not rich people, but in the years after World War II they would leave our Bronx apartment and head off on vacations, first to Europe, and then little by little to almost every continent. They visited big famous cities and dusty crossroads towns. Often, they would return telling a variant of a familiar tale: "There we were, in this little shop in . . ." (fill in the blank: Dublin, Johannesburg, Tashkent). "I don't know; somehow I got the idea." (From what? A tilt of the head? A look in the eyes?) "So I says to him, 'Vus makhst?'" (what's doing). "And this guy who, two minutes before, wouldn't give us the time of day becomes all of a sudden our buddy, our friend. He invites us home, shows us around the whole neighborhood, a regular landsman" (fellow countryman).
For a thousand years, this was the standard Jewish story. Yiddish was the secret handshake, the golden key. It was the language that defined a world and a people. Yiddish means "Jewish." Its words were, simply, the sound of Jewish life.
Babies were born into rooms full of women crooning in Yiddish; corpses were washed and prepared to the sounds of Yiddish grief. For a people without a country, without a government, without protection of any dependable kind, language became a powerful glue. It connected European Jews to each other even as it separated them from their neighbors - people among whom they may have lived for hundreds of years. It also linked them to their past through their sacred language, Hebrew.
Because it was so easy for words and phrases from the Hebrew prayers they recited every day to slip into their ordinary Yiddish speech, their place in "Jewish time" was confirmed, from the beginning of the world until the coming of the Messiah and the End of Days. It allowed them to live outside Christian or secular history and keep their vision of peoplehood alive. In the meantime, when they wandered in the real, here-and-now world, it was their passport and amulet. It was their strength.
The tale my parents told on a dozen returns is hardly heard anymore. These days, unless your travels are circumscribed - retirement homes, Holocaust museums, Hasidic enclaves of Brooklyn or Jerusalem - you will not hear Yiddish in the shop or the street, the synagogue or the house. That is not to say that a few words of it aren't sprinkled through English, like raisins in rugelach. Politicians have chutzpah, tv personalities kibbitz, Americans of all ethnic backgrounds have learned to slap their hands on their hips and demand, singsong, "So what does that make me, chopped liver?" But as a living language, Yiddish barely qualifies. It is a speech system that is faltering, even on life support. (With one big exception: the ultra-Orthodox. Their astounding fecundity, history's latest surprise, may change the epilogue but does not alter the bulk of the tale.)
So how did it happen? How did a language that cursed and crooned for a thousand years fade in the course of one little lifetime? What could have happened to its self-contained world? (Better a Jew without a beard than a beard without a Jew would be the appropriate Yiddish proverb here.) And why was the tongue itself perhaps einstik, unique, in the history of languages? (Yes, I know that is an enormous claim.)
When my parents were born, in the early years of the twentieth century, something like eight million souls called Yiddish mame loshn, mother tongue. Their world was bursting with Yiddish schools offering competing political philosophies, newspapers on every side of every burning issue, plays that ranged from melodramas like Isaac Zolatorevsky's Money, Love, and Shame to significant dramatic works like Jacob Gordin's Jewish King Lear or Sholem Asch's God of Vengeance. It had journals of every stripe, thousands of book titles in print. Radio broadcasting and an international film industry developed as technologies grew.
By the time my parents died three-quarters of a century later, Yiddish books were being thrown out wholesale in trash cans and Dumpsters. New York's great newspaper the Forverts (Daily Forward), which had outlived competitor after competitor, was reduced to a weekly written by people who, in more commodious times, would never have been caught dead sharing the same page. Not only did my parents' grandchildren not know the Yiddish language, but even the Hebrew they learned in Hebrew school had been systematically cleansed of the Yiddish pronunciation that had been ubiquitous in my parents' youth, and in mine.
But the object of this book is not breast-beating for the good old days of yore, when there was singing every shabes, Sabbath, chicken soup in every pot. The object, as any self-respecting yid, Jew, would know, is to strengthen the golden chain of continuity.
To that end, I have written history-as-story, filling the tale with flesh-and-blood people with obsessive humor, visionary courage, brilliant desperate causes, and glorious flaws. As will immediately be obvious, I am a journalist, not a historian, linguist, or any kind of scholar. I did my research - meeting mavens, experts; working my way through lights-on-timers library stacks - as a yederer, an everyman.
What I soon learned was that no language has been so adored, so despised, so ostentatiously ignored. Aaron Lansky, the book rescuer who invented the midnight Dumpster run, estimates that out of thirty-five thousand different Yiddish titles that have been published, only 0.5 percent have been translated into English. We won't even go into the number of folk tunes, music hall ditties, and poignant poems of labor or love that are known only to the Yiddish-speaking few.
So this is a story that begs to be told. The last book that chronicled the Yiddish language was a four-volume history written in Yiddish during and after World War ii by the brilliant scholar Max Weinreich. Two volumes have been translated into English. They are heavy going. In the 1960s and 1970s Leo Rosten wrote marvelously funny books describing the way that Yiddish was used at the time, but they assumed some Yiddish or Jewish background or inclination.
