Monday, September 04, 2023

The New York Times has an op-ed by Ilan Stavans about the resilience of Yiddish, supposedly by an expert in the field. It includes some antisemitic tropes, oversimplifications, self-contradictions, outright falsehoods and ultimately reflects anti-Zionist politics more than it represents the state of Yiddish today.

For a language without a physical address that has come frighteningly close to extinction, Yiddish’s will to live seems inexhaustible. The lesson is simple and straightforward: Survival is an act of stubbornness.

Yiddish has been experiencing something of a revival. Online courses mean that anyone from Buenos Aires to Melbourne might learn to speak it. There are new translations of long-forgotten works and literary classics. A Broadway staging of “Fiddler on the Roof” was performed in Yiddish. And streaming platforms like Netflix have released series, including “Shtisel,” “Unorthodox” and “Rough Diamonds,” fully or partially in Yiddish.

Before World War II, approximately 13 million Jews, both secular and religious, spoke Yiddish. Today it is estimated that there are about a quarter of a million speakers in the United States, about the same number in Israel and roughly another 100,000 in the rest of the world. Nowadays the vast majority of those who speak the language are ultra-Orthodox. They aren’t multilingual, as secular Yiddish speakers always were.
Here is the problem with this article in a nutshell: it is written from the perspective of the relatively tiny number of secular Yiddish speakers today, and it all but ignores the real use of the language among religious Jews, which is the core of how the language is used - and more importantly, how it is evolving.

The Yiddish of the secular Jew today is an adaptation of the Yiddish of the heyday of socialist secular Yiddish newspapers in America in the early 20th century. But the vast majority of Yiddish speakers today use it in their everyday speech and as such the language continues to evolve as needed to accommodate modern life. The religious Jews speaking Yiddish are the ones who are not only keeping it alive but they are the ones who are the ones who change it. As a result, Yiddish speakers who learn the language in university courses in the US have a difficult time understanding the many dialects of Yiddish spoken in Boro Park, Mea Shearim or Bnei Brak, which includes healthy amounts of modern English or Hebrew just as local Yiddish dialects have always assimilated elements of the majority population's language. 

To the secular Jew studying Yiddish, the language is a romantic throwback to the good old days of unionization of sweatshops in the Lower East Side. To the actual speakers of the language today, it is what is used in everyday life. That is where the dynamism of the language comes from - but the current class of secular Yiddishists tend to be anti-religious, and it shows.

Here are two religious Yiddish magazines published today. This is where the "interesant" things are happening to the language, not in academia or with today's secular Yiddish speakers. 

The writer dismisses the "ultra-Orthodox" (itself a demeaning term) as not being multilingual as the secular Yiddish speakers were. Where does he get that from? How many American haredi or chassidic Jews do not speak English? How many Israeli chassidim cannot speak Hebrew? They might not be as fluent in their national languages as they are in Yiddish, but the vast majority can speak and understand more than one language; they couldn't survive in society otherwise. This is just one example of how Stavans subtly disparages the people who are the ones that really keep the language alive - not as a museum piece but as a living language.

It’s worth noting that Yiddish has been maligned by gentiles and Jews alike. Antisemites considered it the parlance of vermin, while the rabbinical elite deemed it unworthy of serious Talmudic discussion. 
Really? The "rabbinical elite" were anti-Yiddish? What planet does he live on?  Yiddish was the lingua franca of all the major European yeshivas, even after they were transplanted to America or Israel after the Holocaust. The roshei Yeshiva (yeshiva heads) from Europe gave their lessons in Yiddish as long as their students understood it, well into the 1960s and 1970s. Today's American "yeshivish" language includes biblical Hebrew, Aramaic and plenty of Yiddish along with English. And some of the "yeshivish" Yiddish has become part of modern Israeli Hebrew - such as "shkoyach" meaning "good job, itself a Yiddishization of a Hebrew term. 

But the article really descends into modern antisemitism/anti-Zionism here:
Another enemy of Yiddish was Zionism. In the late 19th century, as the hope for a Jewish state found its ground, it was portrayed as jargon spoken by the diaspora — the language of homelessness, without a true national voice. To combat this deficit, Hebrew needed to be revived. Soon the myth sprung of the Hebrew pioneer, in sharp contrast with the large-nosed, hunchbacked Jew that Zionists themselves vilified.
Hebrew, which officially became the national language of the state of Israel in 1948, is spoken by about nine million people around the world. For some, the language symbolizes far-right Israeli militarism.
So according to Stavans, Zionists are antisemites who regard diaspora Jews the same way that neo-Nazis do, while modern Hebrew is the language of oppression. 

This is a sick slander.

In fact, the people who initially embraced Hebrew as a modern language outside the religious context, and who rejected Yiddish, were the exact type of people that have embraced Yiddish today: the anti-religious, supposedly enlightened Jews. 

Before Eliezer Ben Yehuda revived Hebrew as a modern language in Israel, there were lots of Hebrew language secular newspapers in eastern Europe. They were created by the Maskilim, the self-described "enlightened" ones, who considered Yiddish vulgar and common and tried to make Hebrew a secular language. Here's a list from the National Library of Israel of the Hebrew periodicals in their collection that existed before 1885, nearly all of them from Eastern Europe and nearly all of them secular:

And the first cover of one famous Haskalah newspaper from 1860, trying to attract the Yiddish speaking public to Hebrew:

These secular European Jews abandoned Hebrew for Yiddish at the same time that Zionists embraced and modernized Hebrew, around the 1890s. As described by the American Israelite in a requiem for Hebrew secular literature in 1906:

And while the current secular Yiddishists are often anti-Israel, the Israeli government is doing more to preserve Yiddish than they are, having created a National Authority on Yiddish Culture in 1996.

Another point about at least some of the secular Jews in Israel at the turn of the 20th century. Many of them opposed the idea of Hebrew being the official language of a Jewish state, and instead lobbied for the official language to be - German
In contrast, Yiddish represents exile — a longing for home. 

This is the problem of the modern, anti-Zionist Yiddishists in a nutshell. Stavans cannot even understand how this sentence is self-contradictory. Exile is by definition being away from home.  To people like Stavans, Yiddish is Jewishness - but it is as transient as symbol of Jewishness as cuisine or dance. Yiddish is something that should be studied and remembered. but it is a tiny slice of the richness of Judaism throughout the millennia and throughout the world. 

In Israel, the choice to standardize Hebrew as the language of the state was partially prompted, and later vindicated, by the Mizrahi Jews in the land who did not know Yiddish and who eventually became the majority. The only thing that Jews throughout the world have in common is Hebrew, not Yiddish. 

The history of Yiddish among secular Jews is much more complex and ambivalent than is described here. This article promotes a myth of secular Jews having always used Yiddish as their preferred language when in fact they used it for political purposes - as they continue to do today. It is the despised religious Jews who keep the language relevant, alive and vibrant today, while the author of this article keeps Yiddish in a romanticized amber of a century ago. 

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Elder of Ziyon - حـكـيـم صـهـيـون

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