“How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish” by Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert— Influences and Inspirations

Stavans, Ilan and Josh Lambert. “How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish”, Restless Books, 2020.

Influences and Inspirations

Amos Lassen

I think that most of us are aware of the contributions the Yiddish language and culture to American life—just think bagels, delis and brisket. Yiddish voices in America have been “radical, dangerous, and seductive, but also sweet, generous, and full of life”. Award-winning authors and scholars Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert have collected these voices in their new anthology “How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish” from Restless Press.

Yiddish is a language that has no country yet it has influenced this country tremendously. “Is it possible to conceive of the American diet without bagels? Or Star Trek without Mr. Spock? Are the creatures in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are based on Holocaust survivors? And how has Yiddish, a language without a country, influenced Hollywood?”

We look at these and other questions in this wonderful collection of essays.  We learn that the influence of Yiddish begins with the arrival of Ashkenazi immigrants to New York City’s Lower East Side and  then we follow Yiddish in Hollywood, on Broadway and in literature, politics, and resistance. Cuisine, language, popular culture, and even Yiddish in the other places of the world are  examined. Aside from essays, the book includes memoir, song, letters, poems, recipes, cartoons, conversations, and much more. Among the authors are Nobel Prize–winner Isaac Bashevis Singer and luminaries such as Grace Paley, Cynthia Ozick, Chaim Grade, Michael Chabon, Abraham Cahan, Sophie Tucker, Blume Lempel, Irving Howe, Paula Vogel, and Liana Finck. 

Here are personal stories of assimilation and stories of people from a diverse variety of backgrounds, Jewish and not, who have made the language their own and that it is a language “full of zest, dignity, and tremendous humanity.” Yiddish is not an endangered language; it is more vibrant than ever.

“Yiddish is so deeply woven into the fabric of the United States that it can sometimes be difficult to recognize how much it has transformed the world we live in today.”

Some of what you will find here includes ““Oedipus in Brooklyn”, a story by Blume Lempel (1907-1999) that begins with the line, ‘Sylvia was no Jocasta.’ Emma Goldman (1869-1940) [who] writes fiercely about marriage, which she compares to an ‘iron yoke.’ There is a poem about Coney Island [in which] Victor Packer (1897-1958) writes, ‘Beauty and crudity / Go hand in hand and / Launch a united front / Right there are on the sand.’ [Cynthia] Ozick (b. 1928) compares Sholem Aleichem to Dickens, Twain, and Will Rogers. ‘He was a popular presence, and stupendously so. His lectures and readings were mobbed; he was a household friend; he was cherished as a family valuable.’”

This is the story the “epic survival story of a singular culture, requiring no foreknowledge of Yiddish”.  The editors provide portions of some of the major works of Yiddish literature, poetry, comics, and political thought as well as a chapter on culinary offerings with some recipes included. There is a chapter about the influence of Yiddish in Canada, Argentina, Cuba, Mexico, and Columbia, that gives us a peek at “Yiddishkeit outside Eurocentric views”. It is impossible not to love this anthology and not to respect its contributions to  Yiddish culture, Jewish history, and linguistics.



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