Yiddishkeit: You Got Your Etymology In My Comic Books / by David Anderson


Reviewers are incredibly vulnerable to the High Class Language Disease (HCLD), especially in the film genre. Signs and symptoms of HCLD include using French or Latin phrases like ex post facto, sui generis or menage a trois, an inflated self ego and a penchant for inside jokes made between friends in the critic industry. The penchant for injecting foreign phrases in reviews is especially annoying to me. I've probably done it though, I don't even remember what happened two minutes before I typed this.

Tell you what though, that's probably why I love German and Yiddish. Country languages, you know? Germany isn't synonymous with high class elitism, since it hasn't been a big player on the European stage for long--they lost somewhere between 25-40% of their total population in the 30 years' war, so they at least have something in common with the Jews they started obliterating in the 1930s. Yiddish is another thing; it's a lot of Hebrew mixed in with German and other nearby East European languages. When I first figured out that "Jehovah" was a Germanified version of YHWH, I got all stupid-giddy for etymology and felt like every other college student who figures something out on his own and decides he's a genius. Anyway, Yiddish is just a mutant kind of German, which is pretty amusing.

Yiddishkeit is the book I would have written if I had traveled back in time, attacked Harvey Pekar and stolen his research.

Well, Pekar didn't write it himself. This is a posthumous work that includes contributions from a bunch of different researchers and artists, but this was one of Pekar's last works before he died and he was involved in editing and shaping this book from conception to near-completion.

The word itself basically means "Yiddish-hood", the -keit suffix being a German one related to -heit, like in Gesundheit (health), Einsamkeit (loneliness), and I am basically just masturbating with words right now so I'll stop. Point is, it's a fancy word related to culture, but we'll get to that.

It's not quite a graphic novel, not quite a book, but a mix of the two. It's a study of how Yiddish came and went, all the theories of its origin and its development, famous writers of Yiddish, and a study on the very nature of the language as it relates to Jewish culture and socioeconomic history. Neal Gabler's introduction puts it better--"'Yiddish culture' comes close [to defining the word], but Yiddishkeit is so large, expansive, and woolly a concept that culture may be too narrow to do it full justice." That's the thing I love and hate about words- that in one language, they encapsulate everything that can be said and unsaid, but when you translate it, it's as awkward as a 43-year-old man wearing cut off jeans.

In particular, its subtitle "Jewish Vernacular and the New Land" emphasizes how it spends a lot of time talking about how the American experience shaped Yiddish, as a lot of Jews in New York and that local theater scene went a long way to writing the history of Yiddish. Tied up in all that is the poor/working class Jewish experience in Europe as well. Well, I shouldn't say it like that--Yiddish was born in Europe, but in America it became more mainstream.

Yiddish is the language of a working class people--it's dirty, full of catchphrases that would make English flinch, and it is pretty well adapted for comedy and drama. The late Pekar's work, along with contributions from a laundry list of artists and researchers, result in a fascinating, engaging book that makes it easy to introduce new people to the subject of Jewish culture. There are a wide range of essays and comics, with samples of Yiddish writing and theater injected here and there, comics that go from biographical to historical subjects, and giant one page portraits of events and people.

Because it is a historical work, most of the creative writing comes from past authors who have had their works inserted into the book. What is there is pretty interesting; a piece about life on Coney Island, the script from a recent play about Yiddish culture. Harvey's biography is a good read. There are so many different pieces by so many different authors it's hard to describe them all. However what I have read so far (I'm about halfway through) has been fascinating and descriptive, and the selected pieces are all high quality history.

There are a lot of different art styles between comics, but they're all great. One of the largest comics has a stylistic monochrome that is used to complement the words with pictures describing them, but also has large portraits of famous or prominent Yiddish cultural icons. Another reduces humans to mere icons, blurry scribbles with lots of motion and expression. Others are drawn in more antiquated styles, reminiscent of the time periods they describe. These kind of remind me of old Dick Tracy comics I had growing up. The diversity of styles helps instill the sense of diversity in Yiddish culture you'll read about in this book.

This book's main function of course is to teach you how Yiddish is spoken, and so they have pronunciation lists and side-by-side translations of text to help you out. Okay, it's not going to replace Yiddish 101 but it's extremely in depth, and it is a great exercise in compare/contrast if you know your German and spend the time picking out the words and figuring out their roots. So yeah, it's a nerd's dream come true- an academic comic book.

TL;DR: Yiddishkeit is a fantastic piece of work by Pekar, and though I haven't read much of his work, I'm sure this is one of his best. If you're the curious type, check it out. I think you'll enjoy it.

Yiddishkeit is edited by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle. It is published by Abrams ComicArts. You can ask for it at your local comic and book shops or, support Spandexless by ordering it from our Amazon web store.