The Politics of Yiddish
“One cannot fully know the process of the Jewish transition into modernity without knowing what Yiddish holds,” wrote Ruth Wisse in 1985. Since then, the scholar who is now the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard University has done as much as anyone else on earth to let people without a command of mameloshen in on what they are missing. In addition to her numerous books and essays on Yiddish fiction and poetry, she has also reflected deeply on “the politics of Yiddish,” whose failure she here explains and laments. This essay is republished by permission of Commentary, where it first appeared.—The Editors.
Like the kibbutz children in the Israeli joke who think that they will begin to speak Yiddish once they become grandparents, most people consider Yiddish a harmless property of Jewish old age and of a toothless past. With ignorance and distance the inclination to sentimentality increases, so that today the association of Yiddish with nostalgia is almost irresistible. Even practiced speakers and engaged students of Yiddish tend to approach the language and its culture protectively, with the instincts of tender curators.
The main sources of this solicitude are not hard to identify. The destruction of the Yiddish-speaking communities of Europe at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators sanctified Yiddish very much against its will. As long as the East European Jews and their peripatetic children were still flushed with vitality and shamelessly in love with life, they were among the most vilified people in history, accused by others (and consequently by some among their own kin) of cupidity, vulgarity, voracious ambition, and repressive clannishness, of ignorance, corruption, unwholesomeness, and much else. Posthumously, by way of compensation, they have been granted the affection that would never have been theirs as long as they were eating their garlic and belching.
The bloodless, altogether peaceable decline of Yiddish in America has also engendered regret and guilt. A generation of Jewish children, encouraged by their parents to adopt English with grateful enthusiasm, eager to make their way in American society, only began to look back fondly on Yiddish once they were unassailably English-speaking. For them and for their own children, forays back into the world of Yiddish are bound up with reminiscence, with evocative aromas and tastes, and with legends of richness-in-poverty. The very qualities that originally drove young men and women from their parents’ clutches now lure them back, a lifetime later, to the pursuit of a lost embrace.
In some ways this sentiment for Yiddish seems harmless, even salutary. Thus, five years ago a young man with an M.A. in Yiddish language and literature launched a major book-reclamation project so that the thousands of Yiddish volumes accruing to heirs who could no longer read the language would find their way safely to storage (and perhaps library shelves) instead of to the local dump. The National Yiddish Book Exchange now stores and catalogues some 300,000 Yiddish books. The Exchange, a very modern American enterprise, occupies a historic landmark building in Amherst, Massachusetts, where Emily Dickinson once thought that the soul could select its own society, then shut the door. Yet the project would not have attracted the required funds or sponsorship without the strong appeal it makes to nostalgia, in recognition of which its publication, The Book Peddler, cultivates a folksy, quasi-Yiddish style, and shows on its cover an old Jew atop a horse-drawn cart.
Beyond this kind of nostalgia, the mystique of Yiddish and of what is called Yiddishkeyt plays a significant role in Jewish culture at large, particularly among those uncomfortable with the religious definition of the Jew but nevertheless desirous of retaining their Jewish identity. The word Yiddishkeyt means Jewishness, or Judaism, but from the beginning of this century, and particularly in the period between the wars, it began to assume a modern, ideological connotation. For secular descendants of Yiddish-speaking families, Yiddishkeyt has come to signify both the culture that is embodied in the Yiddish language and a standard of ethical conduct that preserves the essence of Judaism without the requirements of ritual and law. Yiddishkeyt, in this view, engenders mentshlekhkeyt, humaneness, an ideal of behavior in which the whole religious discipline of Jewish life is transmuted into the practice of kindness and decency. Thus, in a recent issue of Jewish Currents, the journal of the Association for the Promotion of Jewish Secularism, a regular contributor writes: “As a secular Jewish woman, I can revel in my Jewish identity. I feel my internal Yiddishkeyt and mentshlekhkeyt.” These two words appear so often in the pages of the magazine as to be interchangeable.
