Byline: CARLIN ROMANO
In his precise, already canonical The Meaning of Yiddish (University of California Press, 1990), Israeli-American scholar Benjamin Harshav recalled how Max Weinreich (1894-1969), author of the magisterial four-volume History of the Yiddish Language, noted that the beloved mame-loshn ("mama tongue") of Ashkenazic Jews at first possessed "few names for flowers but three words for 'question': frage (derived from German), kashe (from Aramaic) and shayle (from Hebrew)."
That's hardly chopped liver for a language and culture whose arc purportedly curves from initial respect for biblical authority to skepticism about absolutely everything. No wonder that while we wait with bated breath for a tome entitled The Joys of Ladino, the flow of rest-lessly inquisitive books on Yiddish -- incisive studies such as David G. Roskies's A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling (Harvard University Press, 1995), or labors of love such as Miriam Weinstein's Yiddish: A Nation of Words (Steerforth Press, 2001) -- continues.
Jewish and American fascination with Yiddish mixes nostalgia and delight, ambition and appetite for irreverence, critical insistence and deference to ironic wit. Twentieth-century Jewish-American comics and Hollywood types infiltrated Yiddishisms from "klutz" to "yenta" into "American," and Leo C. Rosten, in his Joys of Yiddish (McGraw-Hill, 1968) and Joys of Yinglish (McGraw-Hill, 1989), documented the invasion while bridging the world of popular culture and academe. (Anyone remember that he taught at Yale and Berkeley and boasted a University of Chicago Ph.D.?)
Who couldn't love a language Weinstein credits with "the world's best sense of humor," a wisdom tradition that teaches, "When you go to a restaurant, choose a table near the waiter," or, more somberly, "When you add to the truth, you subtract from it"?
The pleasure taken in Yiddish's survival, in its occasional odd surfacings in American life -- witness Colin Powell's pride a couple years back in his adolescently acquired facility -- draws on layered ore: its contribution to European letters in masters like Solomon Jacob Abramovich, Sholem Aleichem, and I.L. Peretz; its force as a reliquary of faded Jewish life; its magic as a resource for aphorism. Harshav's description of Yiddish as "a fusion of lower-class attitudes with the pride and aspirations of a fallen aristocracy of the mind" suggests a snug fit with America's arc as well.
As new studies follow old ones, attention to the history of Yiddish remains telescoped more toward its end than its beginning. Formed around AD 1000 as a German dialect that took on Slavic elements when European Jews moved eastward, it issues into the first Yiddish newspaper only in 1862. The move of Jewish writers to Yiddish, exemplified by Aleichem's turn to it in 1881, allied Yiddish with a sense of reform and enlightenment in Jewish life, just as the Holocaust persuaded many to regard it as moribund.
Yiddish and its boosters, however, have traditionally refused to say kaddish. Others wanted to declare the language safely honored and buried when the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978. Singer, however, who delivered his acceptance speech in Yiddish, observed that it had been dying as long as he'd been alive. The 1980 founding of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., like the many anthologies of translated Yiddish literature published in the past decade, weigh against a death watch.
Two new books, however, speak volumes about different approaches to celebrating the subject. Yiddish Civilization, by Paul Kriwaczek (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), is a solid, well-meaning cavalcade of there to here, festooned with memoir. A longtime BBC producer turned author, Kriwaczek rarely breaks a smile. Instead, he appears to have been mesmerized by a fundamental fact: "Yiddish" simply means "Jewish" in Yiddish, which is why, in the world of our immigrant fathers and mothers, they often referred to "talking in Jewish." That linguistic fact could tempt an author writing a book titled Yiddish Civilization to instead write a study of Jewish civilization, which proves to be Kriwaczek's misstep.
Kriwaczek advises us that "Yiddish-speaking Jews were no mere religious or linguistic minority but formed one of Europe's nations, ultimately more populous than many others. ... The Yiddish people must be counted among the founder nations of Europe." He consequently rejects reducing Yiddish history to "a long saga of constant pogroms, oppressive laws invoked by civil authorities, anti-Jewish edicts by the Church, massacres, expulsions, tortures, and burnings at the stake." Instead, the author favors "the less frequented but happier and perhaps more important pathways: those that celebrate the success and even occasional splendor of the Yiddish civilization, its contribution to Europe's economy, society, religion, and intellectual progress."
