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Jiddisch: Geschichte und Kultur einer Weltsprache, by Marion Aptroot and Roland Gruschka. Beck’sche Reihe 1621. Munich: C.H. Beck, 2010. 192 pp. $15.90.
While Yiddish may have endured more than its share of popularizing by non-experts like Leo Rosten a generation ago (Joys of Yiddish, 1968) and Neal Karlen (The Story of Yiddish, 2008) more recently, the interested Anglophone reader is nonetheless well supplied with a variety of types of expert and competent introductions to the character, history and structure of the Yiddish language, ranging from Max Weinreich’s masterful multivolume History of the Yiddish Language (Yidd., 1973; Engl. 2008), to Solomon Birnbaum’s Yiddish: A Survey and a Grammar (1979), to Neil Jacobs’ meticulous Yiddish: A Linguistic Introduction (2005)—all three for linguists—and Dovid Katz’s more popularly accessible Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish (2004), all written by scholarly experts who are thoroughly conversant with both the language itself and the broad range of scholarship in the various relevant fields of research. While there may be fewer book-length surveys of Yiddish in other languages, there are nonetheless some very useful ones, such as Jean Baumgarten’s Le yiddish (1990) and Eva Geller’s Jidysz: język Żydów polskich (1994).
German, like English, has had its share of popularizing books that often make experts cringe. The book under review here, by Marion Aptroot (Professor of Yiddish at the Universität Düsseldorf) and Roland Gruschka, immediately and clearly sets itself apart from all that ilk and provides German readers with a thorough and expert general introduction to the history and character of the Yiddish language. While aiming for a lay audience, the authors construct their subject neither as a prompt for quasi-vaudeville-esque jesting nor nostalgic mame-loshn sentimentality, but rather as an object of scholarly research to be made accessible to a general readership. They make copious use of literary examples throughout the book (transcribed using an idiosyncratic, Germanized system, and translated into idiomatic German), but indicate already at the outset that their purpose is a survey of Yiddish language—not literary—history. In nine brief chapters (each with a very brief and idiosyncratic list of further readings at the end of the book), organized generally chronologically, the linguistic and cultural history of Yiddish is unfolded from its beginnings a thousand years ago in Central Europe to the scattered Hasidic communities of the twenty-first century, where—alone—the language still thrives as a community language.
As a popularizing summary of the current state of scholarly knowledge concerning the history of Yiddish, there is, on the one hand, nothing new here; on the other hand, it is a cogently written summary for an educated lay audience, with examples and explanations well-chosen and tailored to the specific expectations of a German-reading audience. While the subchapters and sub-subchapters are of the length and sometimes almost approach the tone and form of encyclopedia (not quite Wikipedia) entries, relieving the authors of the need to bind the sections together to form a whole narrative—which, as language history, is after all their chosen genre—the chronological order of presentation generally manages to provide an organizational thread. After the requisite initial bow to the issue that seems of inevitable interest to German-speakers—whether Yiddish is really not just a corrupted German dialect (most emphatically refuted here)—the authors take the reader on a tour of the fusion/component nature of Yiddish, its conditions of origin in immigrant communities in medieval Central Europe, the brief flourishing of Yiddish in sixteenth-century Italy, the exile and immigration of Yiddish-speakers to eastern Europe and the development of dialectal distinctions between East and West Yiddish (before the decline and demise of the latter), the rise of the Haskalah, Hasidism and its opponent in misnagdes, emigration from eastern Europe around the world, the Hebrew-Yiddish language conflicts, the post-WWI eastern European blossoming of Yiddish-language culture, the Holocaust, Soviet language planning, and the post-WWII situation, including along the way some brief attention to the phenomena of early Yiddish literature and later of the classic authors Sholem Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and Y. L Peretz.
In addition to her many other scholarly publications in the field of Yiddish studies, and alongside her earlier introductory Yiddish language textbook (Einführung in die jiddische Sprache und Kultur, 2002), Aptroot’s publication of this history of Yiddish seems the next key component in her shifting the identity of Yiddish studies in Germany from a secondary sub-discipline of German studies to a scholarly and university discipline in its own right. It is a welcome development.
Jerold C. Frakes
University at Buffalo