Doyikayt

I encountered the word doyikayt [דאָיקייט] when I was following up on the debate over religion in the secular Yiddish schools [click here for my earlier post]. I have been reading a set of essays published by my Zeidy as a pamphlet in the mid 1950s. The pamphlet is titled Di Goyrl fun Undzere Yiddishistishe Shuln (The Fate of our Yiddishist Schools). These essays were aimed at reshaping the direction of the Yiddish secular schools (especially the Sholem Aleichem Folk Schools). They start with a discussion of the Chumesh far Kinder, his abridged Yiddish bible for children, including the trials and tribulations of first getting it approved and then of keeping it in print. In subsequent essays he writes about sharp declines both in enrollment and in the level of Yiddish competency attained by the children, and then about the cultural changes among American Jews that led to this crisis. Before he turns to his recommendations for what to do, he reminds his readers of the importance of the secular schools:

We should not minimize the accomplishments of the Yiddish secular schools and absolutely may not wave away the entire Yiddishist movement in its emphasis on the importance of doyikayt. A deep-Jewish worldview is wrapped up in that thought – the concept that Judaism is an idea that can thrive all across the world.

The word was not in the dictionary. ‘Doyik’ means ‘local’. My teacher said that there was a movement. The do-ists (pronounced ‘daw’-ists), as opposed to the dort-ists. With her help, and armed with the correct transliteration of the word to search with, I learned that it was one of the four principles of the Jewish Socialist organization, The Bund. These were: socialism, secularism, Yiddish, and doyikayt. Doyikayt was embodied in the slogan, “There, where we live, that is our country.”

In the Sholem Aleichem story “Lekh Lekha”, which we have been reading in class, Tevye is visited by the constable, who gives him three days to get out of his dorf, his country village, where he is the only Jew. Tevye confronts him. “At least, I said, tell me you know I was here long before you were? Right over here in this spot, I said, lies my father, may he rest in peace, and my grandfather, may he rest in peace, and my grandmother, may she rest in peace?” The constable is not interested. As for where Tevye is to go, he tells him, “Go to Berdichev.”

from Tevye der Milkhiker

One answer to ethnic cleansing and the other displacements Jews have been subject to is to have a country of our own, where there can be no government-sanctioned expulsion of the Jews, no laws restricting where people can live, no police pogroms. This aspect of Zionism requires anti-Semitism for its rationale. ‘Fortunately’, the world is in no danger of running out of anti-Semites. On the other hand, Zionism is based on a worldview that the Jews cannot live in safety outside of Israel.

Hence the spectacle of Netanyahu trying to exploit the murders in a Paris kosher supermarket to get French Jews to emigrate to Israel. Never mind that the danger of being murdered by a terrorist is greater in Israel than in France. This video of the reaction to Netanyahu’s speech in a Paris synagogue, is a pure expression of doyikayt [click here to see the video].

With respect to Israel and immigration, I’m sure those of you who immerse yourself in these questions have already seen this month’s Atlantic article asking whether Jews should think about leaving Europe [click here for Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece]. Perhaps you have also seen this reply [click here].

But what did Yiddish mean for doyikayt, and what does doyikayt mean for Jews in America now?

For my grandfather, Yiddish was both an international language and a contributor to a locally relevant, generative, and vibrant Judaism, both distinct from and immersed in the gentile world. He believed that the fact that Yiddish was not the language of a nation-state helped keep it from causing any conflict with American patriotism. This was one reason, he claimed, that Jewish Americans had been able to create a vital literature in their language of origin in a way that Italian Americans, for example, had not.

But that was before assimilation took its toll. Now, without a vibrant secular Yiddish culture, secular Jews in America are faced with a tremendous, perhaps unprecedented, challenge. Neither Israel nor the old country fulfills the obligation to create a living culture where you are. But the melting pot has blurred many distinctions. Many assimilated Jews don’t even know enough to have an opinion about what parts of our history are worth knowing, and what facets of our culture are of value. In my last blog post I talked about different ways of not knowing. Not even the Haggadah anticipated Jews who neither know what they don’t know, nor care, effectively combining the defiant child and the one who doesn’t even know enough to ask.

But if assimilation is a loss, so is parochialism. Jews have been a cosmopolitan people for millennia. It would be a great loss, both for Jews and for the world, if Jews only lived in one place on earth, or (see the population chart) in two. Earlier I related how the constable told Tevye to “go to Berdichev.” This was a majority Jewish city, and the comment was the equivalent of saying, “Go to Jew-Town.” Does the existence of a Jewish nation make this anti-semitic attitude even more common than it already was?

We have a right to live where we are, and fixing up the world begins with the ground beneath our feet. But the doyikayt of my grandfather and of the Bundists was not isolationist or parochial. It was compatible both with K’lal Yisroel (a feeling of connection to and concern for Jews everywhere), and with a concern for universal human rights.

Increasingly, the world's Jewish population is concentrated in only two countries.

Increasingly, the world’s Jewish population is concentrated in only two countries.

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