Sholom Aleichem and family
One hears that Yiddish is having a revival. The 1978 Nobel prize award to I.B. Singer brought honor and recognition to the language. These days, Vini-der-Pu
and St. Exupery's Der Kleyner Prinz
are available in Yiddish, and a quick browse through Internet bookstores reveals hundreds of relevant titles, including classics of Yiddish literature (some in Yiddish, even), histories, sociologies, dictionaries, literary criticism and such cutesy offerings as The Complete Idiot's Guide To Learning Yiddish
and Drek: The Real Yiddish Your Bubbe Never Taught You."
But compare the "revival" of Yiddish to, say, the revival of Hebrew and the harsh truth becomes apparent, as journalist and former documentary filmmaker Miriam Weinstein has the clarity and strength to tell us in her entertaining history, Yiddish: A Nation Of Words.
Yiddish is comatose at best, hooked to such machines as university programs, the renewed interest in klezmer music, a swell of ethnic sentiment and the insularity of ultra-Orthodox Jews, some of whom speak mameloshen
in their daily life and may even learn it from their mames
as their first language. Meanwhile, however, Yiddish is on the U.N.'s list of endangered languages expected to flicker out of existence over the next century, and every year the number of Yiddish speakers shrinks.
Yiddish has a very significant story to tell - lively, deeply encoded with Jewish life (Yiddish means Jewish in Yiddish, after all), bound up with the histories of many other peoples, celebratory and very, very sad. From its quiet beginning in the lands of Ashkenaz, where it was born about a thousand years ago, the language moved eastward with the Jews, weaving Slavic into its German and Hebrew fabric, and ultimately became established as the language of Jewish daily life and the marketplace.
As such, Yiddish was especially associated with the less educated sectors of Jewish society and with women, who created their own prayer books in Yiddish and ubiquitously studied the Tzenerene,
a Yiddish Bible commentary named from its opening words, meaning "come out and see." (A rare occurrence may be called in Yiddish vi a yidene on a Tzenerene,
like a Jewish woman without a Tzenerene.
) Its second-class status allowed Yiddish to evolve freely and to become, ultimately, the vehicle of European Jewish culture.
Eighteenth-century German Jewry's campaign of self-loathing against Yiddish caused the language, ironically, to atrophy in German-speaking lands, while to the east it became, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the essential tool of Jewish community building, used by the Hasidim in their campaign of religious revival and, later, by nearly every political and cultural movement in Jewish life. When the Enlightenment split open Jewish society over questions of how to express Judaism and whether it was a religious, cultural or political phenomenon, Yiddish served as the crucible of national dialogue even as it remained the national glue.
Weinstein has organized her complex international story partly by country, offering interlacing chapters on Russia, Poland, Germany, Israel and America. We learn from her how the Soviet government used Yiddish, the matrix of Jewish separation from surrounding cultures, as a tool for assimilating the Jews. In 1898, 98 percent of Russian Jews named Yiddish as their mother tongue. The soviet authorities recognized Yiddish as the Jews' national language but at the same time closed religious institutions, destroyed the Jewish communal structure and restricted Yiddish secular education to the elementary level, forcing Jews who wanted to rise in society to relinquish their native language. Later, Stalin elevated anti-Semitism into state policy, terrorizing Jews into abandoning even such benign expressions of Jewishness as the ownership of Yiddish books. Even the on-again, off-again experiment of a Yiddish-speaking "Jewish autonomous republic" in Birobidzhan became, in the words of one of its disillusioned builders, "a factory for Jewish assimilation." When Golda Meir, Israel's first ambassador to the USSR and a native Yiddish speaker, was mobbed by adoring Moscow Jews in 1948, the only thing she could think to blurt out was, "A dank eich vos irh seit geblieben Yidden
" - "Thank you for having remained Jews."
In Israel, Hebrew was revived and Yiddish reviled. During the language wars before the establishment of the state, Hebraicists disrupted Yiddish gatherings, kiosks selling Yiddish newspapers were trashed and burned, and Yiddish speakers on the street were angrily warned against their evil ways. In 1930, the British army was needed to guarantee the safety of moviegoers who wanted to see the Yiddish tearjerker A yiddishe mame,
and Hebrew University turned down a fully endowed chair in Yiddish studies. (The university began teaching Yiddish finally in 1952 and now awards doctorates in it.)
All stories of Yiddish flow, of course, into the Holocaust. In 1939, three-fourths of Europe's 11 million Jews spoke Yiddish. Poland alone was home to some 3 million Jews, most of them illiterate in Polish, who supported 100 Yiddish weeklies and 27 dailies, as well as a Yiddish school system. The Nazis not only killed more than half of Europe's Jews but methodically destroyed Yiddish archives and cultural artifacts (even while the Soviets were doing the same), leaving after the war the silence from which Yiddish is not likely to recover.
The appropriate happy ending might have been a real revival of Yiddish in America, but the tragedy of Jewish success in the New World was that American Jews, among the fastest of groups to cast off their native tongue, deprived their children of the opportunity to learn it. The unspoken deal that America offered its Jewish immigrants was success and acceptance in return for a rejection of ethnicity. In free America, a separate language was a hindrance, not a protection; anyway, Yiddish, associated with pogroms and Holocaust, seemed bad luck. Soon it degenerated into the language of parodies, a source of amusement, with a Yiddish accent signaling time to laugh. The extraordinary indifference in American literary circles to the developed treasures of Yiddish literature was only another expression of the conspiracy of forgetting that doomed Yiddish in America.
The hope of a Yiddish future currently lies largely with its ultra-Orthodox speakers, who are committed to using and transmitting it and who, though a minority within a minority, have world Jewry's highest birth and retention rates. According to Weinstein, "tens of thousands" of haredi
children in America now learn Yiddish first and English second. (The Tzenerene,
which over nearly four centuries has gone through more than 350 editions, is still a brisk seller in the haredi
world.) Among the haredim
, Yiddish continues to evolve. Its American variant has picked up lots of English (for example, in one not uncommon locution culled from a New York Yiddish paper, an advertisement sought "drivers mit kars
"). Meanwhile, it has also spawned a new English-Jewish quasi-dialect, admixed with Yiddish and Hebrew, known as "Yeshivish."
Weinstein's richly readable history is spiced with Yiddish aphorisms, generally the less bitter ones ("A Jewish thief steals only books"; "If you don't know Hebrew, you're an ignoramus - if you don't know Yiddish, you're a goy
"; "If you're kissed by a thief, count your teeth"). She makes a few factual errors. The prayers after a meal were not invented in medieval Europe, for example, and the word ganef
, thief, is not a recent Yiddish addition to Hebrew (the word comes from Hebrew to begin with). Her history, though its loose structure is partly dictated by the sweeping story it tells, could be in some cases less confusingly ordered. The volume contains glossary and bibliography but, unfortunately, lacks an index, which would help a reader to keep track of so comprehensive a tale.
Yiddish sickened and has nearly died (or been murdered) within the space of a single human lifetime. But as I.B. Singer tells us, "In Jewish history, the road between being sick and dying is a very long one." Weinstein's chronicle demonstrates that Yiddish can boast a thousand-year repertoire of surprises and unpredictable rebirths; a final death notice may be premature. What is clear, though, is that Yiddish: A Nation of Words,
which will interest Jewish readers in many countries, is not likely to become available in Yiddish translation. That ironic fact is emblematic of both the tragedy of Yiddish and its continuing hold on our imagination.