I love studying Yiddish. I feel that if we all learned Yiddish, and taught it to our children, we could prevent our grandchildren from becoming Republicans. We could cure contemporary academic poetry of its antiseptic and solipsistic meandering. Anorexics would eat, and teachers would be permitted to teach. I might be overselling this, but it couldn’t hurt to try. And if by studying Yiddish I neither save the world, nor fix my life, the process is delightful and fulfilling in itself.
Also, there’s never been a better time to learn a dying language. Almost every book ever published in Yiddish is not only housed but available online for free, to anyone who wants. For example, here is the book of Rosenfeld’s selected writings (Gevehlte Shriften) I described in my first and second posts.
But Yiddish is a dying language for a reason. For many reasons, actually, both structural and psychological. I am interested in writing about a couple of reasons that are more psychological than structural. I think they are not just problems of historical interest, but can still be a barrier to people taking up Yiddish now, or even understanding this journey I’m on. Today I write about the first.
The structural reasons for the decline of Yiddish are well understood. For anyone here who is new to the subject, some estimate that in 1930 there were 11 million speakers of Yiddish worldwide. Today there are a few hundred thousand, most of whom are ultra orthodox, and do not engage with the secular Yiddish literature. Four things happened in less than the span of two generations. First, the Nazis killed 6 million Jews, almost all of whom spoke Yiddish. Second, in Israel, the Zionists chose Hebrew to be their national language and actively discouraged the use of Yiddish. Third, in Russia and throughout the Soviet Union, Stalin repressed Yiddish, closed Yiddish language schools and killed off the leading Yiddish writers and intellectuals. Fourth, in America, especially in the 1940s through 1960s Jews were accepted as full citizens in a way they had never experienced elsewhere, but this acceptance was conditioned on assimilation. All the pathways to material success and social status were in English. Jews encouraged their children to learn English as their primary language, in order to be good and successful Americans.
There were pockets of resistance to these pressures, in Israel, Russia and the US. But they were small and ineffective. Why? Because Yiddish, for many immigrants and children of immigrants, was seen as the language of failure and of shame.
This self-hating attitude predates the language apocalypse of the 20th Century. Educated, urban Jews in Europe in the 18th and 19th century mocked the supposedly backward, ignorant, and petty shtetl Jews. Religious Jews thought that Yiddish was not a worthy language for writing about important matters. But ‘enlightnment’ Jews, who sought to throw off the constraints of traditional religion, often staked their hopes on the languages of the gentiles, equating these with progress.
In essence, the mass of Yiddish-speaking Jews was seen as weak, in the sense of being unable to influence their lives. And in fact they were. For centuries and everywhere they were weak from poverty and from oppression that ran the whole range from murder to economic discrimination to cultural marginalization to periodic forced displacement. They were also seen as backward. For some people, it was religion, for others it was the Jews’ exceptional status of landless nationalism that was held to be responsible for this weakness and backwardness. Many of these absorbed the attitudes of their anti-Semitic host cultures to their own people and, by extension, to their language. Yiddish was viewed as “jargon”, a hodgepodge, with no consistent structure or grammar.
Here’s an example of this attitude: “The old German proverb says that a man without a language is not a man. If we consider our Lithanian Jews from this point of view, they are not men. We have no language but speak only Jargon, a non-language which is a conglomeration of old German with Hebrew, Russian, Polish, English, Spanish and French; a language which is not understood or spoken by any nation; a language which has no grammar but has gathered words and expressions from all languages like a beggar. Now, thank God, we dress like true Europeans and are on the way to speaking the language of our country since we speak the Russian language eagerly.” And this, from a Yiddish writer! [I.M.Dik, quoted in Goldsmith: Modern Yiddish Culture. 1976.]
The age of ideologies that followed gave another dimension to these anti-Yiddish attitudes. For Communists, Zionists, and those who enthusiastically saw American Democracy as the antidote to centuries of oppression, the first half of the 20th century called for a New Jew. The new identity was often drawn in stark contrast to the old—what was needed was a confidence and strength that could only come from breaking with the wretched past. Of course neither Internationalists, nor pre-state Zionists, nor Americans who urged their children to learn English and assume an American identity could have known what was coming. But they almost uniformly shared the hope that they were creating or participating in a better, freer, safer, stronger future for the Jews. They all wanted to leave the weakness and shame of their past behind.