Jews who hold on to, or reach back for, the Yiddishkeyt of Yiddish thus yearn not merely for a declining language but for the social and political ideal that seems embedded in it. They look back to a time when Yiddish seemed sufficiently strong, and sufficiently inclusive, to encompass Jewishness in its entirety. Nor do they rest content with idealizing the past; for them, Yiddishkeyt continues to be a model for the present and the future. Surely an ideal so attractive is worth examining in greater detail.
When the German philosopher Herder formulated his conception of language as the expressive vehicle of the national soul, he did not have in mind the Jews. But language did play a role of exceptional importance in the self-definition of modern Jews. The Yiddish language, the creation of European Jewry, was comparable in its distinctiveness to the vernaculars of other European nations. By the end of the 19th century, as Jews tried to adapt to the promise of emancipation, there were many in Eastern Europe who thought that Yiddish might help to sustain a community rapidly losing its earlier sources of cohesion in religion and lacking the compensating factor of a country of its own. They hoped, in effect, to reverse the process of language formation: as the community had once generated an independent language to express its cultural autonomy, so that same language would now cement a culturally autonomous community.
One of the most forceful proponents of this view was Max Weinreich, whose great master-work, The History of the Yiddish Language (1973; English-language edition, 1980), traces the development of Yiddish in fascinating detail from its origins, about a thousand years ago, on the banks of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers in the area Jews called Loter. Weinreich insists that “language reflects life,” and that linguistic evolution cannot be understood without a knowledge of the entire culture. Yiddish, the language of Ashkenazi Jewry, was part of an entire system of Jewishness. To drive the point home, he calls Yiddish “the language of derekh haShas.”
No one is more preoccupied with language than linguists, and Weinreich obviously knew what he was doing when he chose to characterize Yiddish by an arcane term that is untranslatable into a non-Jewish language. Just what is derekh haShas? In the writings of Rashi (1040-1105), the great Ashkenazi exegete, where Weinreich apparently discovered the expression, it figures as a pedagogic term only. Weinreich, however, uses it to denote the whole cultural-historical way of life of the Ashkenazi communities from Rashi’s time to his own.
At first glance, the term seems to suggest a life of religion: derekh means “way” and Shas (an acronym for shisha sedarim, the six orders of the Mishnah) is a popular synonym for the Talmud. But as Weinreich immediately reminds us, “religion” is a modern concept, one that assumes the existence of a sphere of life beyond the boundaries of religion. In Jewishness prior to the 18th century no such boundary existed. “Up to the emancipation Ashkenaz did not operate in terms of religion and the world; the culture system of Jewishness was the world.” Thus Yiddish, the language of derekh haShas, was the collective expression of all that Jews thought and felt and did.
There seems no end to the loving examples that Weinreich is able to cite to demonstrate the interrelatedness of yiddishe verter and yiddishe vertn, Yiddish/Jewish words and Jewish values. Pears that ripen in the autumn are called kol-nidre barelekh, after the prayer recited at the opening of the autumn Yom Kippur service; because of a perceived pun on the word mern, carrots, and zikh mern, to increase oneself, Jews in certain regions ate carrots on Rosh Hashanah in fulfillment of the prayer, “May our merits increase”; and so on and on. An intelligent outsider can get an excellent introduction to traditional Jewish culture through Weinreich’s History of the Yiddish Language, which animates the Jewish way of life as few other studies have done.
But Weinreich’s book, in addition to being a study of culture, is itself a cultural document. We take nothing away from his scholarship when we recognize that his history, like much of his earlier work, was conceived as part of an engaged ideological struggle. When Weinreich introduces the word “fusion” rather than “mixture” to describe the way various sources consolidated in the new language of Yiddish, he is not only refining the vocabulary of his discipline, he is arguing for a certain vision of national existence. The organic term, fusion, stresses the absorptive and creative capacities of the Jews, rejecting models of separatism on the one hand, derivative dependency on the other. Yiddish, according to Weinreich, is not a piebald mix, a sackful of borrowings, but the rich distillation of centuries of growth. “Ashkenazi Jewishness was not general German life plus a number of specific Jewish supplementary traits but a distinct sphere of life, a culture system.” Weinreich repeatedly warns against the mechanistic notion that Jews at first spoke German, and then recast it in their own manner. He offers proof instead of a vital European community, drawing from its indigenous sources as it continually interacted with the surrounding world. Thus, to take one small but typical illustration, though the greeting gut morgn (good morning) among Jews is very close to the German guten Morgen, the reply, gut yor (good year), has no German equivalent, so that the Jewish saying, vos far a gut morgn, aza gut yor (the greeting you extend is commensurate with the one you receive; or, you get what you give), is strictly indigenous.
