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Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish Paperback – May 8, 2007
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"...(Words on Fire) is not only the clearest account of the (Yiddish) language I've come across, but also the most readable history of European Jewry I've seen." The Sunday Telegraph "The book is rich in detail and beautifully illustrated and Dovid Katz explains the genesis and development of Yiddish and its place in Jewish history." The Times "What a pleasure to have (this book) offering the muscularity of this political and linguistic debate, which is still at the heart of Jewish argument." The Independent "Drawing on years of research (Dovid Katz) has followed a friend's advice to write a 'radically alternative view of Yiddish for a wider readership'...the extensive scope and sharp insight of his survey admirably fulfil his aim." TLS"
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Knowing nothing about Yiddish and very little about early Jewish history in Europe, I was surprised by many descriptions, such as this one--
"While West Europe was butchering the `Christ killers,' much of Eastern Europe was shaping up as a multicultural pluralist haven in which a Jew had a good chance of living out his or her life in peace and quiet, and adhering to Jewish traditions without being abused, killed, or expelled because of them. Eastern Europe, which moderns often associate with lagging progress, was far ahead of the West in not slaughtering, torturing, or expelling people of a different faith or race."
I find the enduring story of women and Yiddish to be fascinating. Katz points out, "Men had up to three languages to choose from. Women usually had only one." Well before the Modern Age, Yiddish provided Jewish women "a form of intellectual liberation" where their prayers were "a significant genre." Furthermore, "No Jewish law says, `Don't enjoy a good story in your native language.'" It was "revolutionary that a work written by a woman would appear with her name as the author." The poet Toybe "is a woman talking sternly to God in a time of community crisis, not afraid to take on God and argue with him." Toybe was published in the 17th century.
Not only gathering a universe of facts, Katz is telling a larger story, one that reads with the vivacity and mystery of a novel with narrative twists, intrigues, ascents of light-hearted eloquence, descents of starkest sorrows. But beyond analytical insights, any reader with an open heart stands also to gain still more from this book--more of the youth and joys that the adventures of this people bring about, and much more of the tragedies.
A forceful movement becomes evident in the chapter "A Yiddish-Kabbalah Partnership." Katz observes "The relationship between Yiddish and the Kabbalah [Jewish mysticism] is mysterious," and yet concretely "Kabbalah became a motivating factor in the enfranchisement of women and unlearned men." This paradigm shift dates to the late 17th century. In the 18th century comes Hasidism, "stressing the capacity of every person to communicate with God ... a grassroots movement for the empowerment of the masses of simple people, women and men."
With gathering momentum, the story of Yiddish arrives in the 19th and 20th centuries and the New World. Katz describes how classical Judaism "gave way to the modern Jew .... In many individual cases, it happened sometime close to the moment that an ancestor got off the boat at Ellis Island, had a look around the Lower East Side of New York, and was never the same again." Still, as ever the case throughout Yiddish history, there is continual bifurcation: "By the late nineteenth century, Yiddish was becoming characteristic of two different Jewries, one at the extreme cultural right, the other on the far cultural and political left."
All growth of Yiddish culture and civilization, of course, is gathered in the singularity of the Holocaust. I learned much from Katz's approach: "The simple and unalterable truth is that the Yiddish-speaking heartland of Eastern Europe, where Yiddish would have survived safely for the long-term future, was annihilated." Thus, a "culture that was one of the most nonviolent and pacifist in human history" was found to be in a state of "linguistic, cultural shame."
Katz explains the complex dynamics of Yiddish and Zionism which found a need for "rejecting the traditional Jewish image." As well, "The general attitude of the American Jewish establishment and the majority of American Jews was often negative toward Yiddish." This was true both because of and despite of the fact that in America Yiddish literature "was born as an unpretentious workers literature out to inform and sustain tired, underpaid, poor, and exploited workers, many of them in one or another branches of the garment industry."
While Katz finds that an anti-Yiddish bias in Jewish education "continues apace today," he also describes a language "becoming more and more popular" after the fashion of Fiddler on the Roof. As to the future, Katz observes "a major historic moment in the unfolding story of Yiddish, a moment of profound sadness and, at the same time, a moment of exceptionally promising vistas for the coming centuries." He summarizes his thought with this "Coda"--
"The irreplaceable words, and spirit, of Yiddish are inherently incandescent with history, civilization, satire, irony, compassion, and the inner strength to be cheerful amid troubles. There is nothing about the language that is better or worse, more or less truthful or beautiful, than any other language. But its uniqueness and inimitability as the special living embodiment of a psyche is absolutely indispensable for a genuine grasp of East European Jewish culture, and, more generally, the current living stage of the uninterrupted ancient natural line of Jewish languagehood. That line stretches over thousands of years. In traditional Jewish historical geography, the path led from Babylonia to the Land of Israel, to Egypt and back, to Babylonia and Persia and back, to wide swaths of the Middle East, to Central and then Eastern Europe. Coming down the Hebrew-Aramaic-Yiddish language chain, these words have their own special fire, a kind that cannot be purposefully injected or logically translated, or, for that matter, mechanically revived. It is a fire that comes from the natural transmission of language over vast stretches of time in a closely knit and highly, yes, separate society."
As a poet myself, I am most grateful for what Dovid Katz has made available in this work--not only the inherent humor of Yiddish, its recognition of the human foibles which it names and celebrates, but also the fiery nature of words and "sparks that fired the muses of thousands of writers."
Thus, I will close these comments with a stanza from the poem with which Katz opens his book, a poem by his father Menke Katz, titled "A Yiddish Poet"--
My mother tongue is unpolished as a wound, a laughter, a love-starved kiss,
yearnful as a martyr's last glance at a passing bird.
Taste a word, cursed and merciless as an earthquake.
Hear a word, terse and bruised as a tear.
See a word, light and lucent, joyrapt as a ray.
Climb a word-rough and powerful as a crag.
Ride a word-free and rhymeless as a tempest.
Dovid Katz is a scholar who knows his stuff, and who has an appreciation for the difference between real Yiddish and the stuff that passes for Yiddish in college courses.