The commitment makes Yiddish Civilization a dutiful, wide-ranging, yet ultimately inert chronicle as it meanders from the Jews of ancient Rome (part of Yiddish history only in the most extravagant sense) to "frontier towns like Regensburg," where "there first came into being the mixed Jewish-Germanic-Slavic language and culture that underlies the Yiddish civilization," to the remnants of Yiddish life in London and the United States today.
Sample typical Kriwaczek observations: "But as times change, so do fashions and values. What our parents found an embarrassment may be a source of pride to us, what we ourselves deplore our children often praise." Or, "The use of Yiddish words now seems to be considered rather hip, even among goyim, even in BBC news broadcasts." The tone is less Yiddish than British, more quaint than wry.
In contrast, Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods (St. Martin's Press, 2005), by Michael Wex, among the finest living translators of Yiddish literature and a humorist to boot, is, well, a hoot. If you can stop laughing long enough to finish it, Wex distills enough idiosyncratic insight about Yiddish to make any true admirer of its uniqueness kvell.
Whereas Kriwaczek is the kind of author who writes "dragging," then includes "shlepping" in parentheses, Wex reminds you of the kid in grade school who would hold two fingers up behind your head -- a compulsive joker. Kriwaczek is earnest, Wex inspired when he gets beyond schoolyard schtick.
Wex's overarching frame is that "the Bible and the Talmud are to Yiddish what plantations are to the blues." Eschewing century-by-century plodding, he zooms in on the logic of Yiddish, centering on its perfection as a tool of kvetching, or complaint. A typical Wex riff: "If the Stones's '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' had been written in Yiddish, it would have been called '(I Love to Keep Telling You That I Can't Get No) Satisfaction (Because Telling You That I'm Not Satisfied Is All That Can Satisfy Me).'"
Consider it parenthetical wit.
"Like so much of Jewish culture," Wex argues, droll and probing at the same time, "kvetching has its roots in the Bible, which devotes a great deal of time to the nonstop grumbling of the Israelites, who find fault with everything under the sun." If Yiddish is, in Wex's phrase, "the national language of nowhere," one explanation is that "Judaism is defined by exile, and exile without complaint is tourism, not deportation." The will to kvetch similarly derives from the peculiar Jewish obligation to perform the 613 mitzvahs, or commandments, which Wex breaks down into 248 "thou shalts" and 365 "thou shalt nots."
It's the latter that truly annoy the so-called chosen people. "The Jews," Wex quips, "have been chosen not to: not to have that BLT; not to sit on Santa's knee; not to catch the Saturday matinee or blend in with the people around them."
Born to Kvetch continues in that spirit, capsulizing aspects of Jewish thought ("The Talmud is nothing less than Yiddish in utero") and the subversive origins of its target tongue: "The whole point behind Yiddish, its whole raison d'etre, is the need or desire to talk yidish, as distinct from goyish, Jewish instead of gentile. ... Yiddish started out as German for blasphemers, as a German in which you could deny Christ without getting yourself killed any more often than necessary."
Current scholars of Yiddish often complain, ruefully, that the language now survives (outside Hasidic neighborhoods and Jewish nursing homes) mainly in the university, a "mere" subject of study rather than as the living argot of a community.
To which an appreciator of academe might reply, "If it's good enough for Plato and Aristotle, for Plautus and Cicero, it's nothing to complain about for Abramovich, Aleichem, and Peretz." In the modern world, Weinreich's well-known saw, "A language is a dialect with an army and navy," might be usefully adjusted to, "A language is a dialect with an academic department devoted to it."
In short, mere, schmear. But Wex's uncanny amalgam of Yiddish tone and analytical irony in street-smart American bolsters a further point: A receding language and its cultural ethos can be kept alive, in translation, by boldly re-creating its spirit in other words. To indulge a bit of vernacular, az me ken nit ariber, gait men arunter ("If you can't go over, go under.").
Carlin Romano, critic at large of The Chronicle and literary critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.