A Nation of Words

Miriam Weinstein’s Yiddish: A Nation of Words is a compelling book. Go to Amazon.com and type in “Yiddish” and many books will come up whose titles are cheap, sentimental, ridiculous, goofy.  Weinstein has a sense of appreciation and gravity about her subject, which deals with shtetl life, immigration, the Final Solution,  the State of Israel, and  the language’s future prospects.  It is a fascinating introduction to a language, culture, and people.  Jews who came to the US from Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s spoke Yiddish. In those days New York was the largest Jewish city in the world.

It’s long been common to say that Yiddish as a language is  dying.  But Weinstein points out the historical determinants of this:  Nazism destroyed Eastern European and Russian Jewish culture; the Soviet Union repressed the Jewish intelligentsia and eliminated the cultural infrastructure that had once been given to Yddish; and America Jews abandoned Yiddish culture in their quest to assimilate.

Weinstein quotes survivor Frieda Aaron, who identified one of the countless ways the Nazis had of being vicious:  “Every Sabbath night, as we were marched to the camp, the guards enacted a ritual of beating and killing to the accompaniment of a recording of the Yiddish song Gut vokh [Have a Good Week] that in better times greeted the new week.”  After the war, many surviving Jews ended up in Displaced Person camps where speaking Yiddish was no longer dangerous.  Weinstein writes that “driven by a need to see who was left, to arrange some kind of lives for themselves, and to tell the world what horrors they had seen, one of the survivors’ first requests, after food and medicine, was for Yiddish typewriters.”  And they began writing testimonies and memoirs in Yiddish, many of which still haven’t been translated into English.

Yiddish took a beating in Palestine and Israel, as the Zionists, many of whom grew up with Yiddish, sought to make Hebrew the national language with no competitors.  Weinstein notes, “In the new Jewish homeland, where, according to the Law of Return, anyone with a Jewish mother was welcome, the quintessential Jewish mother’s tongue was not welcome at all.”  Hebraists took it upon themselves to police their fellow Yiddish-speaking citizens and shame them or interfere with their conversations and meetings.

Near the end of her book,  Weinstein points out  that “It is unlikely that Yiddish will ever revive as a widely spoken language. But Yiddish can be remembered. It can still connect Jews to each other and to their past. It can link Jews and non-Jews alike to one of the great expressive traditions of the world.”

Still, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yiddish writer and Nobel laureate, once observed, “With the Jews, resurrection is not a miracle, but a habit.”

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