The Taste of the Enemy in Our Mouths

In writing about the psychological legacy of helplessness and shame historically attached to the Yiddish language, I argued that legacy is not only historical, but present. When talking and thinking about Yiddish, American Jews tend to slide rapidly from sentiment to sentimentality and from earthiness to vulgarity. These knee-jerk associations even today turn some people off from exploring what else the language might yield.

A second psychological legacy is equally present, but harder to talk about in a coherent way. That is, to learn Yiddish is to experience the taste of the enemy in our mouths. I’ve made a couple of stabs at writing about this, but my thoughts have not really come together clearly. Also, I accept that my take on this is going to be different than that of most people, having studied German, and having German family members. But I think this is the elephant in the room that no one talks about. Not talking about something doesn’t make it go away.

It would be easier if only the Finns had murdered us. If only it had been the Indonesians, the Nigerians or Chinese. Even had the same number been slaughtered, and the same communities emptied, a central part of our cultural legacy would have been more secure. If that’s how it had happened, more Jews would have taught Yiddish to their children. But it was not people from a strange or foreign culture who annihilated Europe’s Jews. It was the carriers of a culture that had once sheltered us, a culture with whom we were on intimate terms, that many of us historically had admired and were proud to assimilate to. One whose tongue helped form our own.

If language is a reflection of national history and national character, then it’s hard to study Yiddish without sensing how much we had in common with our host cultures, even though for centuries they hated and mistreated us, and even though Jews actively separated themselves from the gentiles. The structure and patterning of Jewish thinking was not essentially “Semitic”, or Near-Eastern, but European. And to study Yiddish means to walk back into that battleground.

I think that the difficulty in confronting this partly explains why so many people now in their 70s and 80s did not teach Yiddish to my generation (say, those between 45 and 65 now), and why so few of us took matters into our own hands to study it anyway. There were decades when people were still too traumatized to talk about the holocaust, but even talking about it is different than that visceral experience of kinship. My father once told me about taking a German class when he was young and having his teacher comment approvingly that he was one of the few of his students who did not have a Yiddish accent. The teacher’s disdain for Yiddish-inflected German didn’t sit well so soon after the Nuremberg Trials, and he didn’t pursue the language.

In the last post I described the problem of Daytshmerish, as seen in the letter of a writer who used ‘warum’ instead of ‘wayl’ and “mutter sprach” instead of “momma lozhn”. For the verb “to hate”, that same writer had also used the Daytshmerish “hassn” instead of the more usual “faynt hobn”. But “faynt hobn”, too, comes from German: feind (enemy) haben (to have). Purely German-origin words, used in a Yiddish way.

Yiddish is so German that I would make the following claim. Any bright contemporary German teenager is closer to our literary heritage than we are. If a young German were curious about what was lost in the war in which her country played such a central and shameful part, she would first have to put in the difficult work of mastering the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Following that, she would be able to achieve in one year a level of fluency that it would take us three or four years to achieve. They are used to learning languages in Europe anyway, and so this is less intimidating to them. I would suggest it likely that in two generations there will be as many or more German scholars of Yiddish literature as there will be Jewish ones.

I say this partly to be provocative, but I’ll go further and argue that’s not such a bad thing. The Germans who are alive today are not our enemies. And it would be better for their children or grandchildren to know something about Yiddish literature in the original than it would be for no one to know about it at all.

For me, the fallout from this issue is that I have been eager to learn how to read, but much more reluctant to try to talk. In the context of a group of mostly old Jews, it can be mortifying for the German word, or grammar construction, to pop out of my mouth when I search for a Yiddish one. But it’s equally hard to bear the thought that this trauma, and the reluctance to look at it directly, keeps reverberating in such a way as to keep us from our own Yerushe (heritage).

Ad for Yiddish learning targeted to German speakers.

Ad for Yiddish learning targeted to German speakers.

One thought on “The Taste of the Enemy in Our Mouths

  1. Yes! I remember taking German in high school (I would have taken Yiddish if they offered it) for the express purpose of being better able to understand my grandparent’s Yiddish. They found this endearing, but I think that is more a function of me being their granddaughter than any fondness they had for German.


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