I’ve been writing at length about the analogy between learning Yiddish and falling in love with a dying person, which formed a central part of an intelligent and beautiful personal essay by Matthew Goodman, published in The American Scholar in 2000. The essay stuck with me, but also troubled me, for years. Despite all the virtues of the piece, I think the analogy could be discouraging for those who will want to learn the language. Why bathe in all that sadness and loss?
In fact, Goodman’s essay ends on something of a down note. Having failed to save the language, he turns away from watching its death. Instead, he talks wistfully about the possibility of translation. He compares this to showing his children an old photograph some day, or telling them stories about an old family member, so that although they will never know her, they can at least see that she was beautiful, and that, “we loved her very much.”
In my ‘part two’ I pointed out that Yiddish is not a person. I said that the person is the unit of moral value and that, in America, in an age when the melting pot was our society’s preferred metaphor for assimilating immigrants, the tradeoffs “worked brilliantly” for many of the individual Jews concerned. Finally, I argued that the Yiddish language itself is not even dying. So, then, “What’s left for Part 3?” I was asked. Why not just dismiss the whole analogy?
There are, in fact, profound losses surrounding contemporary Jewish life, and studying Yiddish brings them more fully into awareness. 1. We are in living memory of the worst human trauma our people ever experienced, and 2. the generation which holds and has passed on that memory itself is dying. 3. We are also in living memory of an equally profound trauma in cultural continuity, and those who experienced that directly have largely passed on. It’s hard to disentangle these levels of interlocking losses.
We as a people have suffered from collective post-traumatic stress. This stress was overlaid on the already existing problem of cultural continuity in the face of modernity and migration. Inability to cope with loss leads to nostalgia, to turning away, or to a focus on the way European Jewry ended rather than on what it had to offer. All three of these coping mechanisms distance us from the lived lives of our ancestors.
The aspect of Goodman’s analogy with personal loss that I do find compelling is in the strong parallels between individual and collective processes of grieving. I described in my last post how earlier ambivalence and a traumatic end makes grieving more complicated, and harder to integrate. I talked about how reliving the way a life ended can make it harder to honor the fullness of life and even to pass on crucial information about what has been lost.
When Yiddish gets stuck to feelings of loss, and when the group level is equated with the loss of a person, this can take a tool for living well in a sad world, and make it into the sadness itself.
What happens when we take these losses apart, and see what relevance Yiddish has to coping with them? On the group level, Yiddish provides no unifying answers, but can help present a record of the complexity and precariousness of Jewish life, and a toolkit or vocabulary for articulating questions of integrity and continuity.
Modern Yiddish literature had a brief flowering, but in that brief time, its concerns were common with many of ours. Who are we and how can one identity hold the many contradictions in recent Jewish history? How can you be secular and stay Jewish, or be both religious and modern? How to enjoy the blessings of technology, while witnessing the industrialization of war, murder and economic exploitation? Do we need a new kind of community? How can the fight against suffering and for social justice be safeguarded from the idealistic utopianisms whose imagined perfect societies never seem to have recognizable Jews in them? How to cope with anti-Semitism? What aspects of Jewish culture might have made our oppression more possible, and what were necessary survival tactics? What of the old ways ought to be remembered and what jettisoned in a rapidly changing world? And what’s the right balance between local and universal moral concerns?
So much weight for mere stories and poems and personal memoirs to carry! How dreary the arguments would be if not for the omnipresent humor, for the music in the words, for the rich details of daily lives, strange and familiar at the same time. What nourishment could wrestling with these big ideas have given if they were not embodied in individual life stories?
Every new Yiddish word learned forms a tiny bit of a bridge to the cultural knowledge lost by assimilation and in the holocaust. It is true that sadness accompanies this work, but it is surprising how much joy there is in recognition and in memory. That’s true because this work is at the human scale. Unlike most history, literature and poetry bring us the unique voices of individuals.
This brings us from the collective to the individual level. Can you have a relationship with someone who is gone? Not a flesh and blood relationship. You can’t enjoy tea and rugelach together. I do remember my Aunt Rosie (who was not actually my aunt, but my grandmother’s cousin), when I make her rugelach recipe, though. Similarly, I have learned a lot about my grandfather by reading his work in the original. I have learned about his politics, been reminded of his delight in and respect for children, experienced some of his triumphs and misses as a storyteller, and laughed at (with) his love of word play and idiom. I hear his personal voice come through much more clearly than in the translation. Of course it’s not the same as a living conversation, and I can’t have him back any more than I can be ten years old again. But, yes, I feel closer to him than I did before I started studying the language. Most serious readers have at least one true companion who was never physically present in their lifetime.
And the living? The image of anticipatory grief painted by Goodman’s essay is a metaphor of loneliness and of the fear of loneliness— of having a song no one else remembers, a poem no one can understand, wisdom that no one wants to learn. Loneliness, whatever the source, can only be healed through friendship and love, which in turn set up the potential to experience grief and loss again.
I have already made new friends in the course of my Yiddish study. I experience this as a great new gift that came from our shared delight in rediscovering something old. Language is inherently social. Even reading is always a dialogue between writer and reader. Learning a language together is particularly suited to making connections, and a language that touches our history and identity more so. Goodman’s grief for the aging of a language might be partly a transposition. As is probably common when you choose Yiddish, some of my new friends are quite a bit older, and making friends with eighty- and ninety-year-olds takes courage. Maybe that was tougher for him in his thirties than it is for me in my fifties. But it is a gift I’m not about to give back. It’s being fully alive.
In the end, it seems I have nothing better to replace his analogy with, as long as we keep in mind that it is an analogy. And perhaps one learns a bit about love over time. While any human love has an object that is transient, it also brings you what you need to survive and thrive in a world of loss. Our teacher brings us a proverb, saying, or quote to class every week. One of my favorites is: “Yiddish laughs with one eye and cries with the other.” Because the language is richly emotional and embodies contradictions of all kinds, it can be a tool for living joyfully in a sad world.
Finally, the best part of writing this long, ambivalent, complicated response to his essay, was when Matt contacted me, thanking me for my attentive reading and encouraging me to do better than he had. I didn’t manage that, but I gave it my best. Above all, I was thrilled to learn that he is teaching his young son’s Yiddish class. He called it “a minor, but meaningful, act of devotion to the beloved.” Not minor. Speak one word, get one child to sound out one letter, and you bring new life. But you are not bringing her back to life. You are bringing your life to her. She was never gone.