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The Story of Yiddish


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About the Author

Neal Karlen was speaking Yiddish at home well before he was a staff writer at Newsweek and Rolling Stone. A regular contributor to the New York Times, he has studied Yiddish at Brown University, New York's Inlingua Institute, and the University of Minnesota's Graduate School of Journalism, where he teaches nonfiction writing.


Karlen (Shanda: The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew) offers an often pleasant but clunkily written romp through Yiddish and Yiddishkeit (the culture of Ashkenazic Jews) in America. There are some colorful anecdotes about figures as varied as Bob Dylan, the philanthropist Jacob Schiff and the contemporary Hasidic rabbi Manis Friedman, as well as an introduction to many useful witty Yiddish phrases (the literal Yiddish for "she's good in bed" is "she knows how to dance the mattress polka"). But, oy, are there problems. The book is replete with repetition of anecdotes and observations, and there are errors of fact (Moses Mendelssohn never converted to Christianity, nor does the Bible say, "you shouldn't cook beef in its own calf's milk"). Worse, Karlen provides cartoon versions of Jewish history, shtetl life and scholarship. He makes only a thin case for the thesis stated in his subtitle. As an introduction to Yiddish, Michael Wex's Born to Kvetch is not only more erudite but funnier as well. (Apr. 8) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

In this witty, lively, thoroughly engaging, and thought-provoking book that is part memoir, part anecdote, and part linguistic history, literary journalist Karlen captures the impressive and exhaustive history of Yiddish as a language: how it came about, its metamorphosis throughout the ages, and its place in Jewish culture and history. He also attempts answers to larger philosophical and cultural questions, e.g., "What constitutes `Yiddishkeit'?" examining a dazzling array of personages through the alembic of Yiddish language and culture to help define this ever-changing, all-inclusive, and somewhat amorphous concept. He devotes much of the text to examples with translations from Yiddish, how Yiddish is distinguishable and distinctive from German, and the sometimes uncomfortable relationship between the two. In addition to being a wonderful popular history of Yiddish, this is an accurate (albeit abbreviated) account of how Yiddish found legitimacy in America and a place in the academy that manages to capture both the linguistic diversity of Yiddish and the cultural diversity of Yiddishkeit. With an exhaustive, well-documented bibliography; essential reading for anyone interested in Jewish culture and the Yiddish language. Highly recommended for all libraries.--Herbert E. Shapiro, Empire State Coll., SUNY Rochester Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.

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