How Yid­dish Changed Amer­i­ca and How Amer­i­ca Changed Yiddish

  • Review
By – March 30, 2020

Nobel Lau­re­ate Isaac Bashe­vis Singer once famous­ly said, I believe in res­ur­rec­tion and [that] the Mes­si­ah will soon come, and mil­lions of Yid­dish-speak­ing corpses will rise from their graves one day and their first ques­tion will be: Is there any new Yid­dish book to read?’” With the pub­li­ca­tion of a new anthol­o­gy of Amer­i­can Yid­dish writ­ing, titled, How Yid­dish Changed Amer­i­ca and How Amer­i­ca Changed Yid­dish, the answer is an emphat­ic yes!

This self-described smor­gas­bord” chal­lenges our pre­vi­ous con­cep­tions of Yid­dish, start­ing with its orga­ni­za­tion. The book takes a the­mat­ic rather than chrono­log­i­cal approach, with six dis­tinct parts cov­er­ing top­ics such as pol­i­tics and food. It includes essays, dra­ma, mem­oir, fic­tion, oral his­to­ry, poet­ry, inter­views and even car­toons. Edi­tors Ilan Sta­vans, a pro­fes­sor of Human­i­ties and Latin Amer­i­ca at Amherst Col­lege, and Josh Lam­bert, the aca­d­e­m­ic direc­tor of the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter, encour­age their read­ers to approach the mate­ri­als like a grab bag” and get a lit­tle lost and dis­cov­er some­thing that they weren’t expect­ing.” And indeed, the col­lec­tion is full of surprises.

While the anthol­o­gy includes famil­iar names like Grace Paley, Michael Chabon, and Cyn­thia Ozick many of its gems are from authors that will be entire­ly new to most read­ers. Sta­vans and Lam­bert were care­ful to include a rich diver­si­ty of voic­es. One of the book’s most strik­ing entries is a 1936 let­ter to Forverts, the Unit­ed States’ old­est Yid­dish news­pa­per still pub­lished in New York, nos­tal­gi­cal­ly recall­ing a woman in the shtetl of Krivoz­er, Ukraine, who had suc­cess­ful­ly tran­si­tioned from female to male. Some con­tri­bu­tions such as Stan Mack’s cringe-wor­thy car­toon, Chron­i­cles of Cir­cum­ci­sion” reveal a quirky, brash side of Yid­dish cul­ture, while oth­ers vivid­ly bring to life key events in Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry. Poet Mor­ris Rosenfeld’s The Tri­an­gle Fire” poignant­ly memo­ri­al­izes the 146 immi­grant women killed in the noto­ri­ous 1911 Tri­an­gle Shirt­waist Fac­to­ry fire. And by includ­ing pieces from Colom­bia, Cuba, Mex­i­co and Cana­da, the book demon­strates that Amer­i­can Yid­dish writ­ing encom­pass­es much more than just the Unit­ed States.

Some may ask, why should we care about reviv­ing and sav­ing Yid­dish? Accord­ing to the 2011 Amer­i­can Com­mu­ni­ty Sur­vey on Lan­guage, only 154,763 peo­ple speak Yid­dish at home in the Unit­ed States, and it esti­mates an ongo­ing drop of approx­i­mate­ly 1000 Yid­dish speak­ers per year. Out­side the Hasidic com­mu­ni­ty, many Amer­i­can Jews pre­fer study­ing Hebrew, and despite high pro­file hits like the cur­rent Yid­dish revival of Fid­dler on the Roof on Broad­way, there is rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle new Yid­dish cul­tur­al production.

By demon­strat­ing that it’s not just a lan­guage but rather a rich cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty, this anthol­o­gy makes a com­pelling case for why Yid­dish still mat­ters. Sta­vans and Lam­bert open their book with the sur­pris­ing asser­tion that Yid­dish is rad­i­cal, dan­ger­ous and sexy.” While that state­ment may ini­tial­ly pro­voke skep­ti­cism, by the book’s end they have more than proven their point. This anthol­o­gy will impel read­ers to explore a her­itage that’s trag­ic and com­ic, uni­ver­sal and par­tic­u­lar, eru­dite and sil­ly, and, yes, def­i­nite­ly sexy!

Mar­i­lyn Coop­er is a Wash­ing­ton, DC – based author and poet. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor and writer for a num­ber of Jew­ish pub­li­ca­tions; her work focus­es on Jew­ish his­to­ry, lit­er­a­ture and con­tem­po­rary culture.

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