Book: Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land

There's a marvelous book on Yiddish called "Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land," and it is mostly associated with writer Harvey Pekar, who is pictured above. Pekar, who died in 2010, gained notoriety for authoring a series of autobiographical independent comics called "American Splendor." He also worked as a freelance book and music critic, and favored avant garde literature and jazz records, often championing work that he felt had been neglected.

This book feels very Pekar. Much of it is in comic form, with some autobiography -- Pekar related that he grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household, and it was his first language. Pekar's fascination with literature and music is here too, with him providing a detailed primer on Yiddish literature.

But there is another editor who worked on this book, and it feels like his book as well, even if he isn't a character in the book, as Pekar is. He is Paul Buhle, an author and scholar at Brown University who has specialized in the history of radicalism in the United States. Although Buhle is not Jewish, his studies in radicalism caused him to learn Yiddish, and he has gone on to author a number of books about Jews and popular culture, including a three-volume series titled, simply, "Jews and American Popular Culture."

Buhle is very much here, in his shared interests with Pekar -- comics, music, and socialism, in particular -- and also in detailed histories of Yiddish popular culture, including film and theater.

I'd call the result an alternative history of Yiddish, focusing on secular, political, and artistic expressions of the language. But an alternative to what? I suspect the Hasidim have their own history of Yiddish, in which it is a language of faith and of religious culture, but that history is not widely available. No, if Pekar and Buhle's book is an alternative history, it is an alternative history of America, a defiance of the myth of the melting pot, demonstrating that before World War II much of the Jewish experience in America was unmelted. In their version, we were a people with an alien language, unpopular European politics, and a thriving cultural life that existed apart from mainstream America.

It's not the whole story, of course. The experience of religious Jews is given short shrift in the book, Zionism scarcely makes an appearance, and the story of assimilation is left untold. Even elements that would fit into this particular history go mostly untold: Yiddish radio is overlooked, and while the book briefly tells of Socialism summer camps, it mostly overlooks the story of the Borsht Belt, which may have been the single greatest incubator of American Yiddish popular culture.

The book makes no claims toward comprehensiveness, and I don't demand it. But every book I read about Yiddish reminds me that there are stories yet untold. This is a bit frustrating, but also wonderful -- I like to know that Yiddish was once so huge that a single book could not contain it. That it would taken many books, most as yet unwritten, to understand the story of Yiddish.