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On the Bookshelf

Yiddish is far from dead. It’s undead, and it haunts everything from Harvey Pekar’s comics to the vampire literature of the early 20th century.

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Blood Will Tell: Vampires as Political Metaphors Before World War I

Yiddish isn’t dead; if anything, it’s undead. Think about it: Is there anything more unkillable, vaguely erotic, ridiculous, and toothy than the language of the Ashkenazim? In fact, a book published this spring—Sara Libby Robinson’s Blood Will Tell: Vampires as Political Metaphors Before World War I (Academic Studies, March)—argues that Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the single most recognizable undead gentleman in history, was, as Allan Nadler phrases it, a reflection of “widespread anxieties about the dangers posed by the flood (and the blood) of Yiddish-speaking immigrants to Great Britain.”

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Colloquial Yiddish

Like Dracula, Yiddish may be a little pale (and allergic to crucifixes), but it’s not going anywhere: Witness Lily Kahn’s Colloquial Yiddish (Routledge, August). “Colloquial,” mind you, meaning: everyday, casual, informal, the kind of Yiddish you speak with your friends when you’re just hanging out at the mall. The book, by a University College London Ph.D. and language instructor, can be purchased with audio accompaniment on CD (talk about something that’s dead) or, more sensibly for the century we live in, as an MP3 download.

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Not in the Same Breath

This spring also saw what seems to have been the first volume of Yiddish poetry to have been funded on Kickstarter: Zackary Sholem Berger’s bilingual זאָג כאָטש להבֿדיל /Not in the Same Breath (Yiddish House, May), a varied, clever collection that works equally well for those poor souls who speak only English as it does for yidish-reders. Berger, whose previous projects include translations of The Cat in the Hat and Curious George into Yiddish, knows a thing or two about breath: In his other, equally impressive career, as a doctor and medical researcher at Johns Hopkins, one of his published articles concerns the “Prevalence of workplace exacerbation of asthma symptoms in an urban working population of asthmatics.”

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How Strange the Change: Language, Temporality, and Narrative Form in Peripheral Modernisms

Even the Yiddish literary classics—a wonderful selection of which, edited by Ken Frieden, is now available as a paperback: Classic Yiddish Stories of S. Y. Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz (Syracuse, September)—remain vigorous and open to new readings. Marc Caplan’s How Strange the Change: Language, Temporality, and Narrative Form in Peripheral Modernisms (Stanford, September), for instance, demonstrates how European Yiddish literary texts by authors including Yisroel Aksenfeld, Isaac Meyer Dik, and Y. Y. Linetski resonate with and complement African English and French ones by the likes of Amos Tutuola, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, Camara Laye, and Ahmadou Karouma. The comparison isn’t random: All these literatures were written by people with rich oral storytelling traditions who were subject to the whims of imperial regimes.

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Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular and the New Land

That even the most familiar brands of Yiddish—American, leftist, World of Our Fathers-ish—can be newly animated is the message of Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle’s Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular and the New Land (Abrams, September), which renders chestnuts of Yiddish cultural history—Paul Robeson’s hotel room encounter with Itzik Feffer in Soviet Moscow; the controversy regarding Sholem Asch’s novels about Christ—in underground comix form. Among the book’s other contents are gorgeous comix-style portraits of Yiddish writers by Dan Archer and the full text, with occasional illustrations, of “The Essence: A Yiddish Theater Dim Sum.” It says something—it’s not clear what—that Pekar’s last project was a love letter to his mother tongue.

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Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir

Yiddishkeit (vaguely: Jewishness) comes in a variety of forms, not just the socialist/Communist ones that Buhle (if not Pekar) heavily favors. An example of how Yiddish functioned in one American childhood appears in Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir (Biblioasis, September), by the novelist, screenwriter, and raconteur Bruce Jay Friedman. “My father hit me just once,” Friedman recalls, “which is not a bad score for a Depression boy. The blow was sudden, unexpected. It knocked me halfway across the street. I’d used a slang word, putz, though I had no idea it meant penis.”

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The Independent Orders of B'nai B'rith and True Sisters: Pioneers of a New Jewish Identity, 1843-1914

There is a danger, of course, of overemphasizing Yiddish to the exclusion of other languages spoken by Jewish communities; German-speaking Jews, for one example, tend not to be sufficiently recognized for their lasting contributions to American Jewish life. Attending to one of their achievements, Cornelia Wilhelm’s The Independent Orders of B’nai B’rith and True Sisters: Pioneers of a New Jewish Identity, 1843-1914 (Wayne State, July) examines how a German-Jewish fraternity founded in the middle of the 19th century anticipated and addressed many of the challenges that modern Jews have faced since then.

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Grammar of the Dialects of the Vernacular Syriac

Or, for another case of a neglected language, take the dialect of the Jews of Northwest Persia, which “bears a close resemblance to that of the Urmi Syrians,” according to Arthur John Maclean’s 1895 handbook, now available as a print-on-demand title from Cambridge University Press (or, more sensibly, free from Google Books), called Grammar of the Dialects of the Vernacular Syriac (Cambridge, June). To illustrate the similarity, Maclean excerpts an Odessan’s translation of a couple of the Psalms into the Judeo-Azerbaijani vernacular. Where’s the indie comix anthology about that?

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Avram Davis says:

The general theme of this article seems to point out the quaintness of this ‘undead’ language and how (somehow) words and ideas that originate in it still (somehow) survive in todays world.
But for all of his tongue-in-cheek wit, what Mr. Lambert seems to have overlooked is that Yiddish as a spoken home language is doubling its numbers every 15 years while the number of English speaking, liberal American Jews is rapidly shrinking. If the demographics hold up, in thirty years native Yiddish speaking Americans will greatly outnumber Jewish kids brought up in English. Indeed, I am speaking primarily Yiddish to my three year old and infant son.

