For centuries Yiddish was the vernacular of Ashkenazi Jews, and Prague a widely known center of Jewish culture and the Yiddish language. But what is Yiddish? How and where did it arise? What characteristics distinguish it? What kind of literature did it bring forth? To what purpose and extent? What role did Prague and Bohemia, located between East and West, play in Central Europe? What factors led to the preeminence of Hebrew and Yiddish printing in Prague? Did they include the fact that an erudite book by a woman appeared there (Menekes Rivke) and that the adventures of the popular figure Till Eulenspiegel happen to him only in the Prague edition? The great Rabbi Loew (Maharal of Prague: 1525–1609) spoke Hebrew, but the Golem of Prague, a recent invention (1836) attributed to him, spoke Yiddish and inspired artists as diverse as the filmmaker Paul Wegener and the writer H. Leivick. By the early 20th century, however, Yiddish had become a curiosity in Central Europe, a kind of exotic pastime, if not something reprehensible dismissed by the bourgeois — even as Franz Kafka confided to his Diaries his love for Eastern Yiddish theater and its actors, whose tours included Prague and Berlin. The present article gives Yiddish the place its significance and richness merit, and raises awareness of the grandeur of the lost culture and language which echo softly yet today in the narrow streets of Prague.
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