WORDS ON FIRE: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish

Dovid Katz, Author . Basic $26.95 (430p) ISBN 978-0-465-03728-5

Yiddish was the common language of central European Jewry before the Holocaust. The catastrophic loss of millions of Yiddish speakers has led to the impression that Yiddish is a dying, if not dead, language. Not so, claims Katz, head of the Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University, and in this ambitious, comprehensive and entertaining history he makes clear not only its past but its future. Most scholars claim that Yiddish began around A.D. 900, but Katz argues that many elements can be found "in a continuous language chain that antedated ancient Hebrew, progressed through Hebrew, and then Jewish Aramaic." Katz clearly explicates not only Yiddish's linguistic history, but how it helped shape, and was shaped by, Jewish culture. Much of the history is fascinating—for instance, 16th-century rabbis, worried that the printing press would allow women access to secular popular European stories, offered sacred writings in popular forms (plays and prose based on biblical themes and midrashic tales) that shaped Yiddish literature for centuries. Katz argues that Yiddish will continue as a spoken language not because of conscious efforts to "save" it (which, he writes, can "border on the downright meshuga") but because of the rapid growth of Yiddish-speaking ultra-Orthodox movements. This scholarly work is quite readable and a strong contribution to the ongoing academic and popular interest in Yiddish. B&w illus, maps. Agent, Scott Mendel of Mendel Media Group. (Oct.)

Reviewed on: 09/27/2004
Release date: 09/01/2004
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 494 pages - 978-0-465-03730-8
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