Words on Fire by Dovid Katz <br/>Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky

More chutzpah than schmaltz
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Yiddish is a 4,000-year-old language organically developed from Aramaic, classical Hebrew, German dialect and Slav. As the lingua franca of Eastern European Jewry, it thrived there rather than in England or France because Christianity rooted so much later in the East, and paganism was more tolerant of Jews. While the French and Germans were butchering Jews as "Christ killers", and the English monarchy deported them in 1290, medieval Eastern Europe was, as Dovid Katz remarks, "a multiculturalist pluralist haven". Katz has produced a major work on Yiddish which is both scholarly and entertaining. It will illuminate readers new to the subject and inform those with Yiddish-speaking families. But why is the language still important to us?

It has permeated American culture, although it hardly touched British English. We are finally learning words such as schmoozing, chutzpah, shmock and shyster. We recognise it in the zany conceit of Mel Brooks's Yiddish-speaking Indians in Blazing Saddles and from that outrageous Yiddish joke - the meschuggenah song "Springtime for Hitler" in his The Producers.

Woody Allen has given us the eternal Jewish archetype of the nebbish. Sholem Alechem's Teyve the Milkman was celebrated in the Hollywood movie Fiddler on the Roof. The late, great Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote in Yiddish but his stories (translated into English) popularised the complexities of shtetl life. The mass migration of Jews to the US and Britain took place between l880 and l930. This wave was accompanied by films and theatre in Yiddish as popular entertainment for the masses. Even Shakespeare was Yiddishised; posters proclaimed it to be "translated and far better"!

Even after most Yiddish speakers were murdered in the gas chambers and the Nazi killing fields, Yiddishisms trickled into US popular culture. But as Yiddish was forgotten, huge resources of Yiddish books, sheet music and plays were jettisoned. This loss was international. Although Stalin first championed Yiddish schools and theatres, by the 1930s he was murdering many Jewish artists, including the brilliant Yiddish actor, Solomon Mikhoels.

As Katz painfully points out, Yiddish was also assassinated by the emergence of the hastily-constructed modern Hebrew which accompanied the setting up of the state of Israel. He rejects modern Hebrew as Israel's language and suggests it be called "Israeli", distancing it from classical Hebrew and disconnecting it from the many languages associated with Jewishness.

The war between Yiddish-speaking Jew and Hebrew-talking Israeli can also been seen as a struggle between the feminine and the masculine. Yiddish is often criticised as "kitchen language". Women, and unlearned men, spoke it. Hebrew was the domain of prayer and masculine duty. The struggle between "Jew" and "Israeli" is also a war between competing ideologies. Yiddish was the language for a people without a land. Hebrew was the language for the myth of "a land without a people".

European and American Jews disturbed by an Israeli military state crave a model of Jewishness they can accept. Yiddish seems to offer that positive sense of a counter-culture. The problem is, who is now going to bother learning Yiddish? Certainly, there are pockets of enthusiastic young learners, and a multiplying Chassidic orthodoxy made up of people who live in the Yiddish language while denying the plural, secular elements of Yiddish culture. But these movements are hardly going to make Yiddish a living experience for today's Jewish population.

Aaron Lansky's book is an adventure story about the survival of Yiddish. This fast-moving, funny account of his 25-year mission to save Yiddish books from the dumpster is a very exciting read. Lansky is the founder and president of the National Yiddish Book Center and his struggle is punctuated with crazy scenes from Jewish America.

Lansky describes how each donor tearfully hands over every book with a long description of the work and how he got hold of it. Not only must Lansky listen politely; he also has to accept mountains of food. After 24 hours, he feels his arteries are flooding with cholesterol. Eventually, he decides to collect with two others: one to drive, one to listen to stories, and the third as the "designated eater".

The mass of Yiddish-speaking immigrants left their books to non-Yiddish speaking children and grandchildren, who threw away a literature they couldn't read. Lansky, horrified that the People of the Book are discarding theirs, becomes a missionary for a lost culture. He makes the same point as Katz. To study the language is not to entertain nostalgic schmaltz; rather, it is an acknowledgement that Yiddishland is a microcosm of the outside world. For example, the black fur hats and long coats of Chassidim are the clothes of 18th-century Polish noblemen.

Both these books are wonderful reads. Katz's is denser and needs slow digestion, whereas Lansky's is a whistle-stop journey to the end of the Jewish world. These two baby boomers are re-exploring the intellectual struggle between Zionist Hebraists and Socialist Yiddishists. What a pleasure to have them offering the muscularity of this political and linguistic debate, which is still at the heart of Jewish argument.

Julia Pascal's play 'The Yiddish Queen Lear' is published by Oberon Books

Buy any book reviewed on this site at Independent Books Direct
- postage and packing are free in the UK

Comments