While not a programmatic document, Weinreich’s ingenious interpretation of Yiddish as the language of derekh haShas points simultaneously in two polemical directions. The term itself, linguistically distinct from either Germanic or Slavic tongues, and originating with the great teacher and rabbi of the Ashkenazim, confirms the Jewishness of the Jewish language and dramatizes its thoroughly specific evolution. At the same time, though the Jewish language for Weinreich is based on the Jewish religion, it resembles other European vernaculars in serving as the expressive instrument for the entire people in every facet of their lives, and is thus not bound by its religious sources. In fact, much of the latter part of Weinreich’s study shows how Yiddish was enriched by the tensions of secularization. When a modern Jew says, host es kosher fardint—you’ve earned your (kosher) right to this—the religious terminology has been neutralized, leaving nice traces of the past in modern usage. The expression, es toyg oyf kapores—it’s good for nothing—derives from the custom of whirling a sacrificial bird as part of the Yom Kippur ritual of atonement (kapore). In his casual use of the phrase, a modern Jew gives vestigial life to a religious rite he would no longer consider performing.
Although he does not make the connection himself, Weinreich’s reminder that religion became a separate category for Jews only after the Enlightenment helps to explain why Yiddish also became an issue at the same time. Before the Enlightenment, Jews had spoken Yiddish with no more self-awareness than Poles spoke Polish or Ukrainians Ukrainian. It was only after the Enlightenment had consigned religion to the individual conscience, and the promise of the emancipation held out offers of equal citizenship, that the question of distinctive language became problematic. Did not “citizenship” connote a reciprocal relation between the Jews and the state, and if so, was not a common tongue its first requirement? Particular conditions might have dictated whether a Jew would adopt the local language or continue to use his own, but the question itself pressed on the Jews and made them aware of their speech as a matter of choice.
The challenges to Yiddish that emerged from the emancipation were varied and numerous. There were Jewish Enlighteners who declared Yiddish an inferior borrowing from German; Hebraists who sought a purified national renaissance in the ancient tongue; assimilationists who urged adoption of local languages as part of a policy of acculturation. Without lingering over the fine points of the debate1 we may note that by the latter part of the 19th century, thoughtful Jews who continued to use their native tongue could not do so without conscious intention. From all but the simplest stratum of Jewish society, Yiddish demanded an attitude.
When the first Yiddish newspaper of Eastern Europe, the Kol Mevaser (“Heralding Voice”), began publication in 1862, the editor and his main contributors felt it necessary to publish defenses of the language in which it was appearing. In one such apology, an allegorical poem, Yehudis, the Yiddish language, berates Yidl, the Jewish people, for preferring other women to his own wife:
The old curse
other wives are attractive,
your own is plain.
Well, they were once uglier than I am today,
They prattled and scribbled like children at
But they had the good fortune to be tended and
That’s why they’re grand dames, competent and
Yidl, far from denying his infidelity, confesses to a wandering eye. He also admits to his wife that he still longs for her predecessor, that splendid aristocrat, Hebrew, whose pedigree contrasts so sharply with Yehudis’s lowly origins. His first wife was the Holy Tongue; Yehudis is but jargon. Understanding though she is of her husband’s undying love, Yehudis reminds him that she, as the mother of his children, is his current responsibility, and urges him to reconcile himself to an imperfect reality.
