Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish
by Dovid Katz
Basic Books. 464 pp. $26.95
Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books
by Aaron Lansky
Algonquin. 316 pp. $24.95
While on an academic tour of Lithuania last summer, I came upon a folio-sized book displayed in stores all over the country. It stood out as the only English-language book in the window, and certainly as the only one whose cover also featured Hebrew lettering. Upon inspection, the book, Lithuanian Jewish Culture, turned out to have been heavily subsidized by the Republic of Lithuania, and was clearly intended for the tourist trade and for coffee tables in the West. The tipoff was not just the $100 price tag, the elaborate multicolored maps, or the hundreds of facsimiles and photos; it was the upbeat message. However remote present-day Lithuania may seem from anything Jewish, however tiny its own surviving Jewish population, Lithuanian Jewish Culture offers up a technicolor dreamscape of nostalgia, a “Jewish Lithuania” stretching from the Baltic to Smolensk, its great “Litvak civilization” encompassing hundreds of once-Jewish cities, towns, and hamlets.
Dovid Katz, the author of Lithuanian Jewish Culture, is himself an American-born “Litvak,” or Jew of Lithuanian descent, who in 1999 came full circle by making his home in the country’s capital city of Vilnius, where he promptly established the first-ever Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University. Katz is also a noted scholar who now, in Words on Fire, has two compelling stories to tell about his academic specialty, the Yiddish language. One is the story of Yiddish as the key to a transnational, cross-cultural, pan-European civilization “of seemingly infinite differentiation.” The other is the story of Yiddish as the major repository of internal Jewish memory, continuity, tradition, and “fun.”
To anyone meeting him in person, Dovid Katz comes across as a mixture of Falstaff, Karl Marx, and a charismatic hasidic rebbe. Meeting him in print gives the same impression.
The Falstaffian side of his character is most evident in his aggressively antic style. Eight of this book’s eleven chapters treat an arcane corpus of medieval and early-modern works that most readers will never have heard of: biblical glosses, verse romances, rhymed chronicles, penitential and petitionary prayers, moralistic tracts. Intent upon enlivening this miscellany of obscure texts, Katz employs 60’s slang and Madison Avenue hype, informing us at one point that a 14th-century scholar “went nuclear” over the idea of producing a self-help manual in Yiddish for married couples, at another point describing a hypothetical reader as “rolling in laughter” at the “homespun Yiddish” in a verse romance from the Italian Renaissance, at still another hailing a yet-to-be-published anthology of early Yiddish texts “puls[ing] with the rhythms of a confident, wholly natural ‘Jewish-in-Jewish’ civilization that is spiritually at peace with itself and with components of the outside world that do not threaten it.” Whatever the charms of Old Yiddish literature, the author’s prose is in perpetual overdrive.
The Karl Marx aspect is less straightforward. Not that Katz exactly hides the fact that he is a reddiaper baby: in a sketchy survey of Yiddish culture in the 20th century, he singles out “left-wing poets” for special praise and lauds the radical-Left variety of Yiddish popular culture over the supposedly tired products of the mainstream. More subtle is his recurrent tactic of championing a deep-seated “Yiddish rebellion” against hierarchical authority that has, supposedly, been under way in Jewish life for centuries.
For Katz, it appears, every Yiddish book, regardless of its subject or theme, is in and of itself a political statement, and it is so simply by virtue of the fact of having been written in Yiddish, the lowly vernacular, rather than in either of the two higher-status Jewish languages of Hebrew and Aramaic. Thus, Jacob ben Joseph of Yanov, the editor-translator of the Tsene-Urene, a famous Yiddish homiletic Bible from the 16th century, is hailed by Katz as the “liberator” of Jewish women, his main intended audience. Other examples of this “daring Yiddish counter-spirit” to the stratified and male-dominated society of traditional East European Jewry are replete throughout the book.
But this brings us to the hasidic rebbe in Katz. For him, Yiddish is the supreme expression of the culture of Ashkenaz—i.e., Franco-German and East European—Jewry. Some of the qualities of that culture, he stipulates, are its humor, its self-confidence, and its companionability with some of the more benign aspects of the outside world. But the uniqueness of Ashkenaz, the quality that makes it not just Jewish but “Jewish-in-Jewish,” lies elsewhere. It is an artifact of the “internal Jewish trilingualism” we have already encountered. And in that triad, Yiddish had a unique advantage. After all, the two scriptural and scribal languages of Hebrew and Aramaic were not spoken, while Yiddish, though traditionally ranked below them, was not only spoken but spoken universally.
Katz has more or less lifted this conceptual framework, without acknowledgment, from the great historian of the Yiddish language, Max Weinreich. One minor difference is that whereas Weinreich treated Hebrew and Aramaic as a single linguistic-cultural entity, a language the Jews called “loshn-koydesh,” the sacred tongue, Katz has split them asunder, the better, no doubt, to highlight the rebellious specialness of Yiddish. Another and more important difference is that Weinreich spoke of Yiddish as “the language of the Way of the Talmud”—that is, a language that came to enjoy “co-sanctification” with Hebrew-Aramaic because of the manifold ways in which it helped its speakers mediate the laws and customs of rabbinic Judaism. By contrast, Katz locates one of the essential qualities of Ashkenaz not in adherence to talmudic law but in an affinity to kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. Accordingly, he devotes a great deal of space in Words on Fire to reviewing the history of Jewish mysticism from the 11th-century Ashkenazi pietists to the rise and fall of Sabbetai Zvi, the 17th-century false messiah, and beyond.
