January 16, 2019

The Fight to Study, and to Teach, Yiddish Literature

“Enduring graduate school was harder than I had anticipated.

I arrived in New York at the beginning of January 1960 armed with a friend’s offer of temporary lodging, only to find the room so cold that I slept in my winter coat. Until I could register at Columbia University and make use of its facilities, I stayed warm in the main branch of the New York Public Library, plucking Yiddish books from the shelves of the Judaica reading room and hoping to get a head start in my studies. Though in the past I’d often chafed at the requirement to follow a prescribed syllabus at a set pace, now my random reading made me long for a teacher’s guidance.

Most of the people in the reading room were elderly dozers; the most alert among them was a regular who kept long hours surrounded by an array of books. One day, browsing a shelf near his table to see what he was studying, I realized from the way he was turning the pages backward that he could read neither Hebrew nor English. Over the next few days I became touched by his worshipful imitation of a scholar. Burdened by a doubt that would stalk me through the years, I wondered whether I, too, might be something of a fake, more attracted by the ambition of scholarship than fully equipped to achieve it.

In attending McGill and getting married, I had been doing what I wanted but also what was expected of me. Now that I was cutting my own path, I had to persuade myself I was doing the right thing. Columbia did not make it easy. Uriel Weinreich, who had admitted me into the Yiddish program, chaired the university’s department of linguistics, in which the other students of Yiddish were duly enrolled. To pursue studies in literature I had to register instead in the department of English and comparative literature, which meant taking most of my courses in subjects other than Yiddish and passing language-proficiency exams not only in German but in French and Latin instead of any of the Slavic tongues closer to my field of interest.”

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