To many, Yiddish is simultaneously “alive” and “dead.” The reality is, of course, much more complicated (and arguably) dire. For one, the extremes surrounding the life and afterlives of Yiddish are hardly unique. What befell Yiddish language and culture during the Holocaust (resulting in the murder of half of the Yiddish speakers worldwide), along with the interwar and postwar legal repression in the Soviet Union and its cultural marginality in Israel and the United States, partially mirrors majority cultures’ attitudes toward minoritized languages in general.
What, then, do these conflicting yet interwoven sets of discourse convey to (and about) a broader public when most non-majority languages face steep declines in usage over the next century? In addition, how do the overly positive and overly negative pronouncements effect Yiddishists in particular, who often take it upon themselves as native and non-native speakers to “seriously” engage with a language and culture destroyed by genocide, state repression, and the continuing forms of stigmatization in and outside of the language’s respective communities?
In the United States, the discussions surrounding Yiddish are two-pronged: 1. What role does Yiddish continue to play (or not) in the lives of American Jews (the majority of whom are Ashkenazi with immigrant backgrounds from Eastern Europe), and 2. How does this role translate to an anthropological reading of Yiddishism (broadly defined as cultural paradigms for, and in, Yiddish) today?
Answers to all of these questions reveal themselves in recent publications for both academic and general audiences. In a recent piece in the LA Review of Books, Marc Caplan writes,
One hundred years ago, when most American Jews were immigrants from Eastern Europe, nearly every Jew in the United States spoke Yiddish, but no one gave it any respect. Today, by contrast, everyone is full of affection for Yiddish, even though almost no one speaks it.
For Caplan, Anthologies (like the terrific one he is reviewing) also expose underlying, persistent tensions—both in the anthology as a literary form, and (more importantly) societally in the United States. Today, most in-group members (i.e., Jews of Ashkenazi descent) have little or no knowledge of the Yiddish language or the figures and works that shaped Yiddish culture for the past millennium, and how these figures often worked from the margins of a larger society. Caplan provides these sobering reminders in 2020, a year like no other in recent memory when Americans (including American Jews) are forced to confront the structural racism that has shaped this country since its inception.
For Caplan (and myself), the concern extends beyond, “What is the role of Yiddish [in America]?” But rather, what should count as a “serious” engagement with Yiddish, especially when taking into account these broader questions about minoritization and linguistic usage? Why do we allow translation to comfort us as our only form of “knowing” when we know so little about the actual processes of translation and the power it holds on us to begin with? These are the operative questions most Americans refuse to answer—at the expense of needed structural change and the protection of linguistic and cultural differences among indigenous and immigrant groups worldwide.
This notion of “seriousness” emerges in a recent ethnography by the anthropologist Joshua B. Friedman. Friedman’s study breaks down what he coins the “politics of Yiddish seriousness.” It is a seriousness that implies intimacy, which in turn is two-fold: intimacy with subject matter often elided (Yiddish language and culture), and intimacy within a global community of individuals working outside more traditional spaces of power.
Through this ethnographic study, Friedman uncovers Yiddishist attitudes toward traditional power structures found in academia, institutional Jewish spaces, and mainstream publishing, all of which are settings that (“serious Yiddishists” would argue) condone a superficial engagement with, and further marginalization of, Yiddish. It is why Friedman notes that Yiddish among “serious” Yiddishists is an alternative to American Jewish cultural intimacy, which usually confines Yiddish to the butt of jokes (i.e., in that humor is used to bely underlying collective anxiety about belonging and acceptance). Instead, Yiddish acts as a mode of communication and cultural specificity.
A Yiddishist himself, Friedman also highlights the risks inherent in viewing any subject of study with a lack of rigor and critical distance. As just one example of this, Friedman cites the ways Yiddish culture often appears in romanticized depictions of workers’ struggle and internationalism, thereby eliding the complexities of Yiddish culture in the same ways “Yiddish humor” also does. Furthermore, any romanticization, I would argue, also consequently erases (for example) the complicated role of Yiddish and race in the United States.
The intergenerational phenomenon that is linguistic assimilation, which is prevalent in all walks of American Jewish life, erases much of the work on the ground many are doing (and have been doing for decades) in order to assure some semblance of intergenerational language and cultural transmission continues. Upon initial review, it is understandable why Yiddishists are “serious.” Watering down Yiddish does the language and culture a disservice or worse.
Some forms of “seriousness,” however, can also lead to gatekeeping—namely, around the few tangible resources available for long-term engagement with the language. What often belies this seriousness are calls for authenticity, which in turn risk excluding those newly interested in Yiddish or dismissing hybrid forms of engagement by categorizing unknown actors as “less than,” all of which are political acts.
As I often get asked for resources on Yiddish culture, I recommend perusing the hyperlinks included in this post. For example, Caplan’s review of two recent publications center intergenerational engagement with Yiddish literature and culture. And Friedman’s newly published article can help many better understand the challenges faced by Yiddishists, especially in the face of mainstream Jewish life in the United States.
It should surprise no one that the Yiddish world, past or present, is pluralistic; it is multigenerational, multiracial, both Jewish and non-Jewish, etc. But whether teaching Yiddish to your children at home, in Jewish community settings, colleges and universities, etc., each path begets challenges both structural and cultural that these respective communities also face. These questions of seriousness (thankfully) pose multiple answers, all while many minoritized and indigenous communities here in Minnesota work to revitalize language usage.
Meyer Weinshel is a Ph.D. candidate in Germanic studies at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. He is a research assistant and the educational outreach coordinator for the UMN Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He has taught community Yiddish classes with Minneapolis-based Jewish Community Action and will be a lecturer of Yiddish studies at the Ohio State University in 2021.