Book Review | ‘How Yiddish Changed America’ Chronicles a Rich Language

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How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish

Edited by Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert

Restless Books

“Radical, dangerous and sexy.”

This is not the tagline for the 10th installment of the “Fast and Furious” franchise or a new perfume “created by” Lady Gaga. Rather, it’s the way Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert describe the Yiddish language.

It’s not the way most people think of Yiddish, and that’s precisely the point. Stavans, a professor of humanities and Latin American culture at Amherst College, and Lambert, the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, came together to curate an anthology that would challenge the way people think about Yiddish, and much of their new book, “How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish,” is indeed surprising, despite the presence of familiar names like Cynthia Ozick and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

The book, in which the authors invite you to “dive into the diversity and complexity of American Yiddish culture,” is meant to be experienced, they say, like a “grab bag, an opportunity for readers to get a little lost and to discover something that they weren’t expecting,” they write in the preface.

Though it’s divided into six discrete sections (food, politics, etc.), each prefaced by a contextual headnote, the thematic imposition on the selections is unnecessary. It’s best to just open the book to a random page, context and chronology be damned, and enjoy the smorgasbord.

Naturally, there’s plenty to choose from. Yiddish has been around for about 1,000 years and, over the decades, it has morphed and changed as its speakers’ lives have. The most dramatic change, of course, came post-World War II. Prior to the war, Yiddish was spoken by some 13 million people. Now, the estimate hovers around 400,000 people. This book’s quirky, unusual translations — many of them culled from the Yiddish Book Center’s collection — will make you feel that loss more acutely.

Here are just a few of the delights the anthology presents: a 1936 letter to the Forverts responding to an article about female-to-male sex reassignment surgery, in which the letter writer happily recalls a gender-nonconforming person in a shtetl in Ukraine; an Emma Goldman screed against marriage, “the curse of so many centuries”; an editorial cartoon from 1915 that shows Uncle Sam bellying up to the bar to drink from bottles labeled “Militarism,” “Imperialism” and “Chauvinism”; 1911 recipes for borscht and kreplach marketed to “the Jewish housewife”; an oral history of Yiddish in Hollywood by Jerry Stiller, Walter Matthau, Leonard Nimoy and others; an excerpt from the 2014 graphic novel “A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York” by Liana Finck; and, most shockingly, an “appreciation” of Isaac Bashevis Singer by people who knew him, including the late Janet Hadda, a psychoanalyst and Yiddish professor, who said of Singer: “He was manipulative, nasty, opportunistic and cynical. Furthermore, he was a sell-out.”

Heresy!

Of course, Bashevis Singer’s legacy and influence pervades every page of this book, explicitly and implicitly, even as the selections might not, at first glance, seem to connect with him. Was Grace Paley influenced by Singer? Was Allen Ginsburg? It’s something you might consider now that they’re between these pages.

Most impressively, the book includes female writers who are not household names the way Singer is, but perhaps deserve more significant attention. I am happy to learn of the work of poets Celia Dropkin and Anna Margolin, for example, who both died in the mid-1950s and who I hadn’t read before, and Malka Heifetz-Tussman, who wrote books I’d never heard of but will now seek out.

In addition to “radical, dangerous and sexy,” Stavans and Lambert also characterize Yiddish as “sweet, generous and full of life.” This fine volume proves their point and serves both as an elegy for voices lost and an impetus for Yiddishkeit discovery.

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