The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language
(A Companion to MENDELE)

Contents of Vol. 10.005 [Sequential No. 170]
Date: 31 May 2006

1) This issue (ed.)
2) Review of Jerold Frakes' Early Yiddish Texts (Marion Aptroot)
3) "Die fragen [di frages], vos men shtelt baym veren [vern] a sitizen [birger]" (Robert Goldenberg)
4) Books Received (ed.)
    a) Shalom Luria, Vilna Shelanu-Ir VaEm
    b) Mordkhe Schaechter, Di geviksn velt in yidish

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31 May 2006
From: ed.
Subject: This issue

***The discipline of Yiddish studies has been growing apace, building on the basis of work carried through by earlier generations of scholars. One area that has made great advances is that of Old Yiddish, which now boasts a number of critical editions of key works and, for the first time a comprehensive textbook that surveys the entire field. Jerrold Frakes's Early Yiddish Texts is here reviewed by Professor Marion Aptroot of the Lehrstuhl fuer jiddische Kultur, Sprache un Kultur, Heinrich-Heine Universitaet, Duesseldorf.  

***The recent fracas over a Spanish translation of the "Star-Spangled Banner" brought into momentary prominence earlier parallel translations in other languages, including Yiddish. The latter point up the role of Yiddish as a handmaiden in the acculturation of Yiddish-speaking immigrants. As early as 1896 the lexicographer, journalist and author Aleksander Harkavi (1863-1939) in one of the many periodicals he founded and wrote for, was publishing help columns for prospective naturalization applicants. In the pages brought here in both Yiddish and Latin letters, we see how an effort is made to write English in Yiddish letters. This suggests that many Jewish immigrants mastered a rudimentary English before they could match English alphabet to English sounds. Nayer leksikon fun der yidisher literatur (vol. 3:82) records the shortlived  Baltimore weekly Der yidisher progres of 1890: "Di tsaytung iz arayn in der geshikhte vi der ershter muster fun fonetisher ortografye in yidish." ('The periodical entered history as the first instance of phonetic orthography in Yiddish.') 

31 May 2006 
From: Marion Aptroot
Subject: Review of Jerold Frakes' Early Yiddish Texts

Early Yiddish Texts 11001750. Edited by Jerold C. Frakes.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Jerold Frakess copious anthology, Early Yiddish Texts 11001750, with its 889 pages of texts and excerpts accompanied by succinct introductions and selected bibliographical information provides a weighty argument in discussions with those who think Yiddish only became a written language in the nineteenth century. Even among those who are aware that Yiddish texts from earlier centuries have come down to us, the cliché often rules that virtually all older Yiddish texts   apart from some medieval epics and Elye Bokhers Renaissance romances were intended for pious women. This anthology reflects the scholarship of the past two centuries that has described and studied a highly diverse body of Yiddish texts: Frakes includes Bible translations, Biblical or Midrashic as well as secular epics, fables, letters, minhogim (customs), glosses and glossaries, vikuekh-lider (poetic disputations), drama, ethical and moral literature, satire and humour, historical songs and historiography, legal and para-legal texts, responsa, liturgical texts, a newspaper, songs, medical and magical texts, paratexts, prose narratives (mayses), and travel guides.

With this book, guided by chronological and genre indices, one can embark on a tour of discovery. The indices facilitate access to the anthology, but in some cases one can dispute the date or the genre under which a text is classified. The latter is nearly always a moot point in literary histories and anthologies, but a division into genres is a practical organizing principle. Still, it is surprising to find Isaac Wetzlars Libes briv not only under the heading of muser but also that of Kabbalah. Kabbalah is currently a live topic and the scholarly debate on the nature and extent of the transmission of kabbalistic narratives and ideas in early Yiddish texts is ongoing. This connection, however, is puzzling to this reviewer, who divines a mishap during the production process: Frakess introduction to the excerpt provides no arguments for this classification.

