How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish: Reading Resources

How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish: A 2022 Great Jewish Books Club Selection

About the Book

Yiddish and America have had a long and special relationship. Ever since mass Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to the United States began in the early 1880s, Yiddish has been inseparable from the American cultural fabric, as the large Yiddish-speaking communities in the United States left an indelible imprint on our language and culture. But what made American Yiddish distinct from its European or Israeli counterparts, and how did Yiddish contribute its own distinctiveness to American life? How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, an anthology edited by Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert, aims to answer that question through a wide-ranging assortment of texts, including fiction and poetry, memoir and drama, essays and interviews. Going against stereotype, it expands beyond nostalgic or slapstick versions of Yiddish and presents a complex picture of what the language was, is, and can be. As the editors write in their introduction, the book aims to paint a picture of Yiddish that is “radical, dangerous, and sexy, if also sweet, generous, and full of life.” As an anthology, How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish invites you to dip in and dip out at your leisure, but it also rewards a cover-to-cover reading.

The book is organized in six parts, dwelling on six themes.

1: Politics and Possibility

The world of Eastern European Jewish immigrants has become romanticized over time: a world of scrappy newsboys, street peddlers, and up-and-comers just waiting to make their mark. In fact, as Irving Howe reminds us in an excerpt from World of Our Fathers, the immigrant experience was far more disorienting than we commonly appreciate, and not all immigrants, of course, found success. “Coming to America with inflamed hopes, some of the immigrants became demoralized and others permanently undone,” he writes. Nonetheless, the dislocations of immigration also created new social, political, and cultural opportunities. In this section we get a taste of all of these, from the radical politics of Emma Goldman to the transgressive drama of Sholem Asch. While it’s tempting to think that life for early generations of immigrants was a seamless continuation of the Old World, these texts show it was anything but.

Watch Daniel Kahn perform “March of the Jobless Corps”

Listen to writer and performer Caraid O’Brien talk about “God of Vengeance”

2: The Mother Tongue Remixed

Yiddish is what linguists call a fusion language—a language made up of parts. Its roots in German and Hebrew are well known, as are the influences of the various Slavic languages with which Yiddish interacted through history. And when Yiddish arrived in the English-speaking world, English had its own effects. While purists might kvetch about English’s perceived excessive influence on Yiddish, languages always adapt and adopt, and Yiddish is as good an example of this than any. And like many languages that exist in a multilingual environment, Yiddish has birthed hybrid offshoots that are neither one language nor the other, like Yinglish.

Read a collection of columns by Stanley Seigelman

Watch an interview about the problems with university-based Yiddish

3: Eat, Enjoy, Forget

It’s impossible to talk about American Yiddish culture without talking about food. As the anthology’s editors point out, some foods, like bagels or matzo ball soup, have become American staples, while others, like kreplakh or tsimmes, remain relatively obscure. But for many people, Jewish and non-Jewish, Ashkenazi food is the first and sometimes only point of contact with Yiddish culture, and it is by way of food that Yiddish has perhaps made its deepest inroads into American life.

Listen to a talk about Jewish holiday foods

Listen to an oral history interview with the owner of 2nd Avenue Deli

4: American Commemoration

The relationship between American Yiddish writers and their European peers is well documented and understood. Often enough they were the same writers, beginning their careers in one place and continuing them in another. Less well appreciated is the relationship between American Yiddish writers and their Anglo-American counterparts. But Yiddish writers were often well integrated into their adopted literary communities, and their works were sometimes best sellers in English translation. The most famous example is Isaac Bashevis Singer, who published prolifically in magazines like the New Yorker and Playboy and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1978. But he was far from the only Yiddish writer to achieve crossover success.

Listen to a talk given by Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1982

Listen to an interview with Ellen Cassedy about translating Blume Lempel

Watch a talk about “Becoming Sholem Asch”

5: Oy, the Children!

It’s widely thought that Yiddish-speaking immigrants failed to hand down their language to their children. But the priority for immigrant parents was ensuring their children’s economic and social success, and Yiddish was often seen as an impediment to that. So fluency in Yiddish did tend to diminish over generations. Yet as this anthology’s editors point out, while the American-born children of Yiddish speakers may have a “complicated relationship to the language . . . a complex relationship isn’t the same thing as no relationship.” And tracing Yiddish’s impact on American culture often means going places you wouldn’t expect to find it.

Listen to a 2002 lecture by Grace Paley

Watch an oral history interview with Fyvush Finkel

6: The Other Americas

When we talk about Yiddish in America, we usually mean the United States and Canada. But that overlooks the rich history of Yiddish-speaking Jews elsewhere in North, Central, and South America. Although just a small part of the anthology, the book’s final section offers a glimpse into the rich Yiddish cultures of all the Americas.

Watch an oral history interview with Ilan Stavans

Watch an oral history interview with Goldie Morgentaler

More Resources

Listen to Josh Lambert and Ilan Stavans talk about the anthology

Listen to an episode of The Shmooze podcast with Josh Lambert and Ilan Stavans

Watch a lecture by Ilan Stavans at Vermont Humanities

Listen to Daniel Libenson of the Judaism Unbound podcast talk about Yiddish in America on The Shmooze podcast

Watch a book talk with Ilan Stavans at the Tenement Museum

Eric L. Goldstein, professor of American and modern Jewish history at Emory University, discusses with The Shmooze podcast the reading culture of Yiddish-speaking immigrants

Ted Merwin joins The Shmooze podcast to discuss his book Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli

Listen to this history of the Sunshine Theater, a New York City Yiddish landmark, on The Shmooze podcast

Nora Paley visits The Shmooze podcast to talk about the life and work of her mother, writer Grace Paley

Kirsten Fermaglich, author of A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America, joins The Shmooze podcast to discuss the history of the practice of Jewish name changing in the 20th century

Four Questions

  1. What were your impressions of American Yiddish before you started reading this collection? Did those impressions change while reading it?
  2. What is the most surprising thing you learned about American Yiddish from this book? What is the least surprising?
  3. Do you have a favorite piece, or pieces, from the collection? Why do they appeal to you?
  4. Is there anything you think this anthology left out? What would go in your own collection of American Yiddish?


Ezra Glinter