cover image YIDDISH: A Nation of Words

YIDDISH: A Nation of Words

Miriam Weinstein, . . Steerforth, $26 (300pp) ISBN 978-1-58642-027-7

"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 à 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. (Oct. 1)