Douglas Wilson says:

I’m surprised you didn’t mention Mad Comics, even before it became Mad Magazine in the 50s. It was crawling with Yiddishisms. Little goyishe boys from the Ozarks had no idea they were Jewish and thought that “furshlugginer” was just some crazy invented word by those wild city fellers that made Mad so funny. That was good, because there was just enough anti-Semitism still floating around back then that awareness of the source might have hurt circulation somewhat. So in that (rare) case, ignorance mitigated bigotry. It’s nice that instead of that there was laughter. Thanks, Mad, and Harvey Kurtzman.

amol hob ikh gehert a vitz fun Bahevisn- as Yiddish iz nokh vayt funm toyt,zi is nor zeyer krank.(Once I heard a remark fromBashevis Singer tha Yiddish isn’y dead yet, it’s, however, very sick.) He also remarked that as long as there are Ph.d dissertations to write Yiddish will somehow survive
ikh frey zikh zeyer az mir velen zehn a banayung fun Yiddish.
(I am happy that we are seeing a renewal of Yiddish).

If one looks at the BIG BOOK OF JEWISH HUMOR that I co-edited you will see the sense of continuity that we have with our Eastern European origins.

I want to second Avram Davis – all 10 of my Chasidic brother’s children (keneinehora) speak Yiddish as mama loshen, just as we did growing up; and the same is true for his 25 + grandchildren (all in North America). Yiddish is the language of daily communication in their communities, which are thriving and growing.

If all continues on this trajectory, Yiddish will continue to be a thriving language and culture (with many Yiddish newspapers among the Chasidic communities).

Moshe says:

In reply to some of the above comments: While I have nothing against the Chasidim and their use of Yiddish, this hardly equates with keeping Yidishkayt alive. The culture of Yidishkayt is quite distant from the Satmar or the Lubovich shul or home. How many Chasidic homes have a single book by Abramovitsh (pen name: Mendele Mokher Sefarim); Sholem Aleichem or I.L. Peretz? In fact, for most of the Chasidim, merely reading this authors is forbidden! Paul Robeson’s (who sang beautifully in Yiddish) relationship with the Jewish Left, Itsik Feffer? Just talking about this would get you cold looks and a silent retreat, if not worse.

Hershl says:

It is true that the majority of current Yiddish speakers don’t read secular Yiddish literature.

So what.

Neither do most secular English-speaking Jews even in translation.

I second Avram Davis.

Yiddish is so far from dead that it isn’t funny.

However, since most of us secular Jews have little contact with these thriving orthodox communities we would never have any idea of what’s going on with them.

The last laugh will be on us not them.

Zol zayn mit glik!!

Sharon B. says:

Wish I had grown up with Yiddish… I grew up with hebrew, arabic & french… coming from Morocco in the early 1950′s

Eliraz says:

There’s one issue that is being skirted here. Yiddish as a secular language is not truly being “revived.” Interest in it is growing, yes, but that is manifested in books being written about the Yiddish secular language, and not in Yiddish itself. So, while I don’t think Yiddish is dying, i do think there’s a false optimism at work here. It’s clear that the next generation won’t forget that Yiddish at one time was a vibrant language of immigrants and contributed to American vernacular – but they won’t know how to speak it. The Haredi community is something else entirely, because, by choice, they do not mix with the general population. It’s not by chance that there are many who are astounded when they find out that there are hundreds of thousands of Haredim across the world who speak Yiddish as their first language. Not by chance, because this population segregates itself. There won’t be interesting books written in one hundred years about what Haredi Yiddish has contributed to American culture, because it has contributed nothing. This is not a slam; it’s just to say that the Yiddish most of us think of when we read this article really is almost gone, and no matter how many PhDs are written about it, it’ll never again be more than a curiosity.

Hi Eliraz! My book’s in Yiddish. You should buy it (and all the others mentioned above too).

Stanley Shimke Levine says:

Why do some Jews desperately seek any rationale to dismiss Yiddish? (Ideology? Self-hatred? Shame? In any event it is not a new phenomenon.) They again come to expression in some of the above comments. After claiming (I heard this 40 years ago) that NO ONE speaks Yiddish any more – obviously not true as people are still spkg the lgg today – now some above dismiss the unanswerable demographics by saying “But Hassidim don’t count.” No other culture I know of makes such an effort to put itself down as do we Jews. Have you ever heard a Frenchman diminishing the vigor of French because the peasants of Normandy do not read Racine? or Americans saying we should lower the number of Americans by excluding evangelicals – who are as far from American pop or literary culture as the Hassidim may be from Bashevis Singer or Di grine kuzine. A language is a language. Whether or not you like Yiddish-speaking Hassidim, or even know them, changes nothing: there are not two languages, a secular one that is dying and a religious one that is thriving. Yiddish is one language, like any human language capable of expressing the whole range of human thought and emotion from the most pious to the most shockingly pornographic, from secular academic philosophy to learned Talmudic commentary. Most secular Yiddish authors, seen above as “something else entirely,” nonetheless grew up in Hassidic or strictly religious Yiddish-speaking families (and vice-versa, many children of secular Jews are today studying in the most traditional Yeshivas). Life is not made to fit a fore-ordained schema; it is freely flowing back and forth – and so is language.

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On the Bookshelf

Yiddish is far from dead. It’s undead, and it haunts everything from Harvey Pekar’s comics to the vampire literature of the early 20th century.

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