A kvetch too far

Yiddish can be intensely comical, but is far more than just the language of Yiddish theater shtik.

October 4, 2006 10:52
kvetch book 88 298

kvetch book 88 298. (photo credit: )


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Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods By Michael Wex St.Martin's Press 303 pages $24.95 Yiddish Civilization: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation By Paul Kriwaczek Knopf 357 pages $27.50 The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture By David Fishman University of Pittsburgh Press 190 pages The best friends of my youth, my father and his father, were temporarily exiled Palestinians fluent in Hebrew, but who spoke to each other and their friends in Yiddish, then the prevalent first or second language of Ashkenazi Diaspora Jews. My mother, an otherwise well-spoken native of Liverpool also of Litvak extraction, defined the character of various relatives and acquaintances with a stream of vivid Yiddish curses. Despite the fact that my zeida was still speaking Yiddish when I arrived in newborn Israel, I was enthused by ubiquitous signs that shouted Daber Ivrit (speak Hebrew)! Yiddish was on its way out and Hebrew in Israel was firmly in, though in the Forties and Fifties half the Jews in Jerusalem spoke German and half the Jews in Tel Aviv went to Yiddish performances. But what I loved was that the hearty Israelis in khaki shorts and speaking fluent Hebrew were anything but kvetchers. Born to Kvetch, the title of this richly funny and informative book, thus put me off, as did its jacket photograph of a young haredi teenager pulling an angry face. Today there are more and more haredi Jews everywhere, but they are only a segment of our people. More importantly, we are no longer born to kvetch! Canadian standup comic and Yiddish enthusiast Michael Wex is not an Israeli; his book is directed at Ashkenazi North Americans. His transliterations, his notes on pronunciation notwithstanding, are not easy reading even to those with a fair knowledge of Yiddish. Further, the transliterations also conceal rather than point up the dominant role of German in a language that latter-day haskala Hebraists dismissed as zhargon (jargon). Worse, the Hebrew words in Wex's Yiddish examples are generally not identified; nor indeed are they readily identifiable because of spelling that accords with the Ashkenazi pronunciation. Yiddish can be intensely comical, but is far more than just the language of Yiddish theater shtik. It was an everyday spoken - and later written (in Hebrew characters) - language of serious communication. Daitch (Deutsch) or Taitch, a mixture of Middle Age German and Hebrew, has been the spoken language of European Jews for some 1,000 years, changing in character and vocabulary as it moved with the Jews from west to east in their vain attempt to escape persecution. The word Yiddish possibly derives from zhid, hence yid and yidene and yidn and yiddisher. For the language eventually became loaded with Russian words and expressions, many of which somehow got expunged. Several purely Russian words have survived, like khrein (fiery horseradish) and smetana (sour cream). Yiddish was defined as a language everyone understood but couldn't spell. Jewish community documents were first written in Yiddish using the Hebrew alphabet 700 years back, but Yiddish became a means of everyday written communication less than 200 years ago. Yiddish was mispronounced from shtetl to shtetl, and even between parents and children, and is anyway largely a mispronunciation of its sources. One theory has it that Yiddish arose to confound the goyim, but my father held that as biblical Hebrew was a holy tongue for use only in shul (synagogue), the Hebrew elements of Yiddish were mispronounced in order to render them kosher fur redn (okay for everyday speech). In Hebrew a carter or wagon driver is called a baal agala but in Yiddish even a taxi driver was once called a balagoleh. Yiddish literature arose only after Yiddish newspapers began to appear, many of them running serializations of tragi-comic sitcoms. Because of the Hebrew alphabet, Yiddish newspapers and postcards could not be read by the gentiles; but then, for hundreds of years the mass of European goyim were unable to read any language. Wex is constantly entertaining as he describes how Yiddish arose from study of the Talmud; why it sometimes deliberately says one thing when it means the opposite; why a shiksa (non-Jewish woman) is a livelier number than a goya (Wex writes it goye); why the term a koshere beheyma (kosher animal) can be a compliment. An engagement contract is known as shrabyn tnoyim - corruptions of a German word and a Hebrew one that sum up the essence of this wonderfully absurd mixed marriage of tongues. THE PARENTS of author Paul Kriwaczek (b. Vienna 1937) escaped to England with their