Whereas most users will be aware that ideas about the classification of texts according to genre are in constant flux and that what is understood by these labels changes through the ages, they will probably accept the date of texts as a given. The texts should be dated with extreme care, taking account of codicological, linguistic and stylistic criteria. Frakes, overall, is careful and dates the texts on the basis of colophons or title pages of manuscripts and printed texts and is not afraid of giving vague indications where there is uncertainty. Unfortunately, this caution is not always upheld. The heading of text Nr. 14, Vu zol ikh hin / Whither Shall I Go?, for example, states that it was written in the fourteenth century. The dating of the text, however, is not at all certain. The manuscript in which it is found dates from the fourteenth century. The poem in question, according to Frakes, is written in an Ashkenazic cursive hand distinct from the formal book hand of the main text (p. 64). Frakes bases his dating on the fact that [t]he hand of the poem is characteristic of the earliest period in Old Yiddish texts and may well be a near contemporary of the main text. I am sure that Jerold Frakes has read many Yiddish manuscripts and that he has developed an eye for paleographic differences, but the paleography of Ashkenazic writing alone does not allow precise dating. The language in which the poem is written is strikingly more modern than that of the texts preceding and following it in this anthology. The spelling conventions to which the scribe adheres, too, are more typical of sixteenth-century works.

For this anthology Jerold Frakes has consulted many original manuscripts and printed works as well as critical editions. The main objective of this anthology is to provide reliable texts of a representative range of works from early Yiddish (p. lxxi). In this Frakes has succeeded since the number of errors in the Old Yiddish texts appears to be extremely low. However, one would sometimes wish for more editorial information when he provides different scholars (and his own) textual readings of originals that are sometimes hard to decipher or contain typographical errors. As he states in the introduction: A text edition may be provided with various types of notes, such as explanatory notes (that identify references and allusions to or citations of other texts, such as Bible, Talmud, or midrash, or identify people, places or events mentioned in the text), lexical notes that explain difficult words, and textual readings by previous scholars (p. lxxi). These were not provided because of other priorities and considerations of space, but those who try to read these texts may give up because of the difficulties they provide. If one is not a polyglot like Frakes and familiar with a number of European languages from the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period, one may become frustrated by the lack of explanatory notes.

The attention devoted to checking the early Yiddish texts was not paid to the bibliographies. Here Oxford University Press is responsible since a relatively large number of the misspellings are in the English titles. This, however, is a minor irritation, since the bibliographies are very helpful. The introductions to the texts are short and clear and the select bibliographies usually point the user in the right direction for further reading. For those texts that have been the subject of much attention, a selection of the secondary literature is given. I have found a number of useful references which I did not know. On the other hand I have followed up leads such as books on the history of medicine that led me nowhere and at the same time I noticed some striking omissions, such as, to name two examples, Erika Timms article on the Mayse-bukh (text Nr. 89)[1] and Michael Stanislavski on the Ashkenazic tradition of Shevet Yehuda (text Nr. 71)[2], both essential papers on these topics. 

This criticism aside, Jerold Frakes anthology fulfills the aim of providing reliable texts for advanced students. One hopes that this book will contribute to Old and Middle Yiddish texts becoming part of the curriculum at more universities. Time will tell if this book will indeed be used for the academic teaching of Early Yiddish literature. At universities where Old and Middle Yiddish literature and language are taught, teachers attach much value to their students becoming familiar with the look of older Yiddish manuscripts and printed books and it is unlikely that they will use this edition for texts which for lack of explanatory notes are just as easy or difficult to read in the original if reproductions are available. Students who can read Yiddish in square characters can usually master the Ashkenazic semi-cursive and cursive scripts without much difficulty. In my experience in teaching early Yiddish texts, students prefer facsimiles once they become familiar with the writing. Furthermore, a considerable number of Yiddish printed books of the 16th to mid-18th century can easily be found online [3]or as part of microfiche collections.[4] Where early Yiddish texts are taught in facsimile, this impressive compilation can still be used as an accompanying manual providing materials (textual readings by scholars where available , short introduction and bibliographical references for further reading) which can be both an aid to and the object of further discussions in the study of pre- and early modern Yiddish texts.

This anthology also makes evident the need for good scholarly editions of early Yiddish texts which include various types of notes, such as explanatory notes (that identify references and allusions to or citations of other texts, such as Bible, Talmud, or midrash, or identify people, places or events mentioned in the text), lexical notes that explain difficult words, and textual readings by previous scholars (to quote Jerold Frakes, p. lxxi, out of context). A number of editions that provide these aids have appeared and such works continue to appear, most recently Chava Turnianskys prize-winning Glikl edition.[5

With this compilation of a wide choice of works and excerpts, Jerold Frakes has provided the only single-volume companion for exploring early Yiddish literary and non-literary texts in independent studies. This pioneering work will doubtless help raise interest in Medieval and Early Modern Yiddish.

