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The Story of Yiddish: How a Mish-Mosh of Languages Saved the Jews Hardcover – April 8, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Karlen (Shanda: The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew) offers an often pleasant but clunkily written romp through Yiddish and Yiddishkeit (the culture of Ashkenazic Jews) in America. There are some colorful anecdotes about figures as varied as Bob Dylan, the philanthropist Jacob Schiff and the contemporary Hasidic rabbi Manis Friedman, as well as an introduction to many useful witty Yiddish phrases (the literal Yiddish for she's good in bed is she knows how to dance the mattress polka). But, oy, are there problems. The book is replete with repetition of anecdotes and observations, and there are errors of fact (Moses Mendelssohn never converted to Christianity, nor does the Bible say, you shouldn't cook beef in its own calf's milk). Worse, Karlen provides cartoon versions of Jewish history, shtetl life and scholarship. He makes only a thin case for the thesis stated in his subtitle. As an introduction to Yiddish, Michael Wex's Born to Kvetch is not only more erudite but funnier as well. (Apr. 8)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


In this witty, lively, thoroughly engaging, and thought-provoking book that is part memoir, part anecdote, and part linguistic history, literary journalist Karlen captures the impressive and exhaustive history of Yiddish as a language: how it came about, its metamorphosis throughout the ages, and its place in Jewish culture and history. He also attempts answers to larger philosophical and cultural questions, e.g., "What constitutes 'Yiddishkeit'?" examining a dazzling array of personages through the alembic of Yiddish language and culture to help define this ever-changing, all-inclusive, and somewhat amorphous concept. He devotes much of the text to examples with translations from Yiddish, how Yiddish is distinguishable and distinctive from German, and the sometimes uncomfortable relationship between the two. In addition to being a wonderful popular history of Yiddish, this is an accurate (albeit abbreviated) account of how Yiddish found legitimacy in America and a place in the academy that manages to capture both the linguistic diversity of Yiddish and the cultural diversity of Yiddishkeit. With an exhaustive, well-documented bibliography; essential reading for anyone interested in Jewish culture and the Yiddish language. Highly recommended for all libraries -- Library Journal, April 1, 2008

Neal Karlen's earlier book Shanda: The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew bravely explores the author's attempt to come to terms with a dizzying array of personal demons - his relationship with his stern and demanding father, his troubles with women, his complicated attachment and simultaneous distaste for Judaism and the emotional fallout from his youthful decision to abandon his plans to become a rabbi.

Karlen fled his comfortable upper-middle-class Minnesota home in his early 20s and landed in New York, where he spent two decades writing for various magazines and newspapers. He endured a brief disastrous marriage to a non-Jewish girl, much to the chagrin of his parents. Later on, he suffered a serious leg injury that finally drove him back home to Minnesota to nurse his wounds and to try to figure out why at 40 he still seemed so depressed - lost among both Jews and Gentiles.

The reader senses that there has always been an uncomfortable edge to Karlen: He seems to have been born a skeptic and a rebel, a rabble-rouser and a maverick. Surely this temperament interfered with the expected Orthodoxy and obedience of his youth. Karlen was also always smitten with American popular culture at large; he was overeager to fit in and win the approval of others.

A random encounter with Rabbi Manis Friedman, the rabbi famous for bringing Bob Dylan back into the fold after his flirtation with born-again Christianity, proved life-changing for Karlen.

The two began meeting and studying together. Rabbi Friedman told the eager but anxious Karlen a story that resonated with him. He said that in addition to the four sons who come to the Pessah table, there is a fifth one who we don't usually talk about since he has left the fold. Friedman described this metaphorical son lovingly as "a Jew, and he has to be considered as such. We have to reach out to him and get him to come to the Seder table. What part of him refuses to come to the Seder? His Jewish part. His Jewish soul is objecting because the Judaism that is being offered to him does not live up to his expectations. What he wants is a better Judaism, not no Judaism. The lost son is warning us that we're drifting, becoming too petty, too insular, or simply too bland. His Jewish soul is asking us to listen."

Karlen's Jewish soul is evident on every page of his new book, an interesting and quirky and sometimes irreverent look at how the Yiddish language has survived all over the world. He describes Yiddish as trying "to live life as a mentsh, a human being, not a vilde chaya, a wild beast."

