From the author of In Search of Zarathustra-- an illuminating chronicle of Yiddish civilization from its roots in the Diaspora to the present.
Paul Kriwaczek begins his search when Jewish culture first spreads to Europe during the Roman Empire after the end of ancient Jerusalem and the destruction of its Temple at the hands of the Romans in the year 70. We see the burgeoning exile population disperse, moving outward and northward throughout the following centuries, making their mark in more far flung cities under Roman rule. We see these communities settle and coalesce until in 1264 the Statute of Kalisz lays down a general charter of Jewish Liberties, establishing the legal foundation of a separate, self-governing Yiddish world. It is now the treks that begin from the Rhineland and Bavaria to Western Russia and the Ukraine. By its late-medieval heyday, this economically successful, intellectually adventurous, and largely self-ruling Yiddish society stretches from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
Providing a rich portrait of Yiddish civilization, Kriwaczek reflects upon the development of Yiddish language, occupations, social life, art, music, and literature, and introduces us to notable diplomats, artists, and thinkers: from the "Court Jews" of 17th- century Europe to Glikl of Hamelins, who wrote the first great Yiddish autobiography, to Moses Mendelssohn, the 18th-century philosopher and musician, to the great writers of the late 19th and 20th centuries, Sholem Aleichem and I.B. Singer among them. He chronicles the slow decline of Yiddish culture in Europe and Russia, beginning in the 17th century with the Chmielnicki Massacres in the Ukraine and culminating in the Holocaust, but looks further to fresh offshoots in the New World.
Combining intimate family anecdote, travelogue, historical research, and interviews with scholars, Kriwaczek retraces the history of this nearly extinguished civilization to give us a celebration of what remains of Yiddish culture in our own time.
Kriwaczek's charming but frustratingly rambling history places Yiddish in a very broad historical context. Admitting that he is neither "a learned Jew nor a professional historian," Kriwaczek (In Search of Zarathustra) cuts a broad swath through history as he moves, in the opening chapters, from the forum in Rome to the emergence of a distinct "Yiddish civilization" in medieval eastern Europe. Kriwaczek's insistence on defining Yiddish as a culture, or civilization, rather than a language is smart and useful--it allows him to capture the intricacies of a very complicated history and to avoid a simple "black-and-white clash between gentiles and Jews"--but it also means that his tapestry is sometimes too large. When he does narrow his focus--on, say, the autobiography of Glikl of Hamlin, born 1646, whose memoir is the first major Yiddish work by a woman--he is evocative and precise. While there is an endless amount of fascinating detail (Slavic fashions in shoes became trendy in 14th-century Europe), and all is presented in an enjoyable narrative, the book becomes more of a rumination on a number of related issues than a concise examination of a culture and a language. 16 pages of illus. not seen by PW; maps. (Nov. 3)
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October 30, 2006
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Excerpt from Yiddish Civilisation by Paul Kriwaczek
Back at the beginning of the 1950s--memory suggests--the world was all in Technicolor and it never rained in summer. Nat King Cole headed the hit parade with "They Try to Tell Us We're Too Young," Tottenham Hotspur was top of the football league and Newcastle United beat Blackpool to the Football Association cup. Butter, meat and sweets were still rationed in Britain and the average weekly wage was around 7 pounds, though you could buy a house for under five hundred. Money was tight, particularly pocket money. When the weather was fine, schoolboys like me would save our bus fares for fizzy drinks and walk the couple of miles to school instead.
Our school in north-west London drew its pupils from a wide and diverse area. Every morning, teenage boys--in the rigidly enforced uniform of grey flannel trousers, school blazers and caps (plus satchels and shining morning faces)--could be seen converging on the red-brick Victorian building like wildlife towards a waterhole. We assembled from every part of the suburb: many poorer boys from the working-class terraces leading off the busy, grimy high street, middle-class pupils from upper-bracket apartment blocks with pretentious names like Grosvenor Mansions, and a small number of rich kids from spacious six-bedroomed detached houses with carriage drives, double garages and acres of garden. One young turbaned Sikh was daily delivered to the school gates by chauffeur-driven Bentley. He was the exception; by far the largest religious minority were Jews, for whom Britain's post-war grammar schools offered the irresistible attraction of a free quasi-public-school education.
Back in those days, there was little town-and-gown trouble. True, gangs of adolescent roughnecks did gather in the seedier parts of the district, but we all knew which routes to avoid and which were safe. For some of us, however, there was one peril that was much harder to escape. A section of my route took me through one of the wealthier areas, along streets lined by big houses with wrought-iron gates and plaster-pillared porticoes, past flowery front gardens, tennis courts and recreation grounds--a mock-rural setting which still somehow recalled the real orchards, market gardens and country villas of no more than a generation or two earlier. It was just before entering this quiet would-be pastoral neighbourhood that menace lurked for young Jewish boys like me--a danger that could result in a severe beating.
If we kept our wits about us and our eyes open, we could catch sight of the threat: a group of apparently respectable middle-aged men in dark suits, loitering around the entrance to the alley which led to the local synagogue. If we were quick enough, we could take rapid evasive action. But teenage boys are much given to dreaming, and the long walk to school was the perfect opportunity to let our imaginations wander, leaving our mental autopilots to look after the practical business of working our legs and navigating them towards our destination. All too often a boy would accidentally stray within range of one of the prowlers, who would instantly dash across the road and pounce on his victim. Usually the first a boy would know of his fate was the feel of a hand grasping his shoulder and the dreaded sound of the ominous whisper: "Pssst! Bist a Yid?" and he would know that it was all up for him.
The phrase is Yiddish for Are you a Jew? The boy had been captured by one of the synagogue's minyan-shleppers, those charged with the duty of dragging (shlepping) a quorum of ten ritually adult males (a minyan) into the synagogue so that morning service could begin.
I hasten to explain that our reluctance to be caught like this was not prompted by any anti-religious feeling or atheist belief. On the contrary, many of those targeted would have only recently celebrated their religious coming of age, their barmitzvah, and, still enthusiastic, would already have dutifully recited the required morning prayers at home. No, the entirely practical problem was that waiting for the rest of the minyan to collect and then taking part in the service threatened to make us late for school, which in those days could still be, and all too often was, a caning offence.
No doubt the shleppers spoke in Yiddish so that gentiles wouldn't understand. On us boys, though, it had a different, subtler, perhaps even unintended effect. Had we been asked in English, we'd have been able to argue back, to explain about the penalty for missing morning assembly; about the French homework we had to catch up on before the next lesson; about the early morning rugby football practice, being late for which would earn us a hefty and