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April 22, 2008

Book Notes - Neal Karlen ("The Story of Yiddish")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

In The Story of Yiddish: How a Mish-Mosh of Languages Saved the Jews, Neal Karlen recounts the history of the Yiddish language and examines its relatively recent renaissance. Popular culture references abound and make the book as entertaining as it is informative.


In his own words, here is Neal Karlen's Book Notes essay for his book, The Story of Yiddish: How a Mish-Mosh of Languages Saved the Jews:

10 songs that ran through my head for 2.5 years as I wrote The Story of Yiddish: How a Mish-Mosh of Languages Saved the Jews:

Cliffs Notes: Yiddish was the language invented and used by Jews as they ran from land to land over thousands of years, surviving pogroms, mass executions, gas chambers, and drawing and quartering. (Hebrew was the holy language reserved for praying and for study by the young smarty pants of the shtetl.)


1 and 2) Bob Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone and The Man in Me
Like a Rolling Stone is the number one song on the Diaspora chart; breaking all the rules for running times in many different genres (9 minutes for a 45 single? The Jews for how much running time during how many millennium?)

So, may we talk Diaspora, Mr. Bobby Zimmerman?

“How does it feel/to be without a home/like a complete unknown/…..with no direction home/like a rolling stone.”

Ah, Bar Mitzvah-ed Bob, who joined the Jewish frat at the University of Minnesota (Sigma Alpha Mu—go Sammies!) and was soon kicked out for his atonal piano bangings on the frat piano…So he moves out and alchemizes into Bob Dylan, beatnik and Woody Guthrie “Bound for Glory” acolyte. Gee, if only he knew Woody Guthrie was steeped more in Yiddish than hobo-ing, musical history may have been changed!

And may I name drop, because there is nobody here in Minneapolis to namedrop: if you see a stretch limo you know it’s either Prince inside, or 15 high school seniors on the way to prom.

Well I went to the same Jewish summer camp in Webster, Wisconsin, 18 years after Bob. Every Jew in the Midwest, and we’re tough dammit, goes there. The Coen Bros went there seven years before me, and slipped in an inside joke about Herzl Camp into “The Big Lebowski.” And what’s the song that opens “The Big Lebowski?” Dylan’s “The Man in Me”---just like the Jews and their God, willing to die for him/her, willing to put up with the goyim’s mishegass because:
“Oh….what a wonderful feeling/Just to know that you [God] are near.”

Dylan to Herzl to “The Big Lebowski”—the circle of the true Kabbalah is complete.

LASTLY, Dylan’s high school notebooks sold for tens of thousands of dollars a couple years ago at Sotheby’s—and some of those notebooks were in Yiddish. Now, the fact that he occasionally hangs with Chasidic Jews means he has to have learned more Yiddish; the Chasidim are the last people on earth who speak Yiddish in day-to-day discourse.


3. Sister Sledge, Keep it in the Family.
Yiddish is made up of 25 languages, with words plucked from every different country they were kicked out of in the Diaspora. Yiddish, as the great jazzman and author Mezz Mezzrow (Really the Blues) wrote, is very close to what was then called “jive” then Ebonics, and now “African American English Vernacular.” (AAEV) Like AAEV, Yiddish allowed Jews to let their hair down, be themselves, and make fun of their oppressors—a quite necessary thing to do if you want your people to survive. But KEEP IT IN THE FAMILY!!!!!!


4. Woody Guthrie: Car Car (Riding in My Car)
Woody’s second and last wife Marjorie was the daughter of the great Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. The original Woodman spent many more multiples of years in their Mermaid Avenue house in Coney Island Brooklyn, than he ever did riding any sort of rails. From his mother-in-law, he learned fluent Yiddish, and even recorded an all Yiddish Channukah album, as well as a klezmer tunes. His Jewish son Arlo, it was written on the back of his “Alice’s Restaurant” debut record, was blessed with a “hootenanny Bar Mitzvah.”

Now “Car Car,” a children’s song, is the exact manner by which most Jewish kids begin learning Yiddish—their parents lapse into the language when they don’t want their children to understand sensitive or putatively “adult themed” conversation. Ah, but eventually we did understand, after spying from the backseat with our ears on our parents in the car-car. This manner of universal Jewish kid eavesdropping is how I learned shmuck, shmendrick, shlemiel, shlimazel, and shmo.


5) “The Spinners”, Rubberband Man
Besides being the greatest song ever, Rubberband people is also the story of the Yiddish speaking Jews—no matter what anybody did to them, they always bounced back, held themselves together, and then wandered—or ran—on.


6) The Ramones, My Brain is Hangin’ Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)
In “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” Joey Ramone, ne’ the Jewish Jeffrey Hyman, passionately yelped about President Ronald Reagan laying wreaths at a European cemetery where World War II German SS soldiers and war criminals were buried. Bonzo actually going to Bitburg was proof enough to Yiddish-speaking old-timers, survivors of the concentration camps, and free-floating paranoids of the Yiddish phrase, “a goy bleibt a goy”—a non-Jew is a non-Jew, meaning that if you scratch deep enough into a non-Jew you’ll eventually find an anti-Semite who could care less about the feelings of Jews. “Bonzo goes to bitburg then goes out for a cup of tea/ As I watched it on TV somehow it really bothered me/ Drank in all the bars in town for an extended foreign policy/ Pick up the pieces”


7) Lou Reed, ne’ Lou Rabinowitz, Waiting for the Man, with Nico and the Velvet Underground.
I think we all know, in the Jewish/Yiddish world, who the Man/Woman Mr. Rabinowitz is waiting for: GOD. The song’s NOT about getting wasted, unless it’s nearing Purim, the one holiday where Jews are commanded to get drunk. Or perhaps “the man” it’s the liquor storeowner waiting for the shlepper who delivers the cases of Mogen David.


8 and 9) Bruce Springsteen, who I don’t like--“The Promised Land” and Born to Run”
Perfect music for fleeing from enemies, and keeping the hope alive for redemption in a land of Jews and God. (Of course, Springsteen isn’t Jewish, as Adam Sandler points out in “The Chanukah Song, “though my mother thinks he is.” Still, the Boss knows from his exiles, be they Jews from Poland or motorcycle meatballs from New Jersey.


10) Prince, Raspberry Beret
Has there ever been a better description of the delicious feel—a fabric you can almost taste like the berry-- as you put on your best yarmulke in the shtetl?


And bonus track:
11) Lenny Bruce, All Alone,
a surprisingly low key ballad sung by our foul-mouthed Yiddish-spouting hero on the second time he was on “The Tonight Show” with Steve Allen (on youtube.)


Neal Karlen and The Story of Yiddish links:

the author's website
the book's page at the publisher

Kirkus Reviews review

Minneapolis City Pages profile of the author
Minneapolis Star Tribune interview with the author
Tampa Tribune article ("Yiddish Goes Hollywood") by the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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