son in 1939. In his new book about a lost Jewish civilization, Yiddish Civilization, Kriwaczek initially spends too much time discussing his own Yiddish background and how men would pounce on him in the street hissing Bist a Yid? They were of course desperate to find someone over 13 to make up a minyan. The title and sub-title of this book (the dustjacket also carries the image of a disgruntled Jewish boy - a detail of a painting by Isidor Kaufmann) can both be called into question. But Kriwaczek maintains that until the Black Death and the Reformation, the Ashkenazi Jews of Northern Europe, pretty much the only literate people in all of Europe, did surprisingly well. That is, until Luther and the Reformation shattered their illusions and sent them fleeing eastwards. In a number of cases, towns from which the Jews were expelled were soon pleading with them to return and revive trade. The Jews were happy to agree. Barred from owning land, the Jewish uppercrust quickly developed into businessmen who kept books, underbid gentile financiers and moneylenders, and took trade far beyond barter. They sold horses, cattle and lumber, and the more outstanding minds among them became court Jews, bankers to dukes and princes; and in some cases were even admitted to the minor nobility. Once upon a time, the mass of Europe's Jews didn't live in the cities. Jewish blacksmiths, saddlers, tinkers, tailors and even farmers thrived in villages, where some also became millers or lumber and cattle dealers. Poverty descended on them only after the Cossack pogroms in Poland, and again when Russians drove them off the land and into the Polish towns, where unemployment among them ran at over 30 percent. In a number of increasingly resentful Polish towns they were at least half the population. Kriwaczek writes that it was their misery that drove them to emigrate, and not just pogroms, which were long endured as a fact of life. All Jewish boys learned to read Hebrew in cheder and Talmud Torah, but their spoken language was a German dialect spiced with Hebrew words. Daitch (Deutsch) or Taitch changed as the Jews fled to the east and their language absorbed many Slavic or pure Russian words; and even words of Turcic origin popular in Russian provinces. Many of these words have since disappeared. Kriwaczek of course cites the revolution of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment, begun by the polymath genius Moses Mendelssohn, whose first language was Yiddish. Other Jewish figures are cited, from the Maharal and the Ba'al Shemtov to Mendele Mocher Sefarim and even Sholom Asch. But as the Enlightenment spread (partly thanks to the plethora of Yiddish newspapers), the exodus of Jews to the New World began. Kriwaczek reminds us that the patriotic German shipping magnate who transported them was a Jew, Alfred Ballin. When the Kaiser was exiled, Ballin committed suicide. DAVID FISHMAN'S no-nonsense account of modern Yiddish and 20th-century Jewish schisms The Rise Of Modern Yiddish Culture eschews the nostalgia and sentimentality associated with Yiddish, and gives a vivid picture of how Yiddish and Yiddish literature were promoted by even the socialist and anti-Zionist Bundists as a means of preserving Jewishness, albeit in a secular form. The Yiddish press flourished in pre-war Poland, and by the Twenties, circulation figures climbed far beyond the highest expectations of Israeli newspapers. Yiddish as a day-to-day means of communication now survives largely among haredim; in between-war Eastern Europe and more particularly in the densely Jewish populated (and anti-Semitic) towns of Poland, secular Jews saw in Yiddish a vehicle for promoting a political struggle for Jewish rights. In the development of Yiddish as a cultural/political weapon, a high point was the establishment in Vilna in 1925 of the YIVO, the Yiddish Institute of Science. Of course this Yiddish revival vanished in the Holocaust. Fishman, a professor of Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York, also describes the rescue of 20 tons of YIVO documents just before they were pulped in a Polish paper mill. He also reminds us that early on, all the great Jewish novelists were Hebraists who rather shamefacedly wrote in Yiddish because their public couldn't read Hebrew. Hence perhaps the adoption of pen names like Mendele Mocher Sefarim, Sholem Aleichem and others. Isaac Bashevis Singer once jeered that he had been given the Nobel Prize for writing in a dead language. Yiddish is not yet dead, even in Israel, where Ashkenazi yeshivot abound. Hava Alberstein has just issued another disc of Yiddish songs, and a Yiddishspiel still survives in Tel Aviv. Research into Yiddish is popular with many young Germans, Americans and even some Asians. Less than a decade ago, the lecturer in Yiddish at Hebrew University was a Japanese.

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