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Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish Paperback – 8 May 2007

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Product details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; New Ed edition (16 Jun. 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465037305
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465037308
  • Product Dimensions: 15.5 x 2.9 x 23.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 513,166 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"...(Words on Fire) is not only the clearest account of the (Yiddish) language I've come across, but also the most readable history of European Jewry I've seen." The Sunday Telegraph "The book is rich in detail and beautifully illustrated and Dovid Katz explains the genesis and development of Yiddish and its place in Jewish history." The Times "What a pleasure to have (this book) offering the muscularity of this political and linguistic debate, which is still at the heart of Jewish argument." The Independent "Drawing on years of research (Dovid Katz) has followed a friend's advice to write a 'radically alternative view of Yiddish for a wider readership'...the extensive scope and sharp insight of his survey admirably fulfil his aim." TLS"

About the Author

Dovid Katzis one of the world's foremost academics in the field of Yiddish studies. He has a B.A. from Columbia and a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of London. He taught at Oxford for 18 years, where he established the University's Yiddish program, as well as at Yale. He is currently at Vilnius University, as research director for the new Vilnius Yiddish Institute, and was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002.

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By lexo1941 on 22 Sept. 2008
Format: Paperback
I am neither Jewish, nor a Christian interested in Jewish customs. I'm an atheist interested in languages and literature. I didn't know what to expect with this book, which I bought largely on spec. It turns out to be a fascinating history not just of the Yiddish language, but of Ashkenazi culture in general. Katz is a professional linguist with a passion for literature, and not the least interesting thing about this book is that it has so much fascinating information about Yiddish literature, which is - let's face it! - not the most widely read canon in the world. The idea that there is an entire literature out there, full of gems that I haven't read yet, is very exciting.

Yiddish itself is a fascinating language, built on the structure of German but using a vocabulary which is drawn from German, Hebrew, Aramaic and other languages, and it's unique in being the only Germanic language which is not normally written in Roman script. It occurs to me, as someone studying Hebrew in his spare time, that some preliminary study of Yiddish should perhaps be recommended to the elementary student of Hebrew, at least if that student knows German. Because Yiddish uses the Hebrew alphabet, it's a little easier to learn that alphabet in the first place if you know that the word you are trying to decipher is a Germanic one and not a Semitic one. But then Yiddish uses the alphabet slightly differently to Hebrew (especially in the treatment of vowels) so maybe it's just me who finds it useful that way.

Yiddish, along with some other aspects of Judaica, is currently having a bit of a revival. Katz makes out a good case that it is a language with a genuine history, and certainly something worth treasuring and using.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By John Magid on 26 Feb. 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is a scholarly work, however, I found it an easy and fascinating read. By its very nature, as the language of a stateless people, Yiddish presents difficulties to anyone attempting to trace it's roots.
Even some speakers of Yiddish are unaware of the age and history of their "mame loshn". Written off as "Jargon" by the modernists in the late 19th early 20th centuries, Yiddish speakers had to fight to save their beloved, very expressive tounge from extinction. The new language of the Jews was Ivrit (Hebrew). However, Yiddish is now showing signe of recovery. Thanks to people such as Dovid Katz.
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By Tahnna on 30 Dec. 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is a jewel, a poetry as Jonathan Safran Foer has written. This book tells the story of the ashkenaz people, the history of the language and of the civilisation which disappeared in the Shoah.
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43 of 48 people found the following review helpful
Immense, meticulous, veritable--and much more 24 Nov. 2004
By John Dotson - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Any reader in the world with an open mind will find much of value (about culture, civilization, even something of psycholinguistics) in this history of Yiddish by Dovid Katz. His scholarship is immense, meticulous, and veritable as he traces the emergence of Yiddish from its Semitic roots, the assimilation of medieval German dialects, the conjunction with Slavic around 1300, and its complex life continuing into the 21st century.

Knowing nothing about Yiddish and very little about early Jewish history in Europe, I was surprised by many descriptions, such as this one--

"While West Europe was butchering the `Christ killers,' much of Eastern Europe was shaping up as a multicultural pluralist haven in which a Jew had a good chance of living out his or her life in peace and quiet, and adhering to Jewish traditions without being abused, killed, or expelled because of them. Eastern Europe, which moderns often associate with lagging progress, was far ahead of the West in not slaughtering, torturing, or expelling people of a different faith or race."

