New York Times contributor Karlen (Shanda: The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew, 2004, etc.) proffers an idiosyncratic take on Yiddish, the heroic vernacular that gets no respect.
He comes to praise, not to bury a language often lamented as moribund. Yiddish, the lingua franca and soul music of Jews around the world for a millennium, is ever-dying and evergreen, Karlen reports. Its vibrancy has been regularly and popularly proclaimed, from Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish in 1968 to Michael Wex’s Born to Kvetch in 2005. Nowadays, universities teach Yiddish. This wide-ranging survey rejoices in Jewishness rather than Judaism. The author sporadically quotes Lenny Bruce, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Nobel speech and Three Stooges movies to support his notions. He attempts, with easygoing chutzpah (you know, “nerve”) to draw apt lessons in linguistics and philology from history, philosophy, sports, literature and showbiz in the old countries as well as here in the goldene medina (“golden country”). In full spritz mode, he offers ironic illustrative jokes embroidered with bubbemeises (“old wives’ tales”) and bupkis (“goat droppings” or “beans”; i.e., worthless fare). Regrettably, his well-intentioned effort is overwritten, under-researched and frequently sloppy in two languages, with petty factual errors and mistranslations that may stem from secondhand English versions. For example, a mitzvah is a “commandment,” not a “good deed,” and a vinkl is a “corner,” not a “circle” where people gather. Karlen’s narrative doesn’t merely wander like the Jews; it strays seriously and repeatedly. Still, even from this mishmash, Yiddish will survive.
Not for those who know their babka from their bupkis.