Saving a Language with Chutzpah

Article excerpt

Byline: NORMAN LEBRECHT

Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky (Souvenir Press, [pounds sterling]14.20) Words on Fire by Dovid Katz (Basic Books, [pounds sterling]17.99)

SEVERAL European languages - Finnish, Irish, Welsh, Catalan - returned to life in the 19th century, and one began to die. Yiddish was the vernacular of Ashkenazi Jews, a hybrid of Hebrew, Aramaic and middle-high German that took on words and syntax from Polish, Lithuanian, Russian as Jews were pushed ever further eastwards.

Dismissed by its own definition as mere "jargon", Yiddish nevertheless gave rise to a voluminous literature for an avid readership. A minor novel by Itche-Meir Dik sold 120,000 copies in 1857. Sholem Aleichem, I L Peretz and Mendele Moykher Seforim (Mendel the Bookseller) became bestsellers in the new American diaspora.

Mass migration, however, resulted in Yiddish being discarded for meltingpot English. The return-to-Zion movement in Russia replaced Yiddish with biblical Hebrew. Finally, Hitler struck a fatal blow to the language, wiping out millions of native speakers. When Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize in 1978, the award was seen as an epitaph to his mother tongue. "Yiddish has not yet said its last word," protested Singer, but few believed it would last much longer.

A student at the University of Massachussets, Aaron Lansky by name, took a course in Yiddish in the 1970s and had trouble finding set books. A trip to New York's Lower East Side revealed cellars full of mildewed classics. Lansky made it his life's mission to rescue Yiddish books.

This was a counter-cultural obsession, verging on the quixotic. America is a country that never looks back. The only people still using Yiddish, apart from the very old, were the ultra-orthodox who despised the secular and socialist books that Lansky sought and a clutch of Jewish hippies like the 1968 Chicago defendant Abbie Hoffman, who used fishwife Yiddish to abuse a starch-collared Judge Hoffman.

The idea of Yiddish as a subversive tongue, resistant to English linguistic imperialism and the Zionist vision of Israel for all Jews, was exhilarating to Lansky and friends. They would leap up in the middle of the night and drive 200 miles to rescue a club library, or a publisher's stock, that had been dumped on a skip in the rain. …