All early defenders of Yiddish argued from a similar position of weakness. Yet given the populist spirit of the late 19th century, this weakness could also be turned to some advantage. The impoverishment of Yiddish, corresponding to the socioeconomic deprivation of the Jews, was ironically what commended it to the attention of Jewish intellectuals. If one writer could describe Yiddish as a mere handmaiden to Hebrew, and another as the artificial leg on which the crippled Jewish nation had learned to stand, for an emerging cadre of class-conscious young Jews the lowly associations of the language began to prove strongly in its favor.
In 1908 a World Conference for Yiddish was convened in Czernowitz, then under Hapsburg rule. The purpose of the conference was to gain recognition for the mother tongue, although the brochure announcing the conference (which, incidentally, was conceived in New York City) manifested more compassion for Yiddish than pride in it. Other languages, it said, are not allowed to run wild over the language-world, contracting all kinds of diseases and deformities that may even be fatal. But no one looks after Yiddish. Thousands of Yiddish words are carelessly exchanged for ones in German, Russian, and English. The living laws of the language . . . are not codified, so their existence remains in doubt. And everyone uses his own spelling because a uniform system of orthography has not yet been created.
The organizers of the conference, as well as its most renowned participant, the Yiddish writer and publicist I.L. Peretz, pushed through a resolution declaring Yiddish a national language of the Jewish people, so that the sickly child might in the future be properly tended. Their call for recognition was directed in part to the local Austrian government, then conducting an inquiry into the status of languages and ethnic minorities in the empire to determine which would be granted official standing. But in even greater measure it was directed at the Jews themselves, who were being asked to take responsibility for their own creation.
The conference also attracted a group of young Jewish socialists who wanted Yiddish declared not a but the national language of the Jewish people. For them, the relatively lowly standing of Yiddish vis-à-vis Hebrew corresponded to the fundamental class distinction between proletariat and bourgeoisie; they interpreted the struggle for Yiddish as part of the international struggle for social justice. For these proletarian poets and publicists, Yiddish became a foil for negidish, a Hebrew-root word that means belonging to the rich, with their implied culpability for the condition of the poor.
In its own way, the extraordinary vitality of Yiddish literature from the middle of the 19th century onward helped to confirm the sociopolitical image of the language as the property of the masses. This vitality derived from the rootedness of Yiddish literature in East European Jewish life. But Yiddish did not belong equally to all strata of that life; most Jews, as soon as they moved to a large city, or pursued a general education, or tried to improve their economic condition, reached for another language. Thus in its richest and purest form Yiddish remained bound to the home, the house of study, the marketplace, the artisan’s workbench. The best writers realized that this was where Yiddish flourished, and the literature they produced was destined to remain at its most “natural” where Yiddish was itself spoken most naturally, among the poor and the simple and the devout, among the “folk.”
I.L. Peretz’s beginnings as a Yiddish prose writer offer an illustration of the resulting problem. In 1890 Peretz became a member of a team of statisticians hired by a wealthy Jewish convert to Christianity, Jan Bloch, to investigate the economic condition of Jews in the Polish small towns. As he gathered information he concluded that statistics could not effectively convey what he saw and heard. In a series of sketches, later published as Impressions of a Provincial Tour through the Tomashov District in the Year 1890, he undertook to describe what was really happening in the shtetlakh, and to communicate “vos es zogt dos folk,” what the people were saying. The work is brilliantly vivid, one of the masterpieces of Yiddish literature, and its language is exceptionally nuanced, especially where the narrator lets the Jews “speak for themselves.” Yet when Peretz wrote in Yiddish about the modern Jewish intellectual milieu, the prose creaks with the effort of being applied to situations in which it was not used.
To take another example: the best Yiddish speaker of the past century, certainly the most famous Yiddish orator, was Chaim Zhitlowsky (1865-1943), who was elected to the second Russian Duma in 1906 and after his immigration to America in 1908 became the leading theoretician of Diaspora nationalism and “Yiddishism” ( of which more below). Zhitlowsky’s command of Jewish and non-Jewish thought, his passionately held political ideas, and his genius as a popularizer were all brilliantly deployed in lectures that attracted hundreds and sometimes thousands of listeners. They are collected in over a dozen volumes.
