How Is Yiddish Doing?

On 2 December 2009 the curtain of Harvard’s famed Agassiz Theater rose on a production of Avrom Goldfaden’s Shulamis, one of the most famous plays in the Yiddish repertoire. An operetta set in the Land of Israel in late biblical times, it was last performed in Warsaw in 1939, and forcibly shut down by the German invasion of September 1. To stage the current production its co-directors, Debra Caplan, a Harvard graduate student of Yiddish and Cecilia Raker, an undergraduate concentrator in drama, assembled a cast willing to learn their parts in a language most of them had never heard. The directors kept all the musical numbers in the original Yiddish and used a new English translation for the dialogue, adding dancers to the production to compensate for the verbal delights an English audience would miss.
Of the dozen plays I had studied with these students in a course on Yiddish drama, Shulamis was by no means the most obviously appealing to contemporary taste. Its theme is trustworthiness: a young man Absolom neglects the vow of marriage he made to the rustic Shulamis, who endures bitter years of waiting until he repents the alliance he made instead and returns to her. Beneath the intricacies of the love story throbs the Jewish national motif of keeping faith with covenant. What most intrigued the student-directors was the moral and psychological fallout of such faithfulness: How do we account for the suffