Filmmaker/journalist Weinstein’s first book is an ambitious but disappointing treatise on the “nation” that existed only as a language.
Although most of the world’s Jews spoke Yiddish in the period before WWII, they were scattered across the globe. Growing out of medieval German, with elements drawn from Slavic languages and the holy tongue of Hebrew, Yiddish was a lingua franca for Ashkenazi Jews throughout Eastern Europe and Germany, gradually spreading to far-flung Jewish communities in the US and Australia. But history played a series of ugly tricks on Yiddish. The Nazis wiped out half of its speakers in the Holocaust, and Stalin crushed another large segment, but in some ways the worst damage was done by the comforts of the US, as assimilation drained Jewish-Americans of the need to speak a language all their own. This compelling story has been told piecemeal many times before, but seldom with a focus on the language. Regrettably, Weinstein lacks the understanding to tell it well. Her version of the Jews’ millennia-long saga is grossly oversimplified and often romanticized in ways that betray a lack of familiarity with recent literature on either linguistics or history, particularly in her recounting of the birth of Hasidism. She frequently makes generalizations that lead to errors, describing Yiddish, for example, as “a conscious part of the identity of European Jews,” which will come as a shock to Ladino speakers from Greece, Turkey, and Italy. And her prose is rife with irritating mannerisms, especially the gratingly coy humor and the frequent and distracting recourse to Yiddish proverbs to underline points. Though they exhibit the same flaws, chapters on developments in Russia and the Soviet Union nonetheless make for compelling reading. Would that the rest of this study were so good.
Max Weinreich’s classic History of the Yiddish Language first appeared 21 years ago, so the time is definitely ripe for a cogent new interpretation. This isn’t it.