Words on Fire by Dovid Katz; Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky
While on an academic tour of Lithuania last summer, I came upon a folio-sized book displayed in stores all over the country. It stood out as the only English-language book in the window, and certainly as the only one whose cover also featured Hebrew lettering. Upon inspection, the book, Lithuanian Jewish Culture, turned out to have been heavily subsidized by the Republic of Lithuania, and was clearly intended for the tourist trade and for coffee tables in the West. The tipoff was not just the $100 price tag, the elaborate multicolored maps, or the hundreds of facsimiles and photos; it was the upbeat message. However remote present-day Lithuania may seem from anything Jewish, however tiny its own surviving Jewish population, Lithuanian Jewish Culture offers up a technicolor dreamscape of nostalgia, a “Jewish Lithuania” stretching from the Baltic to Smolensk, its great “Litvak civilization” encompassing hundreds of once-Jewish cities, towns, and hamlets.
Dovid Katz, the author of Lithuanian Jewish Culture, is himself an American-born “Litvak,” or Jew of Lithuanian descent, who in 1999 came full circle by making his home in the country’s capital city of Vilnius, where he promptly established the first-ever Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University. Katz is also a noted scholar who now, in Words on Fire, has two compelling stories to tell about his academic specialty, the Yiddish language. One is the story of Yiddish as the key to a transnational, cross-cultural, pan-European civilization “of seemingly infinite differentiation.” The other is the story of Yiddish as the major repository of internal Jewish memory, continuity, tradition, and “fun.”
About the Author
David G. Roskies teaches literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary. This is adapted from a work in progress, The Last Yiddish Novel: A Memoir. Copyright © 2005 by David G. Roskies.