If you’re like me, from time to time you see books for sale in bookstores or on Amazon and you want to read them not because of any glowing reviews, favorable blog postings or intriguing author interviews but solely because of their titles. Also, if you’re like me when you finally get around to reading one of those desired books, upon finishing it many times you are left surprised. Sometimes the surprise is a negative one, meaning the book did not live up to your expectations. Sometimes it was a pleasant surprise with the book exceeding your expectations. And then there are the times when the book you so wanted to read, once you started reading it you quickly realized it just wasn’t exactly what you expected. But in the end you really didn’t mind because even though it wasn’t what you expected, nevertheless you found it to be a very good book. Paul Kriwaczek’s Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation is that kind of book. It wasn’t what I expected. But since I liked it, who cares.
After seeing Kriwaczek’s 2006 book for sale on Amazon, I was drawn to it in hopes it would teach me about the vanished world of Yiddish literature and theater. With Yiddish being the chief tongue of Ashkenazi Jews throughout Europe and the Americas, it was the language of choice for many Jewish authors, playwrights and even early screenwriters. However, due to a number of contributing factors (chief of which was the Holocaust, which was responsible for 85 per cent of the world’s Yiddish speakers being murdered) the Yiddish language nearly died out by the middle of the 20th century. Lately, the language has been enjoying a bit of a resurgence, evident by the recent success of such books as Born to Kvetch and Outwitting History. So, when I grabbed a copy of Yiddish Civilisation at my local public library I was really hoping for more of a literary history. But alas it was not to be.
Just as a comprehensive book on the history of the French would discuss not just literary history but also political, economic, military and cultural developments, so it is with Kriwaczek’s book. But since the word Yiddish in its true sense means Jewish, the book is aptly titled. From the Roman conquest of Judea to the modern age, Kriwaczek traces nearly two thousand years of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe. It is Kriwaczek’s belief that even though the Jews of the region lacked the usual components of a nation-state like centralized political leadership, a military, an official currency and defined borders the Jews were in fact a nation thanks to their sharing of a common language, religion and customs.
Intelligent, well-written and comprehensive, I found this to be an excellent book. It’s definitely a worthy companion to other books on Jewish history I’ve encountered over the years, books like The Jewish Century, A History of the Jews in the Modern World and Jews, God and History. It also compliments other notable works of niche history such as How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Basque History of the World and How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Again, who cares if this book isn’t exactly what I had originally expected. I enjoyed it. And that’s all that really matters to me.