Speaking Mameloshn

YIDDISH: A Nation of Words, by Miriam Weinstein. Steerforth, 303 pp., $26.

THE NEW JOYS OF YIDDISH, by Leo Rosten. Revised by Lawrence Bush. Crown, 458 pp., $35.

Newsday, October 22, 2001

IN THE PREFACE to “The Joys of Yiddish,” Leo Rosten wrote, “Never in history has Yiddish been so influential – among gentiles. (Among Jews, alas, the tongue is running dry.)” Rosten’s assessment is as apt now as it was back in 1968. Kentuckians and Korean-Americans alike build their English vocabularies by watching “Seinfeld” and “The Nanny” in syndication, young Germans flock to festivals of Yiddish song, and one chain of cafes is touting a new species of baked goods called a squagel. I can’t be the only New Yorker who has as much use for a square bagel as for a four-cornered bicycle wheel.

Meanwhile, Yiddish is still running dry among those who can claim it as their own. These days, two young Ashkenazic Jews would be more likely to have Hebrew, English or Russian in common than they would Yiddish. The passing of generations who spoke mameloshn at home outpaces the earnest efforts of Jews, many of whom were conceived after Rosten’s lexicon was, who’ve taken up Yiddish because they want to sing klezmer tunes, reinvigorate moribund left-wing movements, introduce neglected women poets to modern readers, or simply because they don’t want to see the language die.

Yiddish has been dealt blows from the internal and external pressures of assimilation in America, Soviet anti-Semitism and the hostility of Israelis and other Zionists, but most devastating was the Holocaust, which wiped out half of the world’s 11 million Yiddish speakers. Nevertheless, though greatly diminished, Yiddish postpones its demise like an aging operatic diva privy to the secret of circular breathing. Just when you are setting out to review two books about an all-but-dead language, you see a fresh-faced Hasid on the F train perusing a Yiddish newspaper.

There is undoubtedly a Yiddish aphorism befitting the ironic happenstance reported in the previous sentence, and if I were Miriam Weinstein, I would use it. Her “Yiddish: A Nation of Words” is peppered with such phrases, which she uses as punctuation at the end of a paragraph: A peeled egg doesn’t leap into the mouth by itself, for example. Or: If everyone pulled in one direction, the world would keel over. They are vivid and pithy, a testament both to the vibrancy of Yiddish and to Weinstein’s deep affection for the language that surrounded her growing up in the postwar Bronx.

“For a subject that has been so close to so many people’s hearts,” Weinstein observes, “the number of books on the language itself is quite small; most are jokey-cozy or scholarly.” “Yiddish: A Nation of Words,” which purports to be the first popular history of Yiddish, falls more in the former category, and less jokey than cozy at that. Rather than delving into the complexities of linguistics, Weinstein explains that “Yiddish simmered slowly, like cholent” and elsewhere that its expansion was “sweet and light as a New Year’s honey cake.” As she then recounts, the development of Yiddish from medieval Judeo-German jargon into a language of woman’s prayer, Talmudic disputation, political protest and secular literature wasn’t exactly sweet or light. For all of its grandmotherly charms, Yiddish was sustained by centuries of isolation and oppression.

This well-meaning book, which focuses on the rise and fall of Yiddish culture in the 19th and 20th centuries, is full of half-baked heymish similes. Instead of explicating for the post-ideological 21st century reader the confusing array of late 19th century radical movements that agitated for their causes in Yiddish, Weinstein offers up another saw: “Every man has his own mishegas.” And she forgoes chronology and other historical detail for anecdotal sketches of figures from Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer to bundist Esther Frumkin, who joined the Yevsektsia, the Jewish section of the Soviet Communist Party, and was shipped to Siberia in 1938. Those interested in the fate of Yiddish in the Soviet Union would do better to check out Joshua Rubinstein’s introduction to “Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee,” out earlier this year from Yale University Press.

Most disappointing, however, is that a book about a language as versatile and arch as Yiddish would be so sallow and tone-deaf. Weinstein’s frequent use of the first-person plural and culinary metaphors establishes a folksy vibe, but casual can come off as flippant, as in her reference to Jews and Germans as “siblings from hell.” Weinstein’s verbose imprecision (“The fact that Jews have written a great variety of Jewish languages using the very same letters across continents and millennia is tremendously important”) makes her seem uninformed and makes the reader yearn for a writer with a strong voice, a sharp wit and a knack for le mot juste.

Which brings us back to the late Leo Rosten, whose tome of popular lexicography has just been revised and reissued. His posthumous collaborators are R.O. Blechman, whose skittish line drawings make a fitting accompaniment to the definitions, and Lawrence Bush, a Reconstructionist rabbi whose redactions and glosses are meant to usher Rosten into the new millennium. No new entries have been added, but there are hundreds of additional spellings, most of them following the transliteration standard endorsed by YIVO, the Yiddish research institution founded in Vilna and now based in New York.

While this is a responsible gesture, it is not always a useful one (for connoisseurs who thought they’d seen every possible permutation for the eight-day Festival of Lights, the folks at YIVO spell it “khanike”), and it contravenes Rosten’s intentions. He insisted that his “is not a book about Yiddish,” but a catalog of the Yiddish (and Yiddish-ish) words that have wended their way into English. Nevertheless, he has been criticized over the years for treating Yiddish as a language of shtick but not of politics, literature or faith. With more Yiddish writing available in translation and the blossoming of scholarship on all manner of Yiddishkeit since 1968, “The New Joys of Yiddish” may have an easier time of being taken on Rosten’s terms.

Many of the changes Bush makes speak to the passage of time. Humorist Harry Golden and L’il Abner cartoonist Al Capp didn’t need to be identified in 1968, but they do now. Where Rosten wrote that the Lithuanian strain of Yiddish “predominates” in now-defunct Yiddish periodicals, Bush shifts into the past tense. He also adjusts for inflation; the husband of the yidene (akin to a yenta) who boasts of being the primary subject of his therapy sessions now pays $100 a session, up from $25. A discussion of the Babylonian exile alludes to Bob Marley, and a note at “putz” recounts former Sen. Al D’Amato’s Waterloo.

“The New Joys of Yiddish” also reveals how American and American Jewish social sensibilities have evolved since 1968. Where Rosten uses subtle humor (arguably too subtle) to point out the servile and derogatory connotations of shvartze, Bush delivers a sermon on code words. The entry on shikker once began “Jewish drunkards are exceedingly rare,” but Bush cut that sentence and added a sober note about a 12-step organization called Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others. Similarly, a joke about a shadchen, or matchmaker, with the punch line, “Is it my fault you don’t like Picasso?,” is explicated with the statistic that more than 30 percent of Jews experience some form of domestic violence.

At times Bush comes off as a preacher, at other moments a party-pooper, and he doesn’t have Rosten’s way with words. To be fair, revising a book like “The Joys of Yiddish” is a thankless task, since devotees usually consider the current edition authoritative (even when purists don’t) and any alteration seems a heresy. Think of the complaints of disappearing recipes that dogged “The New Joy of Cooking,” or the outcry from grammarians that R.W. Burchfield fouled up the third edition of Fowler’s “Modern English Usage.” Bush’s approach seems to be to add rather than subtract, and he leaves most of Rosten’s playful definitions, anecdotes and pronunciation aids (“bar-mitz-vah, to rhyme with ‘car hits ya’”) intact. The joys of “The New Joys of Yiddish” are largely the old ones.

Posted in