Thursday, February 01, 2007

Books on Language – Yiddish

Continuing with books on language, this post will be on Yiddish.

I read two books on the subject not long ago, and they complemented each other well. The books were Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish by Dovid Katz and Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky.

Mr. Katz’s thick, instructive book gives the history of Yiddish, explaining where it came from, how it was used in different situations than Hebrew and Aramaic (that is, for Ashkenazi Jews; other Jews did not traditionally speak Yiddish), and how it was viewed. He also looks at Yiddish literature, who speaks Yiddish today, and other related topics.

Mr. Lansky’s book is about his personal journey with Yiddish and how he helped save Yiddish books. He was a doctoral student when he realized that as elderly, Yiddish-speaking Jews died, their children, who generally did not know Yiddish, threw out their Yiddish books. Mr. Lansky quit his program in order to save the Yiddish books, travelling around the world to do so, eventually starting the National Yiddish Book Center in Massachusetts as a library, center, resource place, and shop for Yiddish books. He has helped save over 1.5 million Yiddish books and his adventures are both fun and sad.

It was interesting to read the two books together, because first I learned about what the mamaloshen meant – and means – to Ashkenazi Jews, and then I read about Yiddish in modern times and what has happened to Yiddish books.

Let me know about other good books about languages!

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