In Defense of Yiddish
To the Editor:
Mortimer T. Cohen’s review of The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten [“Books in Review,” March] comes closer than most of the critical reviews to pinpointing the real defects of the work. But it must be added that the most glaring deficiency of the book is its inadequate scholarship in the very area with which it purports to deal: the influence of Yiddish on English.
Rosten and his research assistant checked a few dictionaries and reference works (and not too accurately at that, a number of assertions and citations are unreliable), but almost wholly ignored the periodical literature. The pertinent work of A. A. Roback, Leo Spitzer, Julius G. Rothenberg, and others is obviously unknown to them. If I may be permitted to mention myself, Rosten twice cites one of my articles, published in 1955, yet is clearly unaware of close to ten others that have appeared since then . . . which could have served him richly, with or without citation.
A systematic and authoritative supplement to Mencken’s material on the influence of Yiddish has been sorely needed, but Rosten has not provided it, nor has he given us a comprehensive treatment of the uniquely endearing qualities of Yiddish. . . .
Lillian Mermin Feinsilver
To the Editor:
Mortimer T. Cohen is to be commended for his hard-hitting review. He correctly points out that the book reflects not only its author’s values and attitudes, but also those of many American Jews.
If American Jewish life is to have any future, it must be founded on the most authentic and accurate knowledge of our past and present that scholarship can provide; it is sad, however, that Yiddish and Yiddish culture, among the cornerstones of this foundation, have long been plagued by a destructive, vaudevillian attitude, as exemplified by Mr. Rosten’s book. . . .
Ignorant of his subject and hostile to its values, Mr. Rosten has produced a work which is inevitably false and distorted. The reader who is repelled by the book’s utter vapidity should not let its pseudo-scholarliness fool him. Rosten’s knowledge of Yiddish is scrappy and unreliable; even in the mere handful of citations given by Mr. Cohen, one can find numerous errors: since when are “Get lost,” “Alright already,” “It shouldn’t happen to a dog,” and “Excuse the expression” calques from Yiddish? Since when is “shlump” a Yiddish word? A cursory reading of The Joys of Yiddish will reveal dozens of other inaccuracies. . . .
David L. Gold
Chairman, New York Executive Committee
YUGNTRUF/Youth for Yiddish