Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish
By Dovid Katz
Basic Books, 430 pages, $26.95.
Given the sentimentality of much recent writing on the subject, American Jews might be forgiven for believing that no one with a critical eye, or without sepia-colored glasses, possibly could write an entire book about Yiddish — much less a detailed overview from its very beginnings to its future.
Into this breach springs Dovid Katz, a professor and linguist at Oxford and Vilnius, peripatetic chronicler of the shtetl, Yiddish novelist and short-story writer and longtime contributor to the Forward, with his book “Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish.” The history of Yiddish spans nearly 1,000 years, from what Katz calls its “big bang” — in which the embryonic language emerged from contact between Jews and non-Jews — to the present day. In between are huge tracts of history, politics, literature, religion, sociology and linguistics, not to mention lesser matters that might seem trivial to the non-Yiddish speaker but fire many an impassioned debate: etymology, spelling, word choice and Hasidic literary esthetics.
The author’s massive erudition; clear, witty prose, and unhesitating self-confidence make him more than a match for this enormous task, and — just as worthy of admiration — he, or perhaps his editors, managed to shoehorn the whole thing into fewer than 400 pages: if not a beach read, at least something that can be comfortably hefted with one hand.
Katz is an exploder of myths, doing so in cogent fashion from the very first page. “This book,” he writes in his introduction, “presents an unabashedly alternative model of Jewish cultural history… with no malice toward the winners of the public relations battleground. Israel, Israeli Hebrew and the modern American Jewish establishment… are all, thank heaven, secure and mature enough to withstand efforts to add to the mainstream canon some other parts of the Jewish heritage.” He is not anti-Hebrew, anti-Israel or anti-mainstream. (These charges are frequently leveled at those who wish to inform or to convince American Jews of the importance of Yiddish. In a column some years ago in The Wall Street Journal, a writer based his hostility toward the rising popularity of Yiddish studies on the fact that the language finds supporters among — horrors! – homosexuals.) Rather, he presents Yiddish, together with other smaller languages, as a symphonic alternative to the monotone of English-only globalization.
Katz calls his high-energy historical tour “the dramatic life story of an embattled, controversial language and people.” Here’s a good test of whether a book is worth reading: How many times do you turn to the person next to you and say, “Wow! Did you know that…?” There are many such moments in “Words on Fire.” We’re acquainted with, for example, the Jewish brothers who founded Yiddish publishing, later converts to Christianity, whose books were burned by their Jewish contemporaries a surprising number of early Yiddish women poets, and the government-sponsored suppression of Yiddish cultural activity in the early years of the State of Israel.
In order to cover such broad territory, an author needs a guiding philosophy, and in presenting his own, Katz takes sides in a dispute that’s been smoldering for the last century. Is Yiddish primarily the language of tradition or of the left wing? Is mameloshn religious or radical?
Katz comes down on the side of tradition. Yiddish hangs on “religious and ideological continuity,” that is, traditionalist observance “challenged and enriched…by secular outbursts” that occur during the first few generations of “creative intermingling” with tolerant non-Jewish civilizations, and then sputter out in their descendants’ assimilation. According to Katz, although the “outbursts” produce much of great value, it is the continuing chain of tradition on which the language depends.
The material that Katz compiles about Yiddish among the ultra-Orthodox, both past and present, can be found in no other book for the lay public, and only very rarely in the scholarly literature. Katz explains (with excitement just short of glee) that the year 1864, the same famous founding year in which Mendele Moykher Sforim began to publish the first “modern masterpiece of Yiddish prose,” saw a proclamation of the religious sanctity of Yiddish in the will of the founder of ultra-Orthodoxy, the Khasam-Soyfer.
Moreover, in his ideological but invigorating conclusion, Katz brings us back to the present day, maintaining that all those interested in Yiddish language and literature must concern themselves with the ultra-Orthodox, mostly Hasidic population that will constitute the vast majority of future Yiddish speakers. Non-ultra-Orthodox Yiddish speakers and cultivators, he argues, are builders of bridge to the day when “the Hasidic world, the new Ashkenaz, moves from Yiddish popular literature to an era of new masterpieces.” Though this “bridge” chapter is a comparatively small one in the history of Yiddish, it is being written at this very moment.
The downside of Katz’s admirable enthusiasm is that it is a shaky foundation for an argument. The reader looking for a bibliography, information on further reading, or, indeed, any sort of notes (end-, foot- or otherwise) will be frustrated by “Words on Fire,” and minor-but-annoying mistakes pop up often. Substantive innovations that he would have done well to explain to the lay reader — such as his interesting claim that Aramaic played the role of Ashkenazic Jews’ “third language” after Yiddish and Hebrew — are shot up like flares, providing more interest than light. At times, one senses that rather than a handbook to the history of Yiddish, or a gateway to study, Katz’s treatment is meant to be the Truth. Such an attitude might explain the author’s peculiar omissions and inclusions in Yiddish literary history (in particular, modern American Yiddish literature is given little more than a paragraph) and his sneers at today’s Yiddish-language activists.
But apart from these qualifications, this book is probably the most intelligent and energetic one-volume introduction available to the history of Yiddish and its culture, entertaining and informing the ignorant while enlightening even the very knowledgeable. Its attitude toward Yiddish is positive without being politically correct and academically well founded without being library dry. Thus one greets this book with the traditional wish: May there be more like it in Israel!
Zackary Sholem Berger is a frequent contributor to the Forward and the Yiddish Forward. He lives in Baltimore.