The reason for this displacement of the Talmud, the supreme casebook of rabbinic law and lore, becomes clear when Katz’s historical survey finally reaches the development of Hasidism in the 18th century. This movement, the culminating phase of kabbalah, remains, in Katz’s formulation, “the most potent force in world Jewry,” its adherents having proved “able to survive everything the modern world, Jewish or non-Jewish, has hurled at” them. And the languages in which they have characteristically accomplished that monumental task? Hebrew and Aramaic, their languages of prayer and study, to be sure; but Yiddish, their spoken language and the language in which they conduct their study, above all. Indeed, in the book’s final chapter we learn why the story of Yiddish is to be considered, as Katz’s title suggests, “unfinished”: because its pages are still being written by the only vital and truly resilient branch of Jewry, the Yiddish-speaking, ultra-Orthodox Hasidim.
As a story-teller, Dovid Katz leaves much to be desired. Because he seems never to have learned the difference between telling and showing, his hyped-up prose engenders as much head-scratching tedium as do his polemics and his special pleading. Because he has a better ear for his own voice than for literature, his selections from seven centuries’ worth of Yiddish writing seem both paltry and pedestrian. His case for Hasidism having preserved the sanctity of Yiddish, dubious as it is, would have been bolstered by just one passage from The Tales of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, the only major kabbalistic work originally composed in that language; alas, no passage is forthcoming.
By the concluding chapters, in any case, Words on Fire has lost all pretense to being a story and has descended into dogmatic flailing—against the early Zionists who fought for Hebrew over Yiddish as the Jewish national language, against contemporary professors of Yiddish who lack either the proper linguistic training or the proper ideological disposition, and so forth. The rich culture wars between Hebrew and Yiddish in pre-state Palestine are laid out in ten bloody and partisan pages, ending in a screed against modern-day Hebrew, a language Katz satirically labels “Israeli.” This self-professed historian of Ashkenaz seems utterly deaf to the manifold ways in which modern Hebrew has actually absorbed not only the music of Yiddish but thereby the spirit of Ashkenaz itself—even as it has absorbed Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Romance, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Greek, neo-Aramaic, Amharic, and other Jewish languages.
To move from Dovid Katz to Aaron Lansky is to move from ideology to idealism. Outwitting History, a first-person account, tracks the journey of a third-generation American Jew, with only a vestigial memory of his immigrant past, who in the 1980’s discovered the single rescuable element of that past: disused Yiddish books, stored away in cellars or thrown into dumpsters awaiting the wrecking ball of urban renewal.
Between the covers of these books, the young Lansky realized, lay one of the great revolutions of modern times—the cultural enlightenment and self-emancipation of East European Jewry. Since many of the Jews who first owned and read them had voted with their feet, setting out from their compact, Yiddish-speaking communities to the far ends of the earth, the books themselves, both old and new, had ended up in Australia, South Africa, Israel, and in every conceivable place in North and South America. By the time Lansky, his small army of volunteers, and his pickup truck arrived on the scene—just one step ahead of the dump, the rats, and the mildew—the books were already indecipherable by the children, and sometimes even by the surviving spouses, of the original owners. The cultural revolution had succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams: Yiddish readers had ended by emancipating themselves from themselves.
The physical rescue of the books turned out to be the easy part. Putting them in order, making the collection accessible, taking possession of their intellectual content, were by far the more daunting tasks. In an apple orchard in western Massachusetts, Lansky proceeded to build the National Yiddish Book Center, a state-of-the-art repository and cultural center to house, exhibit, and “unpack” the contents of one million unread and unwanted volumes. That center and its many programs and projects thrive today.
Since I collaborate with Aaron Lansky on one of his center’s projects, I can hardly claim to be a disinterested reviewer of his book. What I can objectively say is that, in more ways than one, the story he tells in a deceptively light-hearted, picaresque style makes an instructive contrast to Dovid Katz’s Words on Fire.
Can the dead books of Yiddish rise again? Can history be “outwitted”? Katz and Lansky lay out two mutually incompatible blueprints. For Katz, only by resegregating themselves, and by reaffirming the sacred triad of Hebrew-Aramaic-Yiddish, will Jews succeed in bringing about a rebirth of Ashkenazi culture. Only thus, among the religiously faithful, will Yiddish itself return to its confident, natural, “Jewish-in-Jewish” self.
For Lansky, Yiddish must on the contrary be revived within an open society, in a marketplace of competing ideas and competing identities. He has had the chutzpah to dream up a radically new home for Yiddish, a physical home with spiritual overtones, and one that under a single roof manages to combine a number of competing Jewish identities of its own. Far removed from the insular Yiddish homesteads of old, Lansky’s book center is dedicated to celebrating secular Yiddish culture, but with a strictly kosher cafeteria. If you build it, he has demonstrated with American bravado, they will come. I am with him on that one.