My grandparents and their friends were first generation Americans. Their parents came over from Eastern Europe and Russia in the late 19th century. They grew up hearing and understanding Yiddish, but they all spoke English first. When I was very young, I wouldn’t pay attention to their conversation until they started speaking Yiddish. Then I knew they were either talking about me or about something they didn’t want me to hear, so naturally I was interested.
Yiddish is still spoken today, mainly by Orthodox Jews around the world who feel that the Hebrew language should be reserved for religious prayer and study. There are notable exceptions of course.
Here is a little sampling of Yiddish meshugas (craziness) from the library:
We have the printed editions, but it is such a pleasure to listen to the audio versions of books by Michael Wex, self-narrated and delivered in a wonderfully droll style. Oy, what a maven of a linguist! I get a rise out of listening to the cadences and pronunciation of the language, rather than just reading the transliterated words on paper.
Just Say Nu introduces Yiddish words and phrases in context. Wex provides multiple examples in English to illustrate subtle shades of meaning, in an amusing and very Yiddish way.
Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods. Yiddish is a highly idiomatic language, and you need cultural context to understand what is really being said. Wex gives the most comprehensive and insightful look into the culture of Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jews that I have ever encountered. Before I listened to this CD, my main cultural reference of this culture came from Fiddler on the Roof. I am somewhat surprised by how superstitious Jews in the old country were. Do I need to mention that this book is also highly amusing?
Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land, edited by Harvey Pekar & Paul Buhle with Hershl Hartman; introduction by Neal Gabler. This is a graphic non-fiction book about Yiddish cultural history in US, penned and inked by various authors and illustrators. Some are quick and humorous reads, others you really have to slog through, but overall this volume gives you a way to get an immersive feel for what the people and the environment were like.
Bibliophiles will love Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky. Lansky was on a rescue mission to save books from trash heaps “with little more than his own chutzpah,” especially as older Jewish collectors of Yiddish books passed on. One of the major problems he needed to solve was where to store the volumes. Here is a modern day, real life Guy Montag (from Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451). To see his legacy visit The National Yiddish Book Center.
Classic Yiddish Stories of S.Y. Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and I.L. Peretz, edited by Ken Frieden; translated by Ken Frieden, Ted Gorelick, and Michael Wex. There’s lots of Yiddish literature to choose from, but a good place to start are these short stories by three of the best known Yiddish writers, expertly translated to retain nuances of meaning. These tales are about many different facets of Jewish life in eastern Europe, full of satire, social commentary, dybbuks (demons), life in the shtetl, and most importantly, a sense of humor.
Mammeloshn : A Collection of Classic Yiddish Folksong – Compiled and edited by Velvel Pasternak. This is one of a handful of Yiddish songbooks in our collection. It contains a song I learned from my great-grandmother “Bubie” called “Oifn Pripitchik.”
Klezmer on CD – Listen while you read!