Yet to compare any paragraph of Zhitlowsky’s with any paragraph of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman, the most famous fictional character in Yiddish literature, is to end the contest before it begins. The surpassing richness of Tevye’s idiom, the natural rhythms of his speech, and even the range of his vocabulary contrast painfully with the stiffness of Zhitlowsky’s style. It could hardly be otherwise. In creating Tevye, Sholem Aleichem was able to exploit the full range of the Yiddish language—precisely because Tevye’s limited circumstances and traditional way of life kept him within the sphere of Yiddish and its (abundant) resources. Yiddish was Tevye’s only true language, the instrument of all his inventiveness, the expressive vehicle for all his thoughts and feelings. Whatever he may have read in Hebrew or heard in Ukrainian he drew confidently into his own tongue, deepening its wit. Of Zhitlowsky quite the opposite is true. As profoundly as he loved Yiddish, it was only one of the several languages in which he wrote and spoke, not the language of his higher education, or of the society in which he moved, or of the philosophic quest on which he was embarked.
This contrast between the resourceful Yiddish of the poor and the poor Yiddish of the resourceful is one of the permanent features of Yiddish culture until the 1920s. It is small wonder that Jewish socialists and populists of every stripe could identify their cause with Yiddish literary culture, and consider it a reflection of their own ideals. Thus, when the Jewish Workers Bund of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia affirmed its dedication to socialism within a specifically Jewish framework, what framework could it have had in mind other than Yiddish and the culture of Yiddish? A Jew who lived in accordance with the religious tradition could presumably maintain his Jewishness in Spanish as well as English, in German as well as Yiddish, or even in modern Hebrew. A secular Zionist could abandon religious practice and many of the “trappings” of Jewish culture, secure in the belief that statehood would generate a new national identity. The Jewish Left, however, had only its culture to set it apart from the Polish Left and the Russian Left, and that culture, stripped of its religious content, added up to Yiddish—the language, the folklore, the literature.
There even emerged a concept of “Yiddishism” outright, placing language at the center of ideology. Yiddishists argued that only a national language could secure the Jewish people against assimilation, and that the linguistic dualism of Hebrew and Yiddish ought to be set aside in favor of the language of the masses. According to Chaim Zhitlowsky, Yiddish had absorbed the Jewish ethos to such a degree that anyone who spoke it was permeated by the Jewish spirit. In political terms, this linguistic distinctiveness of the Jews suggested that they could continue to exist in Europe and elsewhere as autonomous cultural communities alongside of, but still unabsorbed by, their neighbors.
The argument over language was waged as fiercely in America as it was in Europe. American Jews did not suffer from official discrimination as they did in Poland, or from official control over their activities as was increasingly the case in the Soviet Union, but they too were faced with what has come to be known as the problem of identity. While Jews with faith continued in the traditions of the synagogue and Jewish religious law, many immigrants felt their Jewishness sufficiently realized in their Yiddish speech, in the Yiddish newspapers they read, in the Yiddish lectures and theaters they attended, in the Yiddish-speaking locals of the trade unions to which they belonged, in all the secular forms of their Yiddishkeyt.
The Yiddishists were those who raised this social phenomenon to the level of ideology. But even among them, the politics of Yiddish turned on the argument over its proper domain. For one group, Yiddishism meant a battle call to the entire nation, regardless of class distinctions. Defending Yiddish as the product of a people historically, biologically, and psychologically united, they insisted that Yiddishism could not exclude the Jewish bourgeoisie. A second group objected strongly. The national character of Yiddish, they said, had to do exclusively with its source in the life of Jewish workers, farmers, and the small tradespeople who tomorrow could be among the ranks of the workers or the unemployed.
One of the most eloquent proponents of the latter view was the Yiddish poet, H. Leivick (pseudonym of Leivick Halpern, 1886-1962), who in his youth had been imprisoned in Siberia for revolutionary activity and had made a sensational escape from a sentence of permanent exile. To Leivick the appeal to national unity could not be allowed to obscure the struggle between the rich and the poor, between the exploited and the oppressed. Only the Jewish working class could be considered the legitimate carrier of the Jewish national ideal.
