The fifth son

Neal Karlen's new book about Yiddish is part of his quest to live a better life.

yiddish book 88 (photo credit: courtesy)
yiddish book 88
(photo credit: courtesy)
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 Story of Yiddish: How a Mish-mosh of Languages Saved the Jews By Neal Karlen William Morrow 352 pages; $25.95