This first-ever popular history of Yiddish is so full of life that it reads like a biography of the language.
For a thousand years Yiddish was the glue that held a people together. Through the intimacies of daily use, it linked European Jews with their heroic past, their spiritual universe, their increasingly far-flung relations. In it they produced one of the world's most richly human cultures.
Impoverished and disenfranchised in the eyes of the world, Yiddish-speakers created their own alternate reality - wealthy in appreciation of the varieties of human behavior, spendthrift in humor, brilliantly inventive in maintaining and strengthening community. For a people of exile, the language took the place of a nation. The written and spoken word formed the Yiddishland that never came to be. Words were army, university, city-state, territory. They were a people's home.
The tale, which has never before been told, is nothing short of miraculous - the saving of a people through speech. It ranges far beyond Europe, from North America to Israel to the Russian-Chinese border, and from the end of the first millenium to the present day. This book requires no previous knowledge of Yiddish or of Jewish history - just a curious mind and an open heart.
"How did a language that cursed and crooned for a thousand years fade in the course of one little lifetime?" asks freelance journalist Weinstein. Her engaging, elegiac popular history fills a gap between more academic tomes and lexicography la Leo Rosten. She traces the language's roots in German lands and in Poland, then sketches Yiddish-drenched shtetl life, drawing on the writing of Israel Joshua Singer and Isaac Bashevis Singer, before describing how Yiddish both influenced and was shaped by two late-19th-century movements, Bundism and Zionism. In the Soviet Union, Yiddish garnered its first recognition as an official language only to be constrained to Communist expression. Pre-Soviet Yiddish literature, therefore, was not to be found in schools. In Israel, Weinstein reflects sadly, the fervor for Hebrew led pioneers to reject Yiddish with contempt. Early 20th-century New York boasted a wide variety of Yiddish schools and radio stations, yet the urge to assimilate led Jews to "squander" their national treasure. After half the world's Yiddish speakers died in the Holocaust, Yiddish has survived mostly thanks to the Hasidim who emigrated to America and elsewhere and built large families. The language has made some recent gains in America thanks to the 1980s klezmer revival and the upstart National Yiddish Book Center but serves more as linguistic influence than common tongue, the author concludes. While not comprehensive, this evocative, informative and accessible book should perform solidly on the Jewish book circuit. 16 pages of photos.