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Yiddish Civilisation

Yiddish Civilisation Cover

Yiddish Civilisation

The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation

By Paul Kriwaczek

Knopf, Hardcover, 9781400040872, 384pp.

Publication Date: October 18, 2005


From the author of In Search of Zarathustra— an illuminating chronicle of Yiddish civilization from its roots in the Diaspora to the present.

Paul Kriwaczek begins his search when Jewish culture first spreads to Europe during the Roman Empire after the end of ancient Jerusalem and the destruction of its Temple at the hands of the Romans in the year 70. We see the burgeoning exile population disperse, moving outward and northward throughout the following centuries, making their mark in more far flung cities under Roman rule. We see these communities settle and coalesce until in 1264 the Statute of Kalisz lays down a general charter of Jewish Liberties, establishing the legal foundation of a separate, self-governing Yiddish world. It is now the treks that begin from the Rhineland and Bavaria to Western Russia and the Ukraine. By its late-medieval heyday, this economically successful, intellectually adventurous, and largely self-ruling Yiddish society stretches from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Providing a rich portrait of Yiddish civilization, Kriwaczek reflects upon the development of Yiddish language, occupations, social life, art, music, and literature, and introduces us to notable diplomats, artists, and thinkers: from the “Court Jews” of 17th- century Europe to Glikl of Hamelins, who wrote the first great Yiddish autobiography, to Moses Mendelssohn, the 18th-century philosopher and musician, to the great writers of the late 19th and 20th centuries, Sholem Aleichem and I.B. Singer among them. He chronicles the slow decline of Yiddish culture in Europe and Russia, beginning in the 17th century with the Chmielnicki Massacres in the Ukraine and culminating in the Holocaust, but looks further to fresh offshoots in the New World.

Combining intimate family anecdote, travelogue, historical research, and interviews with scholars, Kriwaczek retraces the history of this nearly extinguished civilization to give us a celebration of what remains of Yiddish culture in our own time.

Praise For Yiddish Civilisation

“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