I believe that the legacy of these attitudes lives on and can be seen, for example, in the attitudes of many American Jews towards Yiddish, especially in expectations that anything related to Yiddish must partake of nostalgia, crudeness and shtick. When you’ve put something behind you and feel you have surpassed it, one form this disconnection to the past can take is of nostalgic idealization. Even this is trivializing and not incompatible with contempt (in urban America, people tell charming stories about the happy wholesome small town life of yesteryear, and also make movies and TV shows making fun of the “backward” values and attitudes in such places). But the stereotyping of Yiddish often lends it the expected flavor of a language in which one can only be crude and earthy, or whiny. Matt Goodman, in an American Scholar article I will talk about in a later blog post, notes that many Americans view Yiddish as “a language composed, it would seem, entirely of punch lines.” I think this legacy is not only due to disuse, but at least in part to the centuries old attitudes towards Yiddish as the language of a spoken ‘low culture’ in Judaism, with written ‘high culture’ reserved for Hebrew, and also of attitudes towards Yiddish speakers as the wretched of the earth, whose low language mirrored their low social standing and living conditions.
Here’s another, more recent aspect of the association of Yiddish with weakness and failure. My parents’ generation grew up speaking English and listening to Yiddish. This constituted a kind of latent bilingualism. With their fluent receptive language (that is, they understood everything), this generation had the ability to learn Yiddish at any time, but extremely few ever did. Several of my fellow students in my Yiddish class are over 70, and heard Yiddish as children but never studied it until now. Why? Yes, English was the language of opportunity and success, and yes, they were actively encouraged to assimilate by their parents. But why else?
My grandparents’ generation was, for the most part, fully bilingual- they had Yiddish as their native language and learned English after coming here. In many cases, they still had a connection to the old world, mine for example, having come over as young people around the 19teens, with their parents staying behind in the old world. So their children and parents lived in different universes.
When my father was three, in 1937, his parents already saw, in the rise of fascism, the writing on the wall for Europe’s Jews. They went back to Europe to try to get my grandmother’s family to come over. None of them would come, except for a single cousin, and all who stayed behind were killed in the holocaust. Whether as directly as in my family, or indirectly in so many others, Yiddish, then, was not just associated with trauma and loss, but with survivor’s guilt. Not just the language of those who were killed, but of the personal failure (an understandable, even if not rational self-judgment) to have saved them. I think that this trauma, and the helplessness associated with it, may have formed a further barrier to my parents’ generation embracing their linguistic heritage.
What is shame? It is a social emotion, a response to exposure to others’ judgment. It is an emotion built of social hierarchy. Shame keeps the low in their place, preventing or punishing transgression against the powerful, the moral, the more knowledgeable, the tastemakers, anyone who is in a superior position. It preserves the social order by keeping the weak weak. In general, I’m in favor of emotions. I think they evolved for a reason. Groups, for example, need norms, and function better when power is not contended for continuously and by everyone. When the social order is just and functional, it could be desirable to inculcate shame to preserve it. In a functional democracy, for example, people ought to feel ashamed of cheating on their taxes.
But Jews in Europe were not a failed civilization. We were a civilization under continuous pressure, one that was unjustly perceived as a threat to other social and political orders. The change in status from that world to this was not a change that resulted from some moral improvement, but a fortuitous one. It may not be permanent. It is therefore useful to see the old Jewish culture as a culture of survivors, of creativity under duress, of mutual aid, to a remarkable extent, of memory. The loss of our memory that results from Yiddish not being spoken and read is particularly poignant.
For me, Yiddish literature is important to engage with because of not despite, the wretched condition of the majority of those who spoke and read and even wrote it. The very act of writing in the language of daily life represented a triumph over that condition. What my grandparents and parents generations wanted to forget, is exactly what I want to remember.
I want to remember how devout we were and how skeptical we were (always the ideologues wanted to deny one of those poles, but it was the tension that made Jewish culture what it was), how ideology and pragmatism were at war not just in every Jewish community, but in every Jew. These lived contradictions fascinate me. Yiddish was the language of secularism, but engaged with the tradition. It was the language of modernity, but with goats. This is what still makes the most offhand or minor artifacts of Yiddish literature fascinating, rich with humanity and redemptive power.
And, yes, I want to remember how desperately poor we were, how uneducated many of us were, how powerless we were, how oppressed we were. I want us to remember how, while there were always Jews who were eager to ally themselves with the powerful in response, they did so in other languages, leaving Yiddish a literature of resistance, and a language of cultural survival. A language of empathy. An antidote to shame.