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Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish
By Dovid Katz
464 pages. Basic Books. $26.95.

Dovid Katz’s fascinating linguistic and narrative history of Yiddish posits the mameloshn as a surviving link in an uninterrupted “Jewish language chain” stretching from ancient Hebrew and Aramaic to the present. Moreover, though Yiddish is on the UN’s list of endangered languages expected to flicker out of existence over the next century, Katz sees a vibrant future for it.

Yiddish, which developed in central Europe about 1,000 years ago, fuses elements of German, Hebrew, Aramaic, and (as it moved east) Slavic, while drawing vocabulary from every language among which Yiddish speakers lived. Deeply imbued with Jewish experience and sensibility—Yiddish means Jewish, after all—the language encapsulates the meeting of a “language and people from the Near East with language and people in Europe.” That confrontation gave rise to a wholly new Jewish culture.

European Jewish culture was “trilingual,” using Hebrew for Bible, commentaries, and community documents; Aramaic for Talmud and Kabbalah; and Yiddish as the spoken, and later written, vernacular of ordinary Jews. Books were written in Yiddish for women, empowering them, and later for men, and still later by women. As the fortunes of Yiddish improved, even kabbalistic works appeared, including the core work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, in 1711. In the end, Jews were dispersed throughout eastern Europe, too, and Yiddish was the native language of almost all of them.

How did the “modern” Jew arise? Katz blames the German Jews. Western Askenaz culture declined, partly in confrontation with German anti-Semitism, to which the Jews’ “secret language” was an “ugly, barbaric ‘jargon’ emblematic of Jews’ lack of civilization.” By the mid-18th century, German Jews internalized anti-Semitic critiques, and many thought that if they adopted the German language and became like everyone else, German society would accept them. The task of molding a form of Judaism palatable to the gentiles was undertaken by the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who was hostile to Yiddish (“this jargon has contributed much to the immorality of common Jews”) and tried to eradicate it in order to replace it with German.

“Few kinds of hate are as potent as self-hate,” Katz notes correctly, describing how Mendelssohn and his successors tried to exterminate Yiddish. Reform Judaism and even German neo-Orthodoxy “focused on the premise of linguistic assimilation and a German-speaking Jewry,” Katz recounts. But, he adds, Jews behaving like Germans only infuriated the local anti-Semites even more.

Politics and wars brought some eastern European Jews under the control of German-speaking anti-Yiddish governments, while others fell under Russian rule. From both sides, they faced pressures for acculturation, with many programs against traditional religion and Yiddish supported by Jewish “enlighteners.”

However, in Eastern Europe Yiddish was stronger than the assimilationists. Indeed, the leaders of the Haskalah—who were forced, like Zionists later, to use Yiddish because that was the people’s language while it tried to influence them away from Yiddish—contributed to the “secular outburst” of a major literature in Yiddish whose rise Katz traces through the 19th and 20th centuries.

The masters of that secular outburst, like the Zionists who founded the state of Israel, had been brought up in or close to the Yiddish-speaking traditionalist environment.  The “traditionally religious Askenazi Jewish society with its internal Jewish trilingualism,” Katz instructs us, remains the only milieu that can support Yiddish.

Today’s ultra-Orthodox are not proponents of secular Yiddish literature or, for that matter, of Zionism. Nonetheless, according to Katz, the Yiddish future belongs to them, not to the university programs and klezmer festivals that have sparked rumors of a Yiddish revival. Demographic projections indicate that by the end of the current century, ultra-Orthodox Jews will form the Jewish majority in the Diaspora, and their insistence on maintaining Yiddish as a native language, makes its long-term survival “a simple and foregone conclusion.”

The tragedy of Jewish success in the New World has been that American Jews, among the fastest of groups to cast off their native tongue, generally deprived their children of the opportunity to learn it. In America, the purpose of the Yiddish press became to Americanize the immigrants, while the Hebrew day school system “excluded” Yiddish and its achievements from its curriculum, Katz laments.

American Jewry has largely retained the humanistic and liberal views it inherited from Yiddish but has held on less successfully to the language’s deeply Jewish outlook. Katz does not belabor the point, but for a contemporary reader, the subtext of his history will be American Jewish ignorance of any Jewish language, growing distance from Jewish culture and traditions, and separation from a coherent and integrated Jewish community, all of which Yiddish provided.

A professor of Yiddish language, literature, and culture at Vilnius University and the author of many books and papers in his field (including three collections of Yiddish fiction), Katz provides lively accounts of the migrations of European Jews and the fate of Yiddish in the USSR and in pre-State Palestine, and he profiles many lesser-known but important literary and political figures in Yiddish-speaking Europe.

Surprisingly, however, he omits any comparison of Yiddish to other Jewish languages, such as Ladino or Persian-Jewish. It would have been interesting to know his opinion as a linguist of whether they are, like Yiddish, complete languages or only partial dialects, and to have some evaluation or comparison of their accomplishments.