We’ve been on the Jewish Book Council’s mailing list for years, ever since 2006, when The Word Mavens were lauded as two of “the hottest new authors to hit the literary scene for Jewish book programs.” That’s because of our Dictionary of Jewish Words. By “hot new authors,” did they mean those authors who get hot flashes or that our book was so exciting it would soon become a movie? Who would be cast as the bagel and the knish?
The Jewish Book Council has announced the five finalists for its 2012 Sami Rhor Prize for Jewish Literature, which will be awarded next month to an emerging writer who seeks to add to the knowledge and understanding of Jewish history and culture.
According to their release, the “$100,000 prize is among the most generous in the literary world.” (You’re telling us. We know writers who kvell over a $35 reprint check. Just saying.) This year, the nominees are for nonfiction and one of the contenders (which is waiting in the piles alongside our night table) is the much-lauded When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry by Gal Beckerman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Beckerman, a reporter for The Jewish Daily Forward, wrote an exhaustive tale of the “refuseniks,” Russian Jews who were denied permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union. The word was coined in the 1970s – and it’s a combination of the English word “refuse” and the Hebrew diminutive ending “nik” (like kibbutznik), meaning “person.”
For the book, Beckerman plowed through recently released Soviet government documents and conducted numerous interviews with refuseniks in the former Soviet Union, Israel and the United States. He also spoke to members of the Diaspora Jewish communities who organized, fundraised and worked for the refuseniks’ freedom. The result is a compelling, moving and too-often-forgotten story.
For The Word Mavens, refusenik is a good example of how language changes and mutates. And yes, it is in our dictionary. The movement to free Soviet Jewry reached its height in 1988-90; now, years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the word is no longer needed. One of the most famous refuseniks was Anatoly Sharansky, who gained permission to emigrate to Israel after serving nine years in a Siberian prison camp. He changed his name to Natan, lives in Israel and has served in the Knesset for many years.
We’re clearly not the only word nerds. We came across a now-abandoned blog in which a Cleveland writer posted an obsolete word of the day, a dictionary of obsolete English, and an online campaign to adopt an obsolete word from the Oxford English Dictionary. It must have worked because now his blog is obsolete….
It’s good news when a word like refusenik has served its purpose and is no longer needed. But we hope that some words, like shmooze and chutzpah and fapitzed will never go out of style. We will make sure of it.