Mindy Newell: Yiddishkeit
I miss bookstores. Being able to walk up and down the aisles, pulling out a title that sounds intriguing, perusing the dust jacket flap, sometimes sitting down on the floor and reading the first couple of pages…just killing a couple of hours lost in a bibliophile’s heaven.
Okay, bookstores aren’t entirely gone, but they are, as everyone knows, on the endangered list. My own first hint of this came about 15 years ago when the Borders in the Short Hills Mall closed up. It was astonishing—this was a bookstore that was always mobbed, no matter the time of day. Many, many people objected to the closing, and many, many people let the mall’s management know it; the customer service desk clerk told me, as I filled out the complaint form, that there were over 3,000 signatures in the first week alone protesting the shutdown, and demanding, if not the return of Borders, the opening of another book proprietor. I thought, and I’m sure many others thought, that the store closed because the management had raised its rent beyond what Borders was willing to pay. But now I think that I witnessed the beginning of the end. I knew for sure that bookstores were about to go the way of the dodo bird when I drove over to Hoboken one Sunday morning a few years ago to spend a few hours in the Barnes & Noble there to find that it was gone; I remember being shocked (“Holy shit!” I said out loud) because not only is that particular store is in a city with a university (Stevens Institute of Technology), but it is also home to the sort of population that publishers love and book stores crave—well-educated and upscale and readers.
I bring this up because I recently bought a book on Amazon that whetted my appetite, especially because it is the last work of the late, great Harvey Pekar, who was one of its editors. That book is Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & The New Land. According to the blurb on Amazon, which is lifted from the front flap of the book’s dust jacket:
Yiddish is everywhere. We hear words like nosh, schlep, and schmutz all the time, but how did they come to pepper American English, and how do we intuitively know their meaning?
I was interested. I thought it would be a graphic anthology of stories about the integration and assimilation of Jews into America, which is what I got from the blurb.
But, overall, I was really disappointed, except for two stories by Harvey Pekar, the first being the prologue, and the second a reprint from American Splendor #13 (1988), “President’s Day,” which I had never read.
Mostly it’s a graphic history of Yiddish, which is fine, but I never got the “assimilation and integration of Yiddish into American society” part. I think the Jewish artists of book, theatre and film were instrumental in bringing Yiddish to the masses, but although there are chapters on the great Yiddish writers (Sholom Aleichem and I.B. Singer were not the only ones), and on the Yiddish theatre and film, there is no mention of how they did so, and so I think the book misses its target. For example, a whole page on Molly Picon, but Fanny Brice, the Funny Girl, is barely mentioned? Zero Mostel brought Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye der milkhiker to life in Fiddler on the Roof, but he, too, only gets a passing nod, as do the The Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Milton Berle, George Jessel, Theodore Bikel, and Eddie Cantor.
If I had been able to pick up the book in a store, I doubt I would have bought it. So now it’s parked in one of my bookcases because I can’t throw away a book—that reeks too much of book-burnings under you-know-who for this Jew—and because I know it will be useful in some way someday…
Like for this column?