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Yiddish: A Nation of Words

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About a thousand years ago, European Jews began speaking a language that was quite different from the various tongues and dialects that swirled around them. It included Hebrew, a touch of the Romance and Slavic languages, and a large helping of German. In a world of earthly wandering, this pungent, witty, and infinitely nuanced speech, full of jokes, puns, and ironies, became the linguistic home of the Jews, the bond that held a people together.

Here is the remarkable story of how this humble language took vigorous root in Eastern European shtetls and in the Jewish quarters of cities across Europe; how it achieved a rich literary flowering between the wars in Europe and America; how it was rejected by emancipated Jews; and how it fell victim to the Holocaust. And how, in yet another twist of destiny, Yiddish today is becoming the darling of academia. Yiddish is a history as story, a tale of flesh-and-blood people with manic humor, visionary courage, brilliant causes, and glorious flaws. It will delight everyone who cares about language, literature, and culture.

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"Positive, upbeat, practical, deeply rooted in Jewish history. That's our language. That's Yiddish." These words refer to the first recognizable Yiddish sentence extant, dated 1272, translated as "A good day will happen to the person who brings this mahzor [prayer book] to the synagogue." Yiddish: A Nation of Words is a popular history of this dying Jewish language, an amalgam of Hebrew and European languages, which dates to the early Middle Ages. Author Mariam Weinstein, a freelance journalist in Massachusetts who grew up in the Bronx when Yiddish could still be heard on almost any street corner, takes to her subject with enthusiasm. Her casual tone doesn't compromise her considerable intelligence, which shines especially in her discussion of the leading roles that women have played in the history of the language. (For centuries, women were not educated in Hebrew, so Yiddish became their particular idiom.) Another of the book's strengths is its account of the demise of Yiddish, which Weinstein attributes primarily to the trauma of the Holocaust and its aftermath of rapid assimilation. Perhaps the most pleasing and important thing about Weinstein's book, however, is that it does for Yiddish something like what, she argues, Yiddish did for Hebrew. "By letting words and phrases slip from the prayers of the older language into the younger, it kept the sacred tongue available to people who did not speak it every day." --Michael Joseph Gross

About the Author:

Miriam Weinstein grew up in the Bronx following World War II, a time and place where Yiddish was standard fare. Once a documentary filmmaker, she is now a freelance journalist whose features have won several awards from the New England Press Association. Her other books include The Surprising Power of Family Meals, also available from Steerforth Press.

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