Monday, April 8, 2013

A Secret History of Yiddish

If languages had personalities, then Yiddish would probably be gruff and sardonic, with several unexpected surprises up its sleeve--much like the admired comic book writer Harvey Pekar who died last year.

One of Pekar's last projects was co-editing Yiddishkeit--a new, gorgeously illustrated cartoon history of the Yiddish language and its speakers. Though Pekar's books were nearly always personal memoirs, this collection is well-researched and authoritative.

Some pieces are more straightforward histories, and some take liberties, both with art and story. Hundred-year-old Yiddish political cartoons are explained and placed side-by-side with tribute comics created especially for this volume. "Shrayber un Arbeter (Writers and Workers)" portrays the Yiddish newspaper in a Wizard of Oz-type theme--the world of the immigrant is depicted as a stark, black-and-white place, but the newspaper offers an escape, a color-soaked fantasia of Yiddish stories and jokes.

Stories about the lives of luminaries such as Sholem Aleichem and Leon Kobrin are interspersed with more personal tales, such as Pekar's own recollections of reading I.J. Singer in a hospital room, conducting imaginary arguments with the author about the future of Judaism.

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