When Solon Beinfeld, co-editor-in-chief of the new Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary, was on a Fulbright scholarship in Paris in the 1950s, Yiddish wasn’t part of his graduate work. But having been raised in a Yiddish-speaking home, Beinfeld couldn’t help but gravitate toward the city’s Yiddish-speaking community, and especially to its Medem Library, named after the Bund leader Vladimir Medem.
Fifty years later, as a professor emeritus of history at Washington University in St. Louis, Beinfeld’s Paris contacts bore unexpected fruit. In 2002, Yitskhok Niborski, an Argentine-born Yiddish scholar and Medem librarian, published the “Dictionnaire Yiddish-Francaise,” which quickly became known as the most comprehensive bilingual Yiddish dictionary in any language. When Beinfeld suggested to Niborski that someone create an English version of it, Niborski responded, “Why not you?”
With Niborski’s Yiddish word base to work from, Beinfeld, 79, enlisted Harry Bochner, a Harvard-educated linguist, as co-editor in chief, along with Barry Goldstein and Yankl Salant as associate editors. With the practical guidance of project administrator Elizabeth Kessin Berman, the team spent the next 10 years sourcing English translations for Niborski’s 37,000 Yiddish entries, along with idioms and examples of usage.
The result of their effort, the Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary, published by Indiana University Press this past January, has quickly been recognized as the authoritative Yiddish-English dictionary, replacing, in large measure, Uriel Weinreich’s Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary, which had held that position since its publication, in 1968. Already in its third printing, Beinfeld and Bochner’s dictionary is showing itself to be a necessary reference for Yiddish students and scholars throughout the English-speaking world. No doubt it will continue to be one for decades to come.