There is an intuitive code of proper conduct imbued in Yiddishkeit that teaches us lessons about how we should treat ourselves, our neighbors, other Jews and society at large. The author is moved by Yiddish's tenderness and warmth and wisdom and irony, and its uncanny adaptability. Karlen asks, "And how does one describe the almost ineffable sounds and rhythms of a language as beautiful as a minor-key sonata, and as bitter as three yentas gossiping about everybody else's business; a language seemingly frightened by mankind, yet powerful enough to rib God, as if He's a poker buddy, for His never-ending failures?"

The author demonstrates how Yiddish often expresses for us what we can't, how it absorbs the pathos and obsessions and neuroses and compulsions of a people that have been tossed on their backs over and over again, and how it anchors them to focus on the most pressing of questions: "Es iz gut fur yidn?" (Is it good for the Jews?).

Karlen's own introduction to Yiddish began early. The youngest of three, he would sit in between his siblings on long car rides listening to his parents speak in English and then glide into Yiddish, their secret language that often led to laughter and strange glances between them. He would struggle to decipher what they were saying. His mother came from a bilingual home, but his father's parents, who had been the only ones in their extended families to escape the Nazis in Slutsk, spoke only Yiddish. Mostly, he remembers an early infatuation with words that began with "sh." There were so many of them: "Shmuck, Shmeckel, Shlemiel, Shlimazel, Shmatte, Shmendrick, Shmeggege, Shlock, Shlockmeister, Shmo, Shtup, Shmutz, Shnook, Shnoz, Shlep, Shlepper, Shiksa, Shagetz, Sha! Shabbos Goy, Shamus, Shloomp, Shlub, Shmeer, Shnapps, Shtunk. Shtick, Shvitzer, Shanda, Shvantz, Shmooze, Shikker."

The book researches the development of Yiddish literature and theater in America beginning in the 1890s when the great men of Yiddish letters first printed their work in the Yiddish Forverts. The Forverts appealed to both scholars and layman alike and featured articles on family matters and sophisticated commentary on the emerging ideologies of the time. Karlen notes that in 1939 75 percent of the world's Jewish population spoke Yiddish as a first or only language; Hitler murdered half of them.

What brings an author to his subject? Karlen's earlier memoir offers us some telling clues. Karlen rejected the Orthodoxy of his childhood home and mentions being disturbed by the status-seeking Jews he remembers from his high-school days who seemed more concerned with materialistic pursuit than spiritual transcendence. When he met Friedman, he began to explore his own heart and find a solid relationship with Judaism that suited him, not the rabbi's or his father's but his own, and in doing so he began to heal himself. This book feels as if it is his valentine to Friedman and we readers are the lucky beneficiaries of his journey. -- The Jerusalem Post, May 4, 2008

New York Times contributor Karlen (Shanda: The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jews, 2004, etc.) proffers an idiosyncratic take on Yiddish, the heroic vernacular that gets no respect.

This wide-ranging survey rejoices in Jewishness rather than Judaism. The author sporadically quotes Lenny Bruce, Isaac Bashevis Noebl speeches and Three Stooges movie to support his notions. He attempts with easygoing chutzpah (you know, "nerve") to draw apt lessons in linguistics and philology from history, philosophy, sports, literature and showbiz in the old world s as well as here in the goldene medine ("golden country.")

He comes to praise, not to bury a language often lamented as moribund. Yiddish, the lingua franca and soul music of Jews around the world and soul music of Jews around the world for a millennium is ever-dying and evergreen, Karlen reports. -- Kirkus Reviews, Jan. 15, 2008

The Story of Yiddish is a book [for] historical/hysterical stories of Jews as they wandered through the world, speaking the only language that tied them together....The story reference both "the shtetl's untutored shoveling drek" and the famous: actors, comedians, and authors. (You will discover that Steve Mcqueen's first speaking on the stage was a sentence in Yiddish.) One chapter, Yiddish: Or Envy in America [its title an homage to Cynthia Ozick) is devoted to hatred of I.B. Singer by almost everybody else who wrote in Yiddish. You perhaps will...even learn some Yiddish phrases to ridicule your enemies. Karlen includes a good number of Yiddish jokes, all translated into English, to make his numerous points. Bibliograph, index, notes. -- Jewish Book World, Spring Issue, Spring 2008

