I haven't finished a book in way too long, so I'm really happy to recommend this one to you. It's Aaron Lansky's Outwitting History
, published by our own Algonquin Press in 2005. I truly did laugh-out-loud reading this.
In 1980, a twenty-three-year-old student named Aaron Lansky set out to rescue the world’s abandoned Yiddish books before it was too late. Twenty-five years and one and a half million books later, he’s still in the midst of a great adventure. Filled with poignant and often laugh-out-loud tales from Lansky’s travels across the country as he collected books from older Jewish immigrants—books their own children had no use for—Outwitting History also explores brilliant Yiddish writers and enables us to see how an almost-lost culture is the bridge between the Old World and the future.
The book provides a wonderful history of Jewish immigrants who focused on assimilation and of those who tried to preserve the Yiddish culture they came from. I, somewhat naively perhaps, think that if everyone understood the continuity and similarities in the waves of immigration to the U.S., they'd be hopeful about the future of our country.
I'm one of those 3nd generation Jews who only heard Yiddish spoken when I wasn't supposed to understand what was being said. It's one of the languages I would study if I could live to 110. It's such a mishmash of other languages and so much fun. But Lansky teaches us that it is a real language, albeit one of those that may be disappearing.
Lansky writes: "Yiddish (the word means 'Jewish') first emerged in the tenth or eleventh century among Jews living along the banks of the Rhine River. The more distinct their communities became, the more their spoken language differentiated itself from that of their non-Jewish German-speaking neighbors. Not unlike Black English, it became the 'in' language of a people on the outs, except that in the case of Yiddish, Jews brought with them a core culture rooted in Hebrew (the language of the Torah) and Aramaic (the language of the later sections of the Talmud)."
He describes Yiddish as an amalgam of German, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, French, Italian, Ladino, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Persion, Judeo-Provençal, Polish, Ukrainian, White Russian, and Slovak.
For fun, here's a Wikipedia list of English words of Yiddish origin.
You can also check out an earlier blog piece I wrote on Yiddish, nu?