Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Debba

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The Debba

by Avner Mandelman

The Debba by Avner Mandelman
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    Jul 2010, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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Yiddish
Mandelman's novel is generously peppered with Yiddish words and phrases, complete with translations. There are other Yiddish words that require no translation having found their way into common English usage; words such as bagel, maven and klutz, have become so widespread that it would be difficult to spend a day without hearing, reading or uttering one of them. Others, such as schmooze, kvetch and shtick, while not as routinely used are nonetheless virtually irreplaceable in reference to the activities or things they describe.

Many people mistakenly believe Yiddish to be a kind of ethnic jargon. However, it is best described as a fusion language that shares a common ancestry with both German and English, in addition to several other Eastern European and Semitic languages (Semitic languages being a group of related languages spoken by people across much of the Middle East and North Africa, which include Hebrew and Arabic with about 5 million and 200 million speakers respectively).

Although it has never been the official language of any sovereign state, a de facto literary dialect called "Standard Yiddish," written in the Hebrew alphabet, has evolved and has been adopted by many writers. Furthermore over the last century Yiddish has exerted noticeable influence on Israeli Hebrew. Some have even suggested that Israeli Hebrew (i.e. modern Hebrew) is equally if not more heavily influenced by Yiddish than by ancient Hebrew. In The Debba the Arab and Israeli characters appear to blend multiple languages and dialects within the span of a single conversation, slipping effortlessly between Yiddish, Arabic and Hebrew with a smattering of Aramaic and English tossed in for good measure.

There are conflicting opinions as to the Yiddish language's birth date with scholars placing its origins between the 10th and 13th Centuries. Experts say that the Jewish populations that first began speaking what would come to be called Yiddish came from various locales including France, Germany, the Slavic lands, and the Mediterranean to settle in the Rhine region of Germany where they adopted a Germanic dialect that heavily influenced the developing language. Later, these Ashkenazi Jews (Ashkenazi being the medieval Hebrew name for the Rhineland and for Germany in general) migrated, mainly eastward, forming communities in non German-speaking areas. Despite the strong German influence, experts agree that Yiddish is not to be taken as a dialect of German or any other single language, as it differs in countless ways from any one of the many languages that influenced it.

Before World War II it is estimated that about eleven million people spoke Yiddish as their primary language. Today that figure is less than two million. It is spoken most predominantly in certain Orthodox and Hasidic communities as well as among Yiddish activists. The word Yiddish literally means Jewish. Thus Yid means Jew, but the word has taken on such a derogatory interpretation that its use is deemed culturally offensive.

Article by Donna Chavez

This article is from the September 8, 2010 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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