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Yiddish Civilisation


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About the Author

Paul Kriwaczek was born in Vienna in 1937 and, with his parents, narrowly escaped the Nazis in 1939, fleeing first to Switzerland and then to England. He grew up in London and graduated from London Hospital Medical College. After several years spent working and traveling in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa, he joined the BBC, where he spent the next quarter of a century as a program producer and filmmaker. Since leaving television in the 1990s, he has devoted himself to writing full-time, catching up on the unfinished business of a life spent exploring places, times, and ideas. He is married and lives in London.


Kriwaczek's charming but frustratingly rambling history places Yiddish in a very broad historical context. Admitting that he is neither "a learned Jew nor a professional historian," Kriwaczek (In Search of Zarathustra) cuts a broad swath through history as he moves, in the opening chapters, from the forum in Rome to the emergence of a distinct "Yiddish civilization" in medieval eastern Europe. Kriwaczek's insistence on defining Yiddish as a culture, or civilization, rather than a language is smart and useful-it allows him to capture the intricacies of a very complicated history and to avoid a simple "black-and-white clash between gentiles and Jews"-but it also means that his tapestry is sometimes too large. When he does narrow his focus-on, say, the autobiography of Glikl of Hamlin, born 1646, whose memoir is the first major Yiddish work by a woman-he is evocative and precise. While there is an endless amount of fascinating detail (Slavic fashions in shoes became trendy in 14th-century Europe), and all is presented in an enjoyable narrative, the book becomes more of a rumination on a number of related issues than a concise examination of a culture and a language. 16 pages of illus. not seen by PW; maps. (Nov. 3) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Kriwaczek, the British author of In Search of Zarathustra, has written a warm, anecdotal, and captivating account of the story of Yiddish (an amalgam of many languages, including German, Hebrew, and Aramaic), the 1000-year-old language that served as the mother tongue for central and eastern European Jews (also known as Ashkenazi Jewry). Although Yiddish is spoken by only a minority of Jews today, Kriwaczek believes that many people view Yiddish from the wrong end of the telescope and, sadly, perceive it as a language headed for extinction. The author tries to show a brighter side of Yiddish by chronicling the great achievements of Yiddish speakers through the ages. The book is not a dry study of the etymological growth of Yiddish; nor is it a scholarly study based on original research. It is popular history at its best, and it is recommended for medium and large libraries. Dovid Katz's Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish is probably more authoritative, but libraries would do well to own both books as they complement each other.-Paul Kaplan, Lake Villa Dist. Lib., IL Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

"A highly enjoyable and surprisingly positive account of how Jewish culture helped shape European history and vice versa." -The Sunday Telegraph "An outstanding survey. . . . Kriwaczek tracks the origins, flowering, and destruction of this unique, vibrant, and tenacious culture with a fine mixture of pride, regret, and eloquence." -Booklist"Evocative and precise. . . . An enjoyable narrative that captures the intricacies of a very complicated history."-Publishers Weekly"Informative and very entertaining . . . conjures up and re-creates baroque images and marvelous set pieces of feverish activity, long lost towns and shtetls [as well as] wonderful pictures of lost communities of Jews."-The Irish Times

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