Between 1880 and 1914 some 2 million Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews immigrated to the Western Hemisphere, most arriving in New York City and many settling there. Prompted by severe poverty, political disenfranchisement and government-sanctioned pogroms, they sought — and found — the freedoms that America promised. Yet, as Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert’s rich and multifaceted anthology shows in detail, becoming American meant leaving behind much of what defined European Jewry, Yiddish included.
“How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish” is sort of a love letter to Yiddish, the 1,000-year-old vernacular spoken by Eastern European Jews. While Hebrew was the language of holy texts and formal education, Yiddish was the mother tongue, the “mamaloshn,” the language of conversation and jokes. The editors, both academics, see their collection as a kind of “grab bag,” and while it contains many surprises (Allen Ginsberg! Alan Alda! Crisco!), I saw it more as a taster menu, 63 short entries that allow one to sample Yiddish as an essential component of Jewish history, literature, food, art and generational change. Stavans and Lambert include letters, memoirs, short stories, appreciations, parodies, poems, and (highly caloric) recipes. Writers as diverse as Emma Goldman, Grace Paley, Maurice Sendak and Leonard Nimoy make appearances.
One of the anthology’s themes is how, as Stavans puts it, Yiddish is “a chameleon language, making itself part of an alien turf.” In his excellent essay on Leo Rosten (“The Joys of Yiddish”), Stavans notes how Yiddish has influenced the language of Gentiles. Have you ever schlepped to the delicatessen for fresh bagels? At the same time, he points out, it has run dry among Jews. Comedian Alan King joked in 1995 that it is “the language the adults speak when they don’t want the kids to understand,” yet among 21st-century adults, it is mostly the Hasidic communities where Yiddish is widely spoken and understood.
Among the many fine pieces are Cynthia Ozick’s appreciation of Sholem Aleichem, “the premier mythmaker,” whom she credits with making Yiddish into a literary language in creating the Tevye tales, a set of dark stories of cultural disintegration that were lightened up for “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Pride of place belongs to Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose 1968 story “Cafeteria” is included along with an essay on the place of a Yiddish writer in America and an appreciation of his work. Singer is the only Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the author of ghostly short stories that explore the limits of memory and reason.
This is an encompassing collection and an engrossing one. The section on Jewish food — including Chinese, the second Jewish cuisine — is terrific. The editors conclude by widening their perspective to include accounts of growing up Yiddish in the other Americas — Ruth Behar in Cuba, Stavans in Mexico.
Tom Zelman is professor emeritus at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish
Edited by: Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert.
Publisher: Restless Books, 416 pages, $29.99.