In the spectrum of Yiddishism, this was actually the centrist position. Yiddishists farther to the Left gave their support to Communism, and if necessary subordinated language to politics. Thus, when Leivick complained that the Freiheit, the Yiddish-language Communist paper, lacked any appreciation of artistic merit, and was forcing Yiddish writers into a proletarian strait-jacket, the editors mocked his fastidiousness: “Doesn’t Leivick understand that one’s attitude toward Yiddish is not the most pressing problem of the local Communist movement?” The Communists were simply taking Leivick’s own argument to its logical conclusion. If Yiddish was the national instrument of the Jewish working class, surely historical determinism could require its sacrifice to the greater ideal.
This brief summary of the Yiddishist debate as conducted among its American partisans exposes the intrinsic weaknesses of the ideology as a whole. Yiddish had developed out of the religious way of life of the Jews, both to express and to protect Jewish separateness. Yiddishists now hoped that a secular way of life, with no other ideological justification for separateness, could be sustained by language alone. They were soon confronted with the obvious fact that a community with no essential need to maintain itself apart would not, indeed could not, continue to cultivate its own, separate language. Even Yiddish writers and intellectuals, of all Jews those most dependent on their language, raised their children in Polish, Russian, or English.
If language was incapable of replacing religion as a consolidating national force, neither could it substitute for territory. When Chaim Zhitlowsky proposed in 1928 that “Czernowitz provide the alternative to Basle” (the meeting place of the founding Zionist Congress of 1897), he was saying that language could be the stabilizing force of a modern Jewish nation in place of the homeland that the Zionist program offered. Unfortunately, the symmetry between these two ideals was only apparent. Zionism may have been “utopian” (as the Yiddishists claimed) in striving for a state the Jews did not yet have, but it was predicated on the commonest of all models of national existence. Yiddishism, by contrast, despite being anchored in social fact, was conceptually utopian in its expectation that Jews would continue to maintain their exceptional character through the ersatz-motherland of culture.2 The rapid rate of linguistic assimilation among secular Jews in the United States and in Poland undercut these hopes even as they were being formulated.
But the most serious weakness of Yiddishism was the association of language with class and with the ideology of social reform. No doubt the image of Yiddish as the language of the oppressed played a significant role in the history of the Jewish labor movement, and confirmed its intrinsic worth for many young activists. Moreover, the Yiddish organizations and institutions created by Jewish socialists and Communists certainly promoted Yiddish in the short run—but not without placing it fatally on permanent probation. Among all other peoples language was understood to be a function of nationhood, not of class, of the national genius in all its aspects, the perverse and destructive as well as the heroic and admirable. The transfer of a system of values from religion, where it was appropriately lodged, to language, where it was assuredly not, placed upon Yiddish a new burden of exceptionalism, and one for which there was no national consensus.
Most dangerously of all, once the claim for Yiddish was made on the basis of a class ideal, it could always be sacrificed to that ideal. The Communists demonstrated this in their argument with Leivick, when they contended that the national status of the language could justifiably be subordinated to the higher goal of social equality. The brilliant and original American Yiddish writer, Moishe Nadir (pen-name of Isaac Reis, 1885-1943), came to the same conclusion after a visit to the Soviet Union in 1926. “I must confess that in the nine months I spent in Russia my ‘Yiddishkeyt’ melted like snow in the sun. . . . I became convinced that a synagogue does not require a mezuzah on the door.” In other words, once the ideals of the revolution had been realized, as Nadir believed they had been in the Soviet Union, the particularism of Yiddishkeyt was no longer required, having been incorporated into the sacred body, the “synagogue,” of the whole society. Nadir was mistaken about the Soviet Union, but it is hard to argue with the consistency and internal logic of his solution.
This is not to deny the powerful cultural and artistic consequences that flowed from the political investment in Yiddish, consequences that will reverberate long after the underlying debates have been forgotten.