[1] Erika Timm, Zur Frühgeschichte der jiddischen Erzählprosa: Eine neuaufgefundene Maise-Handschrift. In: Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 117,2 (1995), p. 243-280. Far from simply being a description of a newly discovered mayse-codex, this is also one of the best introductions to the Mayse-bukh and full of new information.

The articles of Lucia Raspe on specific Ashkenazic prose narratives which feature, among other sources, in the Mayse-bukh and Mayse nisim are among the most innovative studies relevant to the study of older Yiddish texts. It would have been very helpful to students and teachers of Early Yiddish literature if their attention had been drawn to them, e.g. Emmeram von Regensburg, Amram von Mainz: Ein christlicher Heiliger in der jüdischen Überlieferung, in: Neuer Anbruch. Zur deutsch-jüdischen Geschichte und Kultur, Michael Brocke, Aubrey Pomerance and Andrea Schatz, eds., Berlin: Metropol, 2001, p. 221241.

[2] Michael Stanislavski, The Yiddish Shevet Yehudah: a study in the Ashkenization of a Spanish-Jewish classic. In: Jewish History and Jewish Memory; Essays in Honor of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi. Ed. by Elisheva Carlebach, John M. Efron, David N. Myers. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England; Brandeis University Press, 1998, p. 134-149.

[3] Scans of Yiddish works from the extensive holdings of the University Library of Frankfurt on the Main are accessible via the internet:

[4] E.g., the collection of Old Yiddish Literature edited by Chone Shmeruk, based mainly on the Yiddish collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford (Leiden: IDC-Microfilms) or the Yiddish books from the Thyssen Collection, Rostock, and parts of the Wagenseil collection, both edited by Heike Tröger and Hermann Süss (Erlangen: Harald Fischer Verlag). A notable recent facsimile edition with translation and commentary is Astrid Starcks edition of the Mayse Bukh: Un beau livre dhistoires / Eyn shön Mayse bukh: facsimilé de ledition princeps de Bâle (1602). Basel: Schwabe, 2004.

[5] Chava Turniansky, ed., Glikl zikhronot 16911719, Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 2006. This edition with Hebrew translation and extensive commentary and explanatory notes was recently awarded the Bialik Prize.

31 May 2006   

From: Robert Goldenberg
Subject: Die fragen [Di frages], vos men shtelt baym veren [vern] a sitizen [birger]

Cover of Der yidish-amerikanisher folks-kalendar, 1896-1897
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"Die fragen [di frages], vos men shtelt baym veren [vern] a sitizen [birger]", p.114
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"Die fragen [di frages], vos men shtelt baym veren [vern] a sitizen [birger]", p.115

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Die fragen [Di frages], vos men shtelt baym veren [vern] a sitizen [birger]

(fun der Arbayter [Arbeter] Tsaytung)

Dos gezets shraybt nit for, vos der rikhter zol fregen dem vos vil veren [vern] a sitizen [birger]. Nor der rikhter fregt gevehnlikh [geveynlekh] etlikhe [etlekhe] fragen [frages], um zikh tsu ibertsaygen, oyb der kandidat hot khotsh a shtikel [shtikl] yedie vos di amerikaner regirung iz azelkhes. Velkhe fragen [frages] fregt, iz nit beshtimt [bashtimt], nor gevehnlikh [geveynlekh] fregt er folgende:


Of how many states are the United States composed? (Fun vifiele [vifl] shtaaten [shtatn] beshtehen [bashteyen] die fereynigte shtaaten [di Fareynikte shtatn]?)

antvort [entfer]:

Forty-four (44).



What kind of government have we? (Velkhe sort regirung hoben [hobn] mir?)

antvort [entfer]:


[Ed:. Note how, as in the above, Yiddish letters are used to write English words throughout the citizen's catechism.]