This lighthearted and irrevert history of Yiddish depicts the language as an irreverent history of Yiddish depicts the language as an unlikely survivor of the ages. Karlen charts Yiddish from its beginnings as minor dialect in the elevent century through its peak in World War II and revival in recent years. -- Pakn Tregr--The Magazine of the National Yiddish Book Center, Spring 2008 issue.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow; First edition (April 8, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006083711X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060837112
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,761,964 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By W. Tovey on July 12, 2008
Format: Hardcover
The mish-mosh is Karlen's book. This guy just does not know enough about Yiddish to write a book about it. There are numerous errors throughout, and the thesis is very thin. Why do people who speak a little Yiddish think they can write a book about it? I eat, but I don't write gourmet cookbooks. And shame on William Morrow, a once fine publishing house. They couldn't even edit it enough to make sure words are spelled correctly or consistently throughout (the English words, that is--the Yiddish is beyond help). What a huge disappointment.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Mr. H on November 29, 2009
Format: Paperback
About fifty pages into this book the reader confirms what he or she suspected almost from the beginning - that the author knows no Yiddish, has done little or no research, and has essentially no knowlege of the subject matter. The book has the quality of a high school essay in which the student, having done no preparation, sets out to write as many words as he can about something he knows nothing about. I received this book as a gift from someone who knows of my interest in languages in general, and in Yiddish (I'm a native speaker) in particular. The title led the gift-giver, and me, to believe that the book would present some of the rich linguistic and clutural history of the language. No such luck. This book is pure junk. Pass it by.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Ensign Jack on October 23, 2009
Format: Paperback
I agree completely with W. Tovey and "Found Highways". In my opinion, this book exploits the latest wave of Yiddish revivalism without adding anything original or worthwhile to the subject. There is obviously a divide among the reviewers between those who appreciate an anecdotal book depicting the impassioned, subjective views of the author and those who are disappointed by the author's rather obvious lack of knowledge of his subject matter and the missing editing.

You might expect from the title some historical explanation of the evolution of Yiddish. What you get is rambling, often repetitive musings about what the author thinks he knows about Yiddish. The few things stated as facts are often wrong. A glaring misconception is the author's assertion that the mainstream theory of Yiddish is now that it spread from East to West and not the other way around as previously held. This is blatant nonsense as the incontrovertible fact about Yiddish is that it is a Germanic language which obviously began as the vernacular of the Jews of Germany and spread Eastward with the migration, often compelled, of those people.

The numerous phrases of Yiddish spread throughout the author's ramblings betray the lack of an even elementary knowledge of basic Yiddish grammar and no attempt was made at a consistent transliteration, which would have been readily available from any book of Yiddish instruction or any of the other fine books recently written on this subject.

It sounds from the other reviews that the author's issues with his own Jewishness were adequately explored in his other book. In my opinion, there isn't much here that's sufficiently new and fresh to justify the publication of this book.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Spazzy Mcgee on June 10, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Oy. As in, av"oy"d this book. It contains approximately 15% interesting historical nuggets and 85% long winded, weak analogies and fluffy metaphors explaining why Yiddish is important to Jews and vice versa. "Jews are like this, yiddish is like this, Jews and yiddish are as this as yiddishkeit is to this." I think Yiddishkeit "is to" everything in the known universe at this point. I "got it" after about five pages and didn't need the rest, but finished it out of spite and anger that I paid money for this book. Pure treyf!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Demosthenes on February 1, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Rambling and repepetive, with an odd obessesion about the Altalena Incident, but no objective description of what it was or what was at stake. Broad unfair generalizations, as: Poland was always deeply anti-Semitic. It was not: the 14th and 15th Centuries were something of a Golden Age for Polish Jewry. King Casimir welcomed the Jews and so they migrated east from germany and Bohemia, bringing the Yiddish language with them.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Ex-Pat Brit on March 30, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I saw this book at the library and picked it up thinking that it might be an interesting and informative read. First I am grateful that I didn't spend any money on it and, second, I was wrong about it potentially being interesting and informative. The book is badly written and rambling. The contents exhibit the author's ignorance about Yiddish and Yiddishkeit. An example: apparently no-one has heard of the "minor" festival of Shemini Atzeres, but saying the name of the festival is always good for a laugh. Huh?!?! And the author calls it "Shemini Atzeret", using the Sefardic/Israeli-style pronunciation - which is something no good Yiddish speaker would use. (Brief aside: I kept thinking of how the Klausenberger Rebbe was nearly beaten to death in the concentration camp because he refused to work on Shemini Atzeres. Thankfully, he survived and even inspired other inmates to celebrate Simchas Torah that evening as they performed hakofos holding a torn page from a Siddur.) Anyway, don't bother with this one. If you know something about Yiddish, you will be angry and disapointed. If you don't know anything about Yiddish,you will have been fed misinformation and probably won't even realize it.
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