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  • Yiddish Civilization: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation
  • Anya Topolski
Yiddish Civilization: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation, by Paul Kriwaczek. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. 384 pp. $27.50.

Reading about the history of the Yiddish civilization has never been so engaging, uplifting, and pleasurable. Paul Kriwaczek's book, Yiddish Civilization: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation, is a harmonious mixture of fact and folklore—as any history of the Jewish people should be. His writing is truly refreshing as it approaches this subject from a perspective that is determined not to let the past millennia of Jewish life on the continent be overshadowed by the events of the Shoah. This perspective is one that is too often absent from our schools, homes, and hearts. We often seem to forget the true riches of our history, riches that Paul Kriwaczek presents with depth, wit, and creativity.

I greatly appreciated the fact that he chose to begin by sharing his own personal and very humorous stories and memories of his childhood growing up in a Yiddish area of London after the war, thus allowing the reader to understand part of his motivation for dedicating such a great deal of time and effort into the research and writing of this book. In addition, the subsequent three chapters offer an enriching insight into the pre-history of the [End Page 187] Yiddish people, such as the history of the Jewish presence and activity during the Roman period. His method of mixing narrative, history, and analysis on so many intriguing topics, including those most sensitive in Jewish history (such as money lending, or the connection to the rise of Islam on the continent) is remarkable. Kriwaczek's journalistic skills are exemplified by his ability to describe the Yiddish people with such vivacity, from the history of trade, travel routes, language and literature, to the lives, celebrations, and weekly Shabbat rituals. One almost feels as if one is participating in this colorful and intriguing and European medieval landscape.

The fifth chapter begins with the dawn of a new millennium, the birth of the Yiddish civilization, with Jews migrating north and east, searching for security, land, and the hope of a bright future. In it, we are led on a journey through the literary, religious, and cultural history of the Yiddish people, which at times feels slightly rushed given the importance of this period for the new civilization. Although a full chapter is dedicated to presenting the diversity of characters and lifestyles of the Yiddish people living in Europe between 1200 and 1500, it feels somewhat bumpy. Readers would benefit from more elaboration upon the events of this period. And yet the descriptions of the tavern owners along the trade routes (who may have introduced vodka to the world), of those Jews living in larger cities, whether experts in trade or study, and of the rare few honored as court Jews living among the aristocracy are outstanding.

Along with the rest of the world, the Yiddish people were "transformed," for better or worse, by the Reformation. Not knowing which side to chose, thus often standing on both or neither sides of the fence depending on their role in the community, the Jews frequently ended up, not surprisingly, on the losing side of events—persecuted or expelled from many cities while being welcomed and invited into others. The period that followed this commotion, referred to by Kriwaczek as the "Yiddish Renaissance," was helped by the printing press, which brought the Torah, Talmud, and other non-religious literature into the lives of Jews throughout Europe. This flowering engendered two new centers of Jewish thought: Krakow and Prague, each with its own famous rabbi, Moses Isserles and Dovid Gans, respectively. These centers rivaled those in the Germanic area, although they were very different in orientation. It is during this period that a stereotypical distinction (that remains today) first developed between the "pale of the settlement Jews" as anti-intellectual and prayerful Yiddish speakers and those from Western Europe as totally assimilated, overly rational, and German speaking.

Although most Ashkenazim associate the seventeenth century with the pogroms of Chmiel the...


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