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Discovering Exile: Yiddish and Jewish American Culture During the Holocaust

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Discovering Exile

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Discovering Exile
Yiddish and Jewish American Culture During the Holocaust

By Anita Norich
Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture
Stanford University Press, Stanford: 2007
ISBN 10: 0-8047-5690-2
ISBN 13: 978-0-8047-5690-7

Reviewed by Boris Segel - March 23, 2009

To study Jewish-American history without considering the impact that Yiddish - both in regard to its language and its cultural connotations, is to ignore a fundamental element of the Jewish American experience. In Discovering Exile: Yiddish and Jewish American Culture During the Holocaust, Anita Norich explores the methodological error inherent in ignoring the importance of Yiddish culture in regard to the Jewish American experience, and by exposing just how vibrant and integral it was in both the religious and secular life of countless Jews.

For the purposes of this study, Norich has confined her study to the 1930-40s, coinciding with the Holocaust. Over the course of this book, Norwich not only looks at the impact that Yiddish had on Jewish culture and literature, but also on how the Yiddish press covered the Holocaust, and how the information presented in Yiddish, differed from that being offered in the English language press. The most important aspect of this book is that Norwich shows that rather than being two separate linguistic factors, Yiddish and English formed a symbiotic relationship within the American Jewish community during the 1930s and 40s, and that each drew sustenance from the other.

Although this is a relatively short book (215 pages), Norwich, who is an Associate Professor of English and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, has managed to include a vast array of information, including an entire chapter devoted to the controversy surrounding Sholem Asch, whether or not he was an apostate and what it meant for his work, and how it was received. Other topics covered included the use of humor as a coping mechanism during the Holocaust, various controversies that arose around specific Yiddish texts, the interrelationship between the religious and secular aspects of Yiddish, and how America became the center of Yiddish culture and literature as Yiddish culture in Europe was obliterated, along with the people who once spoke it. Most important, throughout this text, Norwich examines the vibrancy of Yiddish, and its importance both in the home and within the greater Jewish community - and the impact that Yiddish had on Jewish identity in America, during the Holocaust.

The information in this book is organized into four main chapters: The book also includes practical supplemental information, including a 48-page, up-to-date bibliography that will prove indispensable for anyone interested in delving into Yiddish culture in America during the Holocaust, as well as those with an interest in the History of the Holocaust. Of particular use to scholars, Norwich has included references to specific newspaper articles dealing with the Holocaust that appeared in various Yiddish language papers in America.

I found Discovering Exile to be a fascinating book, not only for Norich's insights into Yiddish culture, but also because she reminds readers that there was much more to Jewish history during the 1930s and 40s than just the Holocaust. I highly recommend this book to both scholars and general readers with an interest in Yiddish Culture, American-Jewish history, and Holocaust studies.

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