- Sherry Simon (Editor), Pierre Anctil (Editor), and Norman Ravvin (Editor)
New Readings of Yiddish Montreal. University of Ottawa Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jason Ranon Uri Rotstein
It would not be wrong to think of Yiddish today as a remote, isolated historical phenomenon. While fully personifying an uncommonly rich epoch in Jewish history, Yiddish is rarely viewed within a larger academic or interdisciplinary context. A private language, "a language of insiders," Yiddish's unique appeal may be considered its downfall.
Flourishing at the turn of the twentieth century in the bustling and congested streets of East European shtetls, Yiddish was international before it went international; this might account for why Yiddish was unable to survive the turbulent move to the North American suburbs. "A language of necessity," or lingua franca for Jews from disparate and divisive European states, Yiddish inhabited the worlds of commerce as well as serving the story of the Jewish plight turned comedy. Best known perhaps as a vernacular language of almost limitless urbaneness and malleability, Yiddish seemed to accommodate itself to languages as diverse as German, Hebrew, and Russian, while employing Hebrew script. It was the language that for Kafka represented "an impossible dream of community." But it was a language that could not stave off the threat of the Holocaust to human life.
The editors and organizers of the conference that produced the gathering of the essays that form the collection New Readings of Yiddish Montreal see themselves in the difficult position of "recreating" the Yiddish past that has been lost twice over: first in Europe and again in Montreal. They draw on a record of Yiddish and Yiddish-influenced writing-that can never approximate the extraordinary play and turn of phrase that the spoken Yiddish inspired. Such as it is, their work is a translation of a translation. Their task is nevertheless a noble one and it is largely through the efforts of social anthropologist and translators like Pierre Anctil that the heyday of Yiddish Montreal can be recognized as unique to Jewish history and Canadian history.
The essays and personal anecdotes in this book provide a privileged access inside the "double parlour" or "double vision" mentality and the sometimes "distorted mirror of guilt" that existed for the first-generation journeymen and women, whose paths are described in the humble words they commit to their experience as "twisted" ones. They write "home" to stave off "homelessness."
Above all, the collection establishes Jacob-Isaac Segal and Chava Rosenfarb as major Yiddish and Canadian writers who far outstrip the contributions even of A.M. Klein to the Yiddish scene. Klein emerges interestingly as a problematic "translator" of the Yiddish language into "archaic English."
The collection is a tremendous and courageous act of restoration that aspires at its most ambitious to participate alongside the "tinkers and cobblers" of the young urban movement of Yiddish Montreal in the 1950s.
- Recuperating the City by Maia Joseph
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MLA: Rotstein, Jason Ranon Uri. Privileged Access. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #201 (Summer 2009), Disappearance and Mobility. (pg. 136 - 136)
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