May 4, 2002


An informal history of a language once spoken throughout a big slice of Eastern Europe. Weinstein opens with a moving elegy for a lost world and a promising future blighted. It's nicely done, but then Weinstein can't shake off the gloom, and even back in the Medieval era the Nazi specter overshadows this readable account of the development of the Yiddish language and literature. What Weinstein misses, alas, is the patience to explore aspects of Yiddish thought and habit -- the strange obsession with the evil eye, the development of what Americans think of as "the Jewish joke" -- all of which are (apparently) part and parcel of the Yiddish blossoming of the 19th century.

I once asked a scholar, "What was Yiddish literature like in 1812?" There wasn't a Yiddish literature yet in 1812. It was a rich literary Spring -- Peretz, Alecheim, Singer, and all that theater -- but it all happened very suddenly and, of course, was extinguished almost overnight.

Eskimos and Icelanders, famously, possess a rich vocabulary for snow and ice. Yiddish has a wonderful vocabulary for people and personality. In Yiddish, you've got schleppers and schlemiels and schlemazels and schnorrers and more, all in one crowded corner of the stage.