October 20, 2018

Yiddish: The enduring language

Among the many ways the Jewish people have sought to honor the Six Million, perhaps none is so life-affirming as the revival of interest in Yiddish, the mother tongue of the vast majority of the men, women and children murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.

Yet as Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett observes in the opening pages of “Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture,” a collection of scholarly essays edited by Lara Rabinovitch, Shiri Goren and Hannah S. Pressman (Wayne State University Press: $34.95), the academic study of Yiddish is a fraught subject precisely because it is loaded with memories of suffering and loss.

“To study Yiddish is, it could be said, never neutral…because languages are by their very nature highly charged phenomena even after the best efforts to purge them of their politics,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett explains. “Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Yiddish studies, in which the language becomes a proxy for its absent speakers.”

“Choosing Yiddish” is not an exercise in nostalgia or pop culture, and its contributors consciously distance themselves from the “kitchen Yiddish” of family usage. Rather, it is an academic colloquy on how Yiddish is studied in colleges and universities as a living language. “Early in the twenty-first century, Yiddish increasingly functions as an important form and forum of exchange in the marketplace of ideas,” the editors insist, “and the revived study of Yiddish language and culture represents one of the most innovative shifts in the academy today.”

One cannot think about Yiddish, of course, without recalling its murdered readers, writers and speakers. Shiri Goren, for example, contributes a kind of literary eulogy on the life and work of David Vogel, a native Yiddish speaker who made a principled decision to publish only in Hebrew but left behind an unpublished Yiddish manuscript when he was arrested in France and sent to Auschwitz — “a testimonial narrative,” writes Goren, “created on the verge of catastrophe.”  For Goren, the choice of language is full of meaning.

“Crucially for a writer whose existence was synonymous with in-betweenness, Yiddish also metaphorically functioned here as a mediator between German and Hebrew,” explains Goren, “serving as a medium that allowed Vogel enough distance for distinct artistic creation.”

Perhaps more surprisingly, Yiddish found a foothold in America. “Before World War I, no other city in the world hosted a larger Yiddish-speaking intellectual community than New York,” Tony Michels writes in an essay titled “The Lower East Side Meets Greenwich Village.”  And Jeffrey Shandler, in “Prelude to ‘Yiddish Goes Pop,’” points out that the academic study of Yiddish is now such a sober enterprise that “it is a challenge (but also a delight) for scholars today to engage, sometimes to rediscover, Yiddish as vulgar,” by which he means the “raucous Jewish lore” that can still be found in books ranging from Leo Rosten’s “The Joys of Yiddish” to Michael Wex’s “Born to Kvetch.”

The Yiddish scholars whose work is collected here refused to characterize Yiddish as a dead language, but they are painfully aware that it lives only in the margins of the contemporary Jewish world. “Small pockets exist where Yiddish is still spoken as an everyday language, both in the Haredi/Black Hat Orthodox communities and among a few hundred other Jews dedicated to keeping Yiddish alive,” acknowledges Sarah Bunin Benor. “Yet, for most American Jews, Yiddish is a ‘postvernacular language,’ a source of nostalgia, crystallized in the form of jokes, tshatshkes (keepsakes), refrigerator magnets, and festivals.”

Indeed, one notable and highly significant fact about “Choosing Yiddish” is that not a single word of Yiddish is reproduced in Hebrew characters (as opposed to English transliteration) except in photographic plates.  This is clearly a conscious choice, because it allows non-Yiddish-speakers like me to fully understand the argument that is being conducted among scholars, but it also reminds us that we are locked out of the more intimate conversation that can only be conducted in what was my grandparents’ language, but not my own. Thus are we reminded that one goal of the contributors to “Choosing Yiddish” is to lure non-Yiddish speakers back into the mamaloshen.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in May under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.