Who makes the laws of the United States? (Ver makht die gezetse [di gezetsn]fun di fereynigte shtaaten Fareynikte shtatn]?)

antvort [entfer]: The People, through Congress in Washington. (Dos folk, durkh dem Kongres in vashington.)

frage: What do you call the two branches of Congress? (Vi rufen [rufn] zikh di tsvey abtheylungen [opteylungen] fun kongres?)

antvort [entfer]:   House of Representatives and the Senate of the United States. (Dos hoyz fun di folks-fertreter [dos Reprezentantn-hoyz] un der Senat fun die fereynigte shtaaten [Fareynikte shtatn]?)

frage: Who is the head of the United States government? (Ver iz der hoypt fun der regierung fun di fereynigte shtaaten [Fareynikte shtatn]?)

antvort [entfer]: The President of the United States. (Der prezident fun di fereynigte shtaaten [Fareynikte shtatn].)

frage: Where is the capitol of the United States? (Vu iz di hoyptshtodt [hoyptshtot] fun di fereynigte shtaaten [Fareynikte shtatn]?)

antvort [entfer]: Washington, District of Columbia

frage: Who makes the laws of this state? (Ver makht die gezetse [di gezetsn] fun dizen shtaat [dizn shtaat]?)

antvort [entfer]: The State Legislature.

frage: Who is the head of the  government of this state? (Ver iz der hoypt fun der regierung [regirung] fun dizen steyt [dizn shtat]?)

antvort [entfer]: The Governor.

frage: Where is the capital of this state?

antvort [entfer]: (Ven es iz in steyt [shtat] Nyu york) In Albany.

frage: What does the Constitution guarantee to everybody? (Vos fir rekhte [Vosere rekht] garantirt die konstitutsiyon [di konstitutsye] tsu yeden [yedn] eynem?)

antvort [entfer]: Liberty, Free Speech and Free Press.  (Frayheyt, rede frayheyt [fray reyd] un fraye presse [prese]).

frage: Who abolishes the laws of the United States? (Ver shaft ob [op] die gezetse [di gezetsn] fun di fereynigte shtaaten Fareynikte shtatn]?)

antvort entfer]: The People through the Supreme Court. (Dos folk durkh dos ober-gerikht [dos Hekhste gerikht])

frage: Who makes the laws of the  city? (Ver makht die gezetse [di gezetsn] fun shtodt [shtot]?)

antvort [entfer]: The Board of Aldermen. (Die ferzamlung fun di oldermen [di Kolegye fun shtot-yoyetsim].)

frage: Who is the head officer of the city? (Ver iz der hoypt-beamter [baamter] fun shtot?)

antvort [entfer]: The Mayor.  


Date: 31 May 2006
From: ed.
Subject: Books Received

    a) Shalom Luria, Vilna Shelanu-Ir VaEm

Shalom Luria. Vilna Shelanu -- Ir VaEm. [Tadpis mitokh seyfer hazikaron leken "HaShomer HaTsair" beVilna: Lahavot 'HaShomer HaTsair', Tel-Aviv, 1993; reprinted from Shalom Luria. "Vilna Shelanu - Ir VaEm," Madurot; HaShomer HaTsair beVilna veHaGalil, Givat Khaviva: Yotsey haShomer haTsair beVilna veHaGalil veYad Yaari, 1991, pp. 20-71].

Shalom Luria, the son of the distinguished Yiddish linguist Zelik Kalmanovitsh (1885-1944) and an accomplished Yiddish scholar and translator in his own right, movingly describes his beloved Vilna, which he left as a young man to "go up to" the Land of Israel -- with the blessings of his parents whom he was never to see again. These beloved parents "brought him to Vilna when he was a child, raised and educated him and planted in him a love for the Jewish people and its two tongues -- Yiddish and Hebrew ...." In 22 succinct chapters, this brochure of 100 pages (with a 4-page bibliography) sketches in an individual manner the cultural biography of Jewish Vilna through the ages, a remarkable story.

    b) Mordkhe Schaechter, Di geviksn-velt in yidish

Mordkhe Schaechter. Di geviksn-velt in yidish [English title: Plant Names in Yiddish] (New York: Yidisher visnshaftlekher institute - YIVO, 2005). This is a very solid -- albeit incomplete and by no means easy to use -- contribution to a sorely neglected division of Yiddish lexicography. Even well-versed Yiddishists will be surprised (and delighted) at the rich store of botanic terms in Yiddish. Only a masterful philologist such as Mordkhe Schaechter could have assembled such a work, one which is worthy of being completed, reedited and organized in a more usable form.

End of The Mendele Review Vol. 10.005

Editor, Leonard Prager


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