Words On Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish by Dovid Katz; Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation by Paul Kriwaczek - review by David Cesarani

David Cesarani

A Language For the People

Words On Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish

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Basic Books 464pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation

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Weidenfeld & Nicolson 320pp £25 order from our bookshop
 

When I was growing up in London in the 1960s I used to hear my mother talking on the phone in Yiddish. I figured out that she was saying something she didn’t want me to understand, probably about a poor school report or a surprise birthday present. It never occurred to me that what I was hearing represented one terminal point of a great ‘language chain’ stretching back to Hebrew and Aramaic in ancient times. Even when I learned Yiddish formally so that I could use Jewish newspapers for research, I believed that it had been gestated in medieval Europe. But thanks to a remarkable coterie of experts, eccentrics and enthusiasts, Yiddish is undergoing a revolution. 

Owing largely to the efforts of Henry Saposnik, Yiddish song and klezmer music are now established in the repertoire of world music. Aaron Lansky created the National Yiddish Book Centre in the USA, rescuing a million volumes from destruction to provide a platform for research and teaching. (He tells his

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