I find the enduring story of women and Yiddish to be fascinating. Katz points out, "Men had up to three languages to choose from. Women usually had only one." Well before the Modern Age, Yiddish provided Jewish women "a form of intellectual liberation" where their prayers were "a significant genre." Furthermore, "No Jewish law says, `Don't enjoy a good story in your native language.'" It was "revolutionary that a work written by a woman would appear with her name as the author." The poet Toybe "is a woman talking sternly to God in a time of community crisis, not afraid to take on God and argue with him." Toybe was published in the 17th century.

Not only gathering a universe of facts, Katz is telling a larger story, one that reads with the vivacity and mystery of a novel with narrative twists, intrigues, ascents of light-hearted eloquence, descents of starkest sorrows. But beyond analytical insights, any reader with an open heart stands also to gain still more from this book--more of the youth and joys that the adventures of this people bring about, and much more of the tragedies.

A forceful movement becomes evident in the chapter "A Yiddish-Kabbalah Partnership." Katz observes "The relationship between Yiddish and the Kabbalah [Jewish mysticism] is mysterious," and yet concretely "Kabbalah became a motivating factor in the enfranchisement of women and unlearned men." This paradigm shift dates to the late 17th century. In the 18th century comes Hasidism, "stressing the capacity of every person to communicate with God ... a grassroots movement for the empowerment of the masses of simple people, women and men."

With gathering momentum, the story of Yiddish arrives in the 19th and 20th centuries and the New World. Katz describes how classical Judaism "gave way to the modern Jew .... In many individual cases, it happened sometime close to the moment that an ancestor got off the boat at Ellis Island, had a look around the Lower East Side of New York, and was never the same again." Still, as ever the case throughout Yiddish history, there is continual bifurcation: "By the late nineteenth century, Yiddish was becoming characteristic of two different Jewries, one at the extreme cultural right, the other on the far cultural and political left."

All growth of Yiddish culture and civilization, of course, is gathered in the singularity of the Holocaust. I learned much from Katz's approach: "The simple and unalterable truth is that the Yiddish-speaking heartland of Eastern Europe, where Yiddish would have survived safely for the long-term future, was annihilated." Thus, a "culture that was one of the most nonviolent and pacifist in human history" was found to be in a state of "linguistic, cultural shame."

Katz explains the complex dynamics of Yiddish and Zionism which found a need for "rejecting the traditional Jewish image." As well, "The general attitude of the American Jewish establishment and the majority of American Jews was often negative toward Yiddish." This was true both because of and despite of the fact that in America Yiddish literature "was born as an unpretentious workers literature out to inform and sustain tired, underpaid, poor, and exploited workers, many of them in one or another branches of the garment industry."

While Katz finds that an anti-Yiddish bias in Jewish education "continues apace today," he also describes a language "becoming more and more popular" after the fashion of Fiddler on the Roof. As to the future, Katz observes "a major historic moment in the unfolding story of Yiddish, a moment of profound sadness and, at the same time, a moment of exceptionally promising vistas for the coming centuries." He summarizes his thought with this "Coda"--

"The irreplaceable words, and spirit, of Yiddish are inherently incandescent with history, civilization, satire, irony, compassion, and the inner strength to be cheerful amid troubles. There is nothing about the language that is better or worse, more or less truthful or beautiful, than any other language. But its uniqueness and inimitability as the special living embodiment of a psyche is absolutely indispensable for a genuine grasp of East European Jewish culture, and, more generally, the current living stage of the uninterrupted ancient natural line of Jewish languagehood. That line stretches over thousands of years. In traditional Jewish historical geography, the path led from Babylonia to the Land of Israel, to Egypt and back, to Babylonia and Persia and back, to wide swaths of the Middle East, to Central and then Eastern Europe. Coming down the Hebrew-Aramaic-Yiddish language chain, these words have their own special fire, a kind that cannot be purposefully injected or logically translated, or, for that matter, mechanically revived. It is a fire that comes from the natural transmission of language over vast stretches of time in a closely knit and highly, yes, separate society."

