Friday, September 9, 2011

New Book: "Yiddishkeit"

Yiddishkeit by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle, published last week, is a mixed bag of short vignettes about Yiddish authors; one-page summaries of various historic trends (especially political activism and persecution of left-wingers); graphic-novel treatments of the lives of movie script writers, actors, and other entertainment figures; and one full-length play containing excerpts from many Yiddish theater works.

The visual treatment of literary and biographical topics in Yiddishkeit is fun, but very truncated: for example, it offers a 3-page summary of Aaron Lansky’s memoir Outwitting History, (and by the way, I think Lansky's treatment of Yiddish in America in Outwitting History is better and more comprehensive) and a 12-page “retelling” in graphic form of the 1937 Yiddish movie “Greenfields.” And more.

Needless to say, it has quite a few things to say about Yiddish having been a secular language, but now having become the everyday language of the religious Chassids, and of few others. Although many of the writers, performers, and political figures that appear in the book were indeed secular Jews, I was a bit disappointed that among other ideas, this wasn't particularly well fleshed-out in the vignettes. All in all, the book tried to do much more than would be possible in such a short treatment, and didn't live up to what it promised.

The introductory narratives in this book suggests that it is some type of comprehensive treatment of Yiddish culture – Yiddishkeit – in America. It implies that there will be material about the exceptionality of Yiddish as a language, though I don’t think that’s really achieved. And while it covers a lot of other cultural material, it also misses some very big topics, and I think it misses them with a bias.

Would you be surprised if I thought it was biased against women? That it missed the presence of Yiddish-speaking Jews and Yiddish culture outside of New York and Hollywood? That it skipped over the existence of scholars of Yiddish language and culture prior to the current academic version of Yiddish studies? In other words, it has a very limited view of the subject.

Here are some of the topics that might make a more complete story of Yiddishkeit that are dismissed, glossed over, or not there at all:
  • Food. I’m sure there’s a mention of a New York deli somewhere, but here’s one example of how this doesn’t exactly deal with the food of the Yiddish speakers in America – no mention of the adoption of the bagel by the American mainstream. I wish it had a graphic bio of Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s Deli!
  • Social Work. The political activist Yiddishists are reasonably well-covered but the way that Jews trying to help the poor immigrants to assimilate and in the process inventing the modern field of social work doesn’t appear. A graphic treatment of the Settlement Cookbook would be welcome here. But in this world, women don’t count, I fear, unless they are minor writers or actors.
  • Organizations of immigrants from specific communities (Landsmanshaften). These receive a passing mention, but don’t do justice to them. How about a graphic treatment showing how they were critical in the process of transmitting Yiddish culture from immigrants to their families.
  • The Forward and Abraham Cahan. Sure the Forward is mentioned, but its importance is dismissed. For example, Hershl Hartman is listed as “the first native-born Yiddish journalist” (p. p.229) and his work is more than half a century after that of native-speaker Cahan and others writing in either or both languages. If the real issue is what Yiddishkeit gave to American culture, a description of the influence of the “Bintel Brief” – the Forward’s advice column – would be in order.
  • English-language novels about Yiddishkeit. Cahan also wrote very important novels about Yiddish-speaking immigrants – in English. Several other writers also did, but there’s little or nothing about them. Much more about the European Yiddish novelists, and lots of attacks on I.B.Singer.
  • YIVO. Scholarly Yiddish study and attempt to document the language began in Vilna and moved to New York when hounded out of Europe. A bit more detail on this important institution -- mentioned only in passing in the book -- would fill out the story.
I’m no scholar at all. I can’t imagine how many more topics would be needed to deserve the claims this book makes about its achievement.

Note: I posted some of this little review on the Yiddishkeit page at

No comments:

Post a Comment