The American Yiddish writer, Joseph Opatoshu (1886-1954), believed that “Yiddish is synonymous with Yiddishkeyt in modern Jewish life just as Yiddishkeyt was synonymous with the Jewish faith thousands of years earlier.” Inspired by this idea he wrote a series of modern Yiddish legends, based on historical incidents and folk memories, that reshape the religious experience of earlier generations in the form of secular stories. The weakness of his hypothesis stands in contrast to its impressive artistic demonstration.
There are many such examples in modern Yiddish writing. In 1921 a dashing young Soviet Yiddish poet named Perets Markish (1895-1952) pronounced that the new Yiddish poetry would be in every respect “a child of revolutionary Russia, permeated with its achievements and its mistakes.” Markish’s radicalization of Yiddish initiated a storm of controversy in which he was probably bested, but not before his hyperbolic outburst had inspired a wild new freedom in his own verse:
The day’s not long enough for my idle mean-
And the night too short for my sprawling in
What is the world’s dazzle set against the thirst
of an eye?
And what barrier the dark of the world against
my blazing heart?
My path is too short for the uncertainty of my
For my wild tenacity, the wind is too slothful
What is the world compared with the sacrificial
altar toward which I lead myself?
And what’s eternity compared with my dying
All that I see, myself, is scanty compared with
my lack of desire;
And all earth’s arid ground is skimpy for my
What is female flesh set against my flaming
And flaming desire compared with my idleness?
(Translated by Leonard Wolf)3
Markish felt that the destructive energy of the revolution had unfettered Yiddish poetry, making everything possible. What joy there is in this defiant upending of Jewish restraint, of Jewish discipline! When the sheer pleasure of idleness is liberated from the disapproving inhibitions of a tradition that abhorred any waste of time, every kind of conquest becomes possible.
It did not take Perets Markish long to realize many other implications of the revolution’s destructive energy. Since he himself was one of its victims, executed among all the other leading figures of Soviet Yiddish literature on August 12, 1952, he does not need us to instruct him posthumously on the limits of his political wisdom. Yet the poetry born of that first blinding moment of release from bondage remains unshakable testimony to its power. The politics of Yiddish was forcibly crushed in the Soviet Union. The art born of its politics remains triumphant.
This brings us finally to the reasons for engaging in an analysis of the politics of Yiddish, so long after the topic would appear to have lost its importance. The modern Jewish consciousness was shaped in its vernacular, in what was until 1939 the spoken language of the vast majority of Jews. Yiddish became a treasurehouse of poems, stories, dramas, novels, essays, memoirs, songs, and films interpreting the Jews’ experiences of themselves and the world. One cannot fully know the process of the Jewish transition into modernity without knowing what Yiddish holds.
But as much as the creative achievement of its artists, the feverish politics of Yiddish was equally important in shaping the modern Jewish consciousness. It was no simple thing for a dispersed religious-ethnic community to transform itself into a modern nation, and even today, when the process is far from complete, there are those who wish that a spiritual substitute could have been found for the old Jewish religious civilization that would not have necessitated a separate national state.
The failed politics of Yiddish offers a bracing study of how desperately and ingeniously Jews tried to reorganize their lives around the secular category of language. They invested it with the full spiritual value of Jewishness. They attributed to it quasi-territorial status. They assigned it sociopolitical functions. They hoped that Yiddish could be the Ark the people would carry eternally in their wanderings and place at the center of their collective soul. The poet Melekh Ravitch went so far as to suggest that a compilation of Yiddish writings be consolidated into a new tanakh, a new bible, to inspire the secular Jewish generations of the future.
