Yid­dish Saves the Day

Deb­bie Levy, Hec­tor Bor­las­ca (Illus.)

  • Review
By – July 29, 2019

Deb­bie Levy and Hec­tor Borlasca’s Yid­dish Saves the Day is about what author and humorist Leo Ros­ten named, The Joys of Yid­dish. While oth­er books for even the youngest read­ers have intro­duced a men­sch here, and a bubbele there, Levy’s sto­ry is built on the spe­cif­ic and delight­ful premise that Yid­dish is a lan­guage with super­pow­ers. As she explains in A Note for Fam­i­lies” at the end of the book, this more than a thou­sand years old Jew­ish lan­guage, has inte­grat­ed words from many of the dif­fer­ent places where Jews lived, pro­duc­ing a tur­bocharged lex­i­con of terms which are so pow­er­ful, and so often comical.”

Read­ers are drawn into this Yid­dish les­son through the famil­iar tale of a lit­tle boy who is hav­ing a bad day. He returns home from school quite upset at the tsuris, trouble,which he is suf­fer­ing due to some frus­trat­ing­ly bad mazel. His inspir­ing teacher has giv­en the class a moti­vat­ing assign­ment: bring to school a list of words, pre­sum­ably in Eng­lish, which will add sparkle and zest to an ordi­nary spelling test. The boy has lost his care­ful­ly pre­pared list, as well as one of his shoes, mak­ing him feel like a true shlemiel. The book builds momen­tum through an ele­ment of mys­tery, but main­ly focus­es on his won­der­ful net­work of sup­port — lov­ing fam­i­ly mem­bers who are only too eager to sug­gest replace­ment words for his miss­ing list. Levy’s engag­ing rhymed text includes such famil­iar anchors as klutz and chutz­pah in telling a tale of hap­pi­ly resolved woe, but the author also brings in oth­er cul­tur­al touch­stones, such as a men­ac­ing golem and the super­nat­ur­al dyb­buk, whose curse could cause you to lose more than a shoe.

Hec­tor Borlasca’s vibrant­ly col­or­ful pic­tures are an appeal­ing vehi­cle for Levy’s mes­sage. Even at the worst moments dur­ing the boy’s dilem­ma, peo­ple are smil­ing and every scene is full of pur­pose-dri­ven action. Ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry cloth­ing and fur­ni­ture give the book a nos­tal­gic feel. At the bot­tom of most pages, a play­ful cat climbs on a word box with def­i­n­i­tions and a pro­nun­ci­a­tion guide to the Yid­dish words used. Spo­ken Yid­dish today is large­ly found in Cha­sidic and oth­er tra­di­tion­al­ly Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ties. The Yid­dish once spo­ken broad­ly among Ashke­naz­ic Jews, from sec­u­lar to obser­vant, and the cor­ner­stone of an incred­i­ble body of lit­er­a­ture, has fad­ed from dai­ly life. Read­ers can kvell that Yid­dish Saves the Day brings this world back to life for read­ers too young to have known it was gone.

Yid­dish Saves the Day is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed for chil­dren as well as adults who love the mamaloshen.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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