Too Good to Miss #6
Contrary to popular belief or mythology, neither do I read every book that arrives at the Library nor do I know every book in the Library. But every now and again a book passes over my desk that makes me sit up and take notice. In that case I might skim it. If the skimming grabs my attention then I might read it. And if I am deeply impressed by it, I will go out of my way to bend every ear possible, to alert everyone to check this book out, for it is too good to miss.
One of the "best Jewish books" of 2005 was Michael Wex's Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods. Written with a rare combination of insightful scholarship and delightful wit, Wex has produced a book not only about the Yiddish language but the ethos of Eastern European Ashkenazic Jewry.
While this is indeed a book too good to miss, it is not the subject of this posting.
While I am counted among the few "experts" (hoo, haa!) on Yiddish at the NY School, and I have assisted innumerable cantorial students with the Yiddish text to a song, I must let it be known that I was born to a family where Yiddish was never heard. Indeed, my grandparents were born in America (New England, nokh!), and while they may have spoken Yiddish as children, English (New England dialect) was their first language.
I did not even hear Yiddish on a regular basis until I was 25 years old and married into a family in which my parents-in-law were native speakers. So it was in 1970, at age 25 and already competent in Hebrew, that I embarked on learning Yiddish.
On of the books I read was the immensely popular The Joys of Yiddish, by Leo Rosten, a New York Times bestseller in 1968. Aside from the fact that the title of Rosten's book played on the immense success of The Joys of Sex that had appeared just prior, I was somewhat appalled at how Rosten had taken a language and the culture associated with it and reduced it to Borsht Belt humor and dirty words.
As it turned out, I was not alone. Maurice Samuel (1895-1972), who in his day was the most eloquent spokesman for anything and everything Jewish, was also offended, and so took up his pen and wrote In Praise of Yiddish, which appeared in 1971. (It was re-released by the UAHC in paperback some years later, when his widow Edith Samuel worked at the Union's Publications Department, but is now altogether out-of-print.)
This book was what I was looking for, for it looked back upon a culture that was rapidly disappearing before my eyes. (In an exchange of e-mails with Michael Wex, he also praised this book.)
When I came to the NY School in 1974 I met Dr. Harry M. Orlinsky, Bible professor extraordinaire, a lover of both Hebrew and Yiddish, and I was curious as to his feelings about Rosten versus Samuel. "Shmutz!" was the one word that came out of his mouth when I mentioned Rosten. Yet when I asked him about Samuel, he suddenly went "out of character" and stood there looking I had hit him in the solar plexus. Then tears appeared in the corners of his eyes.
Blowing his nose and wiping his eyes, he said to me that I could not have possibly known what good friends he and Samuel were, and how he, Samuel, and Noah Nachbush (1886-1970), a veteran of the Yiddish theater, would regularly play cards and converse only in Yiddish. They were among his best friends, and both were gone...
Years later I was speaking with Mrs. Harry (Donya) Orlinsky and told her this story. "Impossible!" she said. "Harry hated playing cards."
A few years thereafter, and not long before before his death (in 2002), I was speaking with Velvel [Walter] Orlisnky, their son (and one-time "player" on the political scene in Maryland). I told him first what his father had said and then what his mother had said.
He laughed and said that both were true. For however much Dr. Orlinsky hated playing cards, he absolutely loved speaking Yiddish.
While the Wex book is considerably more profound than Samuel's, the Samuel book occupies a special place in my heart, and I highly recommend it to anyone wishing to learn more about the language and the Ashkenazic culture of the "Old Country."