Yiddish Civilization: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation

Paul Kriwaczek, Author . Knopf $27.50 (357p) ISBN 978-1-4000-4087-2

Kriwaczek's charming but frustratingly rambling history places Yiddish in a very broad historical context. Admitting that he is neither "a learned Jew nor a professional historian," Kriwaczek (In Search of Zarathustra ) cuts a broad swath through history as he moves, in the opening chapters, from the forum in Rome to the emergence of a distinct "Yiddish civilization" in medieval eastern Europe. Kriwaczek's insistence on defining Yiddish as a culture, or civilization, rather than a language is smart and useful—it allows him to capture the intricacies of a very complicated history and to avoid a simple "black-and-white clash between gentiles and Jews"—but it also means that his tapestry is sometimes too large. When he does narrow his focus—on, say, the autobiography of Glikl of Hamlin, born 1646, whose memoir is the first major Yiddish work by a woman—he is evocative and precise. While there is an endless amount of fascinating detail (Slavic fashions in shoes became trendy in 14th-century Europe), and all is presented in an enjoyable narrative, the book becomes more of a rumination on a number of related issues than a concise examination of a culture and a language. 16 pages of illus. not seen by PW ; maps. (Nov. 3)

Reviewed on: 10/10/2005
Release date: 10/01/2005
Genre: Nonfiction
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