That the transference to Yiddish of independent value or cohesive powers was mistaken, we know from the absence of any second-generation Yiddishist or Yiddishkeyt community. In his admirable cultural and social history of the Jewish Lower East Side, World of Our Fathers, Irving Howe, one of the warmest contemporary interpreters of Yiddishkeyt, says that the term refers to “that phase of Jewish history during the past two centuries which is marked by the prevalence of Yiddish as the language of the East European Jews and by the growth among them of a culture resting mainly on that language.” He casts his definition in the broadest possible terms: “The culture of Yiddishkeyt is no longer strictly that of traditional Orthodoxy, yet it retains strong ties to the religious past. It takes on an increasingly secular character yet is by no means confined to the secularist elements among Yiddish-speaking Jews. It refers to a way of life, a shared experience, which goes beyond opinion or ideology.”
Howe identifies Yiddishkeyt with the beginnings of emancipation two hundred years ago. But in fact the Yiddish cultural phenomenon he writes about is barely as old as this century—and, more critically, it never produced a second generation. The most important test of a way of life is its ability to sustain itself; by this standard, Yiddishkeyt failed even where the Jews themselves survived and flourished. It is not simply that the children of the Yiddishists no longer speak to their children in Yiddish. The heirs of Moses Mendelssohn converted to Christianity, yet the Reform movement in Judaism which he inspired is still actively represented in Jewish institutional life today. Yiddishism, which was meant to serve Jewish cohesion, had no such self-regenerating powers, and Yiddishkeyt was but a transitional phase in which a secular generation enjoyed the fruits of a religious civilization.
Unquestionably, many of these secular products of religious Jewish homes really did feel themselves imbued with the prophetic tradition, now translated by them into a concern for the poor and the oppressed of all nations. Unquestionably, too, many of them believed that this concern, which they called mentshlekhkeyt but which was really socialism with a Jewish face, was capable of universalizing Jewish teachings and transforming religious ideals into political facts. But the quotient of self-delusion in such thinking was very high. And it also entailed a moral hubris that they proved singularly unwilling to face.
The Jewish religious way of life had never claimed innate moral superiority for the Jews, only for the disciplined framework within which they undertook to live. Chosenness meant the voluntary submission of Jews to a body of imperatives that could civilize even the most imperfect of peoples. Anyone who became a Jew and followed the prescribed Jewish way of life would be exalted in the same way. By contrast, Jews who believed in the transforming power of politics, not religion, and who equated Yiddishkeyt with mentshlekhkeyt, were practicing a form of ethnic arrogance that was not only foreign but repugnant to the Jewish tradition they implicitly invoked as its justification.
In his later years the American Yiddish poet, Jacob Glatstein (1896-1971), addressed a poem entitled “Yiddishkeyt” to his fellow writers, mourning and mocking the state of their art. He concludes with a powerful plea:
Nostalgia Yiddishkeyt is a lullaby for old men
gumming soaked white challah.
Shall we provide the soft crumbs,
the lifeless and hollow words,
we who had dreamed
of new Men of the Great Assembly?
For Glatstein, the religious past of Jewishness was too weighty, and what it required of its descendants too substantial, to be reduced to cloying sentimentality. His charge to the culture of Yiddishkeyt of his day may be addressed with equal benefit to those who would seek to prolong it today.
1 Joshua A. Fishman's Never Say Die!: A Thousand Years of Yiddish in Jewish Life and Letters (Mouton, 1981) contains extensive bibliographical and historical information about these issues.
2 The insubstantiality of the Yiddishist idea may explain some of the enthusiasm that Yiddishists showed for the Jewish autonomous region of Birobidzhan, an area allocated by the Soviet Union in 1928 for Jewish settlement, with Yiddish as the official language. This kind of project appeared to flesh out Zhitlowsky's comparison of Czernowitz with Basle. A territorially-based Yiddish community somewhere in the world, established, like the settlement in Palestine, on agrarian and communal ideals, lent the politics of Yiddish at least a modicum of credibility. Zhitlowsky's enthusiasm for Birobidzhan did not wane even after Stalin sealed off the area from foreign visitors, liquidated its supportive committees, and began the purges that bear his name.
3 This poem will appear in the forthcoming Penguin Book of Yiddish Poetry.
Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author most recently of No Joke: Making Jewish Humor. The book, which will be published by Princeton University Press, is a volume in the Library of Jewish Ideas, a project of The Tikvah Fund.
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