As a poet myself, I am most grateful for what Dovid Katz has made available in this work--not only the inherent humor of Yiddish, its recognition of the human foibles which it names and celebrates, but also the fiery nature of words and "sparks that fired the muses of thousands of writers."

Thus, I will close these comments with a stanza from the poem with which Katz opens his book, a poem by his father Menke Katz, titled "A Yiddish Poet"--

My mother tongue is unpolished as a wound, a laughter, a love-starved kiss,
yearnful as a martyr's last glance at a passing bird.
Taste a word, cursed and merciless as an earthquake.
Hear a word, terse and bruised as a tear.
See a word, light and lucent, joyrapt as a ray.
Climb a word-rough and powerful as a crag.
Ride a word-free and rhymeless as a tempest.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
excellent if biased 26 Sept. 2005
By Shaye - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The book is perhaps the best available introduction to the fascinating story of the Yiddish Language. Although scientifically rigorous, it is directed to the general public, interpretative rather than simply factual, and presents many highly subjective views of the author (which only makes it more interesting). Language politics (Hebrew/Yiddish dichotomy) within the modern secular Jewish world are frankly discussed. One obvious problem with the book is the hypertrophied "litvak patriotism" of the author. This results in skewed choices of literary figures individually presented (almost without exception from the Northern Yiddish dialectal area), with flagrant disregard to details when it concerns other Yiddish dialects and areas. Northern Yiddish toponimics is meticulously presented up to the tiniest of the shtetls, whereas Kishinev (Chisinau) is repeatedly spelled "kishenev" and the birthplace of Sholem-Aleichem is not spelled out at all (compare to any litvak author in the book). Equally biased is his dealing with the contemporary secular Yiddish writers of the younger generation and with the Soviet Yiddish literature (which produced many of the former). Having said all this, no better review of all things Yiddish seems to exist.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
A readable account 27 Jun. 2005
By Eric Maroney - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This book is highly readable and the scholarship is excellent; it also examines that great question of Yiddish scholarship, asked since the end of the Second World War: Is Yiddish dead? The author's answer is yes and no. Secular Yiddish literature seems to be breathing its last (somewhat elongated) breath, while Yiddish remains alive among the ultra-orthodox and haredim, but with several qualifications. What is the Yiddish among the haredim like? What are its qualities and what is its future? Questions like this are explored with a marvellous insight: is the Yiddish used in contemporary religious communities at all co-equal to the great age of Yiddish as a secular vernacular? The book also explores characters in Yiddish literature and culture that are little examined, even by scholars in the field, suggesting that there is much vital work to be done in this area. Perhaps most interesting of all is the author's dogged determination to show the "triliteratity" of Askenazi European Jewish culture. All the great Yiddishists were also excellent Hebraists and could read Aramaic. The three languages of European Jewry were constantly informing each other: the scholarly division that most academics pursue in this area, the author contends, does little to illustrate the complex interactions of European Jewry's three languages.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Important read on history of yiddish 23 Jun. 2009
By Morton S. Morrison - Published on
Format: Hardcover
There is much research that went into this study on the history of the yiddish language. Some readers may object to the emphasis on the religious aspect of the survival of spoken yiddish. Unfortunately the native yiddish speakers are a small lot, having died out. Real yiddish depends on having lived in a yiddish community, having spoken it as the primary language, being able to think in yiddish rather than thinking in english and interpreting the english into yiddish. Unfortunately, most of the present teachers of yiddish (especially in the universities) are passing on a second-hand yiddish that they themselves learned, not lived.To learn yiddish, one must be able to read it in the hebrew letters rather than in the transliteration mode.
6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Excellent and Insightful 13 Jun. 2007
By Melvin R. Katskee - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
For political reasons, a serious study of Yiddish language and culture has been ignored and shunted aside. Because of the stress on Israel and modern Hebrew, the world of the Ashkenazi Jew has been consigned to a double death in the aftermath of churban Europe (the holocaust). This has created a skewed and distorted view of Jewish history, culture and mores. It has even had a devastating impact on the modern synagogue, which has been stripped of its Ashkenazi roots, and consigns the traditional Cantor and choir of Eastern European tradition to the ash-bin of history. This book goes a long way to correct the common-place distortions and misapprehensions. Along the way, Dovid Katz presents an eminently readable, insightful and interesting account. It also points the way for future fruitful studies.
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