Off the Shelf: Yiddish in America by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I never learned to speak Yiddish, except for a few words almost everyone knows, for a reason that will resonate with many people. Yiddish was the language that my grandparents spoke when they didn’t want my mother to understand what they were saying. My mother only knew a smattering of the language and that very limited vocabulary was passed on to me. However, Yiddish language and culture did influence American life and, if you believe “How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish” edited by Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert (Restless Books), America also influenced Yiddish. 

In their preface, the editors note that Yiddish has been called a language without an address or homeland, or thought of as just a list of funny words. They want to show readers the true Yiddish – or perhaps Yiddish culture – that they think is sexy and radical. This is not a nostalgic look at one’s grandparents or great-grandparents – although the essays, articles and poems feature authors from the late 1900s to contemporary times – but a way of showing that Yiddish is still alive. The editors also note that Yiddish language and culture was not monolithic: it was as diverse as the number of Jewish immigrants who came to the western hemisphere. These immigrants and their offspring changed American culture, while also being influenced by that same culture.

The book is divided into six sections, although the decision about what to place where seems arbitrary for some of the works. My favorite sections were “Eat, Enjoy, and Forget” (about food) and “The Other America” (about Yiddish culture outside the United States). The very short selection taken from Aaron Lansky’s memoir “Outwitting History” reminded me how wonderful that book was. Lansky tells of how, when recovering books from older speakers of Yiddish, they needed three people: two to carry the books and one to sit with the owner and eat all the food they’d prepared. “Kosher Chinese” by Matthew Goodman talks about the development of Jewish food in America, including those that became part of mainstream American culture. The section also included discussions on particular kinds of Jewish foods and two sets of recipes (some from the makers of Crisco. which appeared in a pamphlet originally published in 1933).

The selections in “The Other America” offer a different view of Jewish life. In “A Room Named Ruth,” novelist Ruth Behar presents a political and personal look at Jewish life in Cuba. Goldie Morgentaler discusses teaching Yiddish in Canada in “Bontshe Shvayg in Lethbridge,” which also includes a Jewish history of the area. This section also offered my favorite short story in the collection: “Camacho’s Wedding Feast” by Alberto Gerchunoff, a delightful tale of thwarted love in Argentina.

Many of the Yiddish short stories were not particularly cheerful, whether it was the opening tale “A Ghetto Wedding” by Abraham Cahan (which seems an accurate portrayal of the hard times immigrants faced), I. B. Singer’s “The Cafeteria” (with its not-very-pleasant characters) or Blume Lempel’s “Oedipus in Brooklyn” (that left me shuddering). My preference was the essays. For example, Paul Buhle’s “Di Freifheit, A Personal Reflection” not only tells of his time at the Yiddish paper, but offers a fascinating look at Jewish politics, particularly the left who supported communism in Russia before learning just how horribly wrong that experiment went. The selection from the play “Messiah in America” by Moyshe Nadir was a satirical look at messiahs, show business and capitalism that left me wishing the whole play had been included. Cynthia Ozick’s “Sholem Aleichem’s Revolution” offered not only an excellent look at the writer and his work, but an analysis of how he made writing in Yiddish literarily acceptable. Several of the essays about Yiddish as a language – from the section “The Mother Tongue Remixed” – were also interesting.

“How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish” contains a wide variety of material, some of which was more appealing than others. However, the volume, which fills 400 pages, did show just how vital Yiddish was and the potential it contains today. Lovers of Yiddish will, of course, want to get their hands on this collection. Anyone curious about American Yiddish culture may also find it of interest.