This book requires nothing more than an open heart and a curious mind. Well, maybe also a certain flexibility with regard to spelling. Standardized Yiddish orthography was not even invented until 1936 and has been adopted, grudgingly, only in the last several years. Then there is the matter of standardized transliteration. (If you don't know what that means, don't worry, you'll learn.) Although I have tried to use it where possible, I have sometimes substituted more familiar versions, like the common rendition of Chanukah instead of the more correct khanike. I have tried to strike a middle ground between foreignness and flavor. Readers will learn how, for a language that has been roundly maligned and famously praised, even spelling proclaims a writer's political, religious, and cultural stance.
For me, this tale qualifies as a miracle. A language is born in shadow with the lowliest of aims - only for women, only for the untutored, only for ordinary, workaday use. Yet that very dailiness and lack of expectation allow it to grow. It expands, sweet and light as a New Year's honey cake, pulses with life for a thousand years. It links its people to their illustrious past. It has the world's best sense of humor, unable to resist the virtuoso joke even in the curse. (May you turn into a blintz, and may your enemy turn into a cat, and may he eat you up and choke on you, so we can be rid of you both.) It gets discovered by a generation of intellectuals and politicos. Time and again the highbrow thinks he will just use Yiddish to lure the uneducated masses to listen to him expound his brilliant ideas. And time and again it is he who does the listening and learning, in thrall to the language and to its folk.
Then, just when this poor no-account tongue goes into creative overdrive, winning a crumb of respect and even hope for a bit of glory, it all disappears. Holocaust, assimilation, executions, displacement, language police, and then, incredibly, stone silence. One brief moment of flame, a pintele yid, a spark of Jewishness, burns and then sputters. A few thousand folk songs, a few hundred ways of parsing the fine points of human behavior - shnuk, shlemiel, shlimazl - and those thirty-five thousand different books.
But even in dying, this most practical of tongues has a job to do: It allows Hebrew, the ancient, holy, pre-Yiddish tongue, to be reborn. Yiddish gives up its life for its parent/child. What could be more Jewish-motherish, more hartsik, caring, than that?
One staple Yiddish Hasidic tale concerns a poor bedraggled beggar who shows up in the snow of a cold Russian night while the family celebrates Chanukah warm and safe within. As the story unfolds, after the mendicant has come and gone, this shnorer turns out to have been, perhaps - it is never entirely clear - the Prophet Elijah, herald of Moshiach, the Messiah. Whatever he is, this ragged pauper, whether tattered or divine, has managed to bring at least the idea of the Beyond to this relentlessly commonplace earth.
The moral? Don't be so fast to dismiss the lowly. You never know who or what they truly are.
Author Q&A

Author Q&A

An Interview with Miriam Weinstein
Author of Yiddish: A Nation of Words
Though you have extensive experience in filmmaking and journalism, this is your first book. How did you choose the topic?
In my line of work, I spend a lot of time trolling for stories. We sometimes joke that, if you see one article about a topic it's a story; if you see two, it's a trend. About five years ago, within one month the New York Times ran two news stories about Yiddish: first about how scholars were homing in on the roots of the language, and second about people rescuing Yiddish books in Vilna.
I had not thought much about Yiddish in a long time, even though it had been part of my childhood in post-World War II New York. Now I noticed how dramatically the situation had changed; the language and its heritage were being taken seriously, and most of the people who had spoken it were gone. My off-the-cuff idea was to write a frothy little book called Oy Vey; Yiddish is Dead. Then, as I did more research, the topic opened up and revealed an extraordinarily rich and resonant tale.
Can you briefly describe your research/writing process?
Early on, I met with several important people in the field who were generous about pointing me in helpful directions. I found a wonderful on-line community of scholars and enthusiasts, and went to Yiddish conferences and festivals. Mostly, though, I worked my way through the Yiddish sections in the Brandeis and Harvard libraries. Because I have almost no formal Jewish education (my childhood storefront Yiddish school tenure did not last very long; my college major was painting) I had a lot of catching up to do. This approach had many benefits; I had few preconceptions and no scholastic allegiances. And as a reporter I have learned not to be afraid to ask really basic questions. I did, however, keep in touch with experts.
In what ways is this book unique among other books about Yiddish that have been written, and why was it a story that you felt needed to be told?
I was amazed at how little has been written about Yiddish. This lack is even part of the story. There are a few scholarly books. The only general audience book is the 30-year-old Joys of Yiddish, which describes Yiddish phrases and includes Yiddish jokes. There is no book that takes on the language as a player in history, that tells the biography of the language.
This story is unique-a language holding a people together, linking it to its past and then giving it a springboard to its future. It is full of strange and wonderful characters. And it lends itself to an appealing style: history leavened with jokes.
The story you tell will obviously be of particular interest to Jewish readers. The promotional copy for your book says, "This book requires no previous knowledge of Yiddish or of Jewish history - just a curious mind and an open heart." In other words, you hope to reach a broad general audience. What are some elements of the history of Yiddish, and your approach to telling it, which make it appealing to a general readership?
This is a story filled with drama. It begins with a people exiled, their spiritual center destroyed. They walk for thousands of miles, through hundreds of years, and manage to maintain and update their core identity. They invent new ways of speech that reflect both their old legacy and their new home. The Yiddish language they develop contains the echoes of their past; it leads them into and out of their theology and ritual, yet it is, in style and outlook, totally down-to-earth.
The Yiddish worldview stems from an awareness of human frailty. Yiddish-speakers are masters at using humor and indirection to sidestep their lack of worldly influence and power. Yiddish shows how to live fully and richly in an alien culture where your belief system and community organization are constantly under siege. It is a brave denial of everyday reality even while reveling in the mundane world.
As to my approach: as much as possible, I recounted history through character and story. The Yiddish language is my central player; I treated this as biography. I also made a point of starting from zero, as if the reader knew absolutely nothing about Jews. I think it's a helpful strategy, even for people with some knowledge or background, because I cover a lot of time and territory.
Is the history of Yiddish inherently intertwined with Jewish history and Jewish culture? If so, why do you think this aspect has been talked about so little?
As Aaron Lansky, the MacArthur genius award recipient and Yiddish book rescuer says, you can't understand the past thousand years of Jewish history without knowing Yiddish. However, because it is both the product and expression of diaspora Jewish life, Jews have felt deeply ambivalent about the language. Although it elicits great sentiment, it is often denigrated. It is not Holy Hebrew; it is only the language of the everyday, of women, of home. Yiddish is a bit like the Jews themselves, removed from the formal centers of power. It is only as Jews have advanced in status and security that they have been able to begin to appreciate this language that has been critical to their history.
Who is your favorite person that you discovered while you were doing the research for this book and why?
Actually, I have two favorites. Emmanuel Ringelblum was a linguist and historian who worked in a Jewish social service agency in inter-war Poland. Although he could have left when World War II broke out, he chose to remain. In the Warsaw Ghetto, he formed an underground organization that chronicled events using the highest possible journalistic standards. This group saw Yiddish as being essential to its tasks of maintaining community identity and bearing witness.
Abraham Sutzkever was a Yiddish poet who began writing poems about nature and love in early 20th century Poland. Swept up in the nightmare of the Second World War, he went on to write about the murder of his mother and infant daughter, and become a forest partisan. Late in the war, when the Soviets realized his propaganda value, they sent a special plane to carry him to Moscow for a hero's welcome. Then it was back to Vilna, where he had to rescue, for a second time, centuries' worth of Yiddish literary, artistic, and religious treasures that were about to be destroyed. After the war he emigrated to Israel where he founded a Yiddish literary magazine that he ran for four decades. Throughout, he wrote Yiddish poems of haunting beauty.
What was the most intriguing fact that you discovered in researching this book, and why?
It is estimated that only one half of one percent of all Yiddish books have been translated into English. This gives some hint of the extraordinary richness of this language and culture, and helps us understand that only the tiniest fraction is known to a wider audience.
Was Yiddish a part of your growing-up experience? What was your attitude toward it then and how, if at all, does it differ now?
When I was growing up, Yiddish was wallpaper. Virtually all the grandparent-age people spoke it (some did not speak English), and most parents were fluent in Yiddish. But they were also deeply ambivalent. My parents were atypical; they were part of the three or four percent of American Jewish families who sent their children, at least briefly, to a store-front after-school Yiddish program. Although I was proud of being able to read my grandfather's Yiddish newspaper and enjoyed the music on the Yiddish radio station, I remember it being an easy target for caricature. A kid could always get a laugh by affecting a Yiddish accent.
As I grew up, Yiddish faded from my life. I am embarrassed to admit that when it began to look like this might be a good book topic for me, my first response was disappointment. With all the different things I had done, writing about Yiddish felt like a comedown. Now that I have learned more about it, I am in awe of the achievement of Yiddish. I feel sad about what was lost, but proud of what did, or does, exist. I also feel it is critical for Jews to reclaim this overlooked part of their history.
One of my favorite quotes in the book is from a man who was asked why he chose to learn a dying language: "'Here,' we will say, handing our children a photograph, 'you never knew her, but she was beautiful, and we loved her very much.'"
What is the significance of the subtitle of the book, "A Nation of Words"?
Yiddish was a language with a purpose. For a people without a country, it took the place of national institutions. Words had to fill in where courts, governments, armies, and universities did not exist. Yiddish was the secret handshake, the golden key that kept Jews linked to each other and their traditions while keeping them separate from their neighbors. It was the expression of an alternate reality, allowing Jews to live in a country of their own minds.
Have you begun researching a topic for a new book and are you willing to talk about it at this stage?
I have returned to a novel I started before writing this book. My research for a new nonfiction topic is at a very early stage.



“[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

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