If you grew up Jewish and American in a certain time and place, Yiddish -- that linguistic mishmash of German, Hebrew, drama and high sarcasm -- was always in the background, if not at the forefront, of your everyday life. Perhaps your grandparents used it among themselves; perhaps your parents sprinkled their English conversations with its raucous lilt. It's likely you didn't use it at all, except when you didn't even know you were using it -- just like 99 percent of the general American population. To you, the shnooks and shlemiels and shleppers and shlimazls lived down the street. A little nosh was as American as apple pie.
But if you think the mama-loshen, once a kind of universal language of Judaism, is only for the alter kockers, think again. Search the Internet, and you'll find a whole new generation of young Yiddish enthusiasts engaging in chat and online studies. What was once a language of the streets, binding together Jews of a hundred different backgrounds, is now alive and well both in academia and cyberspace. Which is saying something.
Outside of the Net, two books are good places to start reacquainting yourself: Miriam Weinstein's historical overview, Yiddish: A Nation of Words, and The New Joys of Yiddish, an updated version of Leo Rosten's classic, revised by Lawrence Bush. Weinstein and Rosten's daughter, Madeline Rosten-Lee, will discuss the books Monday, December 3, at the Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center, where you can also purchase both volumes at the center's annual Leah Cohen Festival of Books and Authors. (Here's a hint: If you need help translating any part of this article, you need to buy The New Joys of Yiddish...at least.)
But you don't have to be deeply religious, or even Jewish, to appreciate either book. Her father's household was by no means drenched in the kind of Jewish lore he expounds in The Joys of Yiddish, according to Rosten-Lee. In fact, Leo Rosten came from an assimilated, Bundist background. "He was an omnivore, intellectually," Rosten-Lee says. "He really didn't think there was anything he couldn't write about." He only rediscovered Yiddish as a subject in later years, she adds, and then only to point out how its humor and rhythm wonderfully infiltrate our English vernacular.
Weinstein hopes that her history, too, will appeal to readers of every stripe. Incredibly, such a book, written without scholarly pretense, didn't exist until she wrote it. "Yiddish has been undervalued," she says.
Still, it's important to put Yiddish in its proper context, not just in Jewish history, but in world history as well. "I see no reason why, when we're reading European literature, we shouldn't read Shalom Aleichem," Weinstein says, "or, when we're reading American literature, we shouldn't read I.B. Singer." Like Rosten, she sees Yiddish as an icon of culture in the midst of acculturation: a language of change.
For that very reason, not long after Rosten's death, his family determined that Joys, first published in 1968, should be updated. "It became clear that this is a book people go to not just for Yiddish reference, but to learn about Jews in the U.S. and the world," Rosten-Lee says. "We felt a responsibility to get a more accurate picture of the American Jew." Editor Bush did that by adding a continuum of historical and cultural commentary to Rosten's original text and leaving Rosten's intent untouched.
"My dad's voice is indomitable," notes Rosten-Lee. "This is a book the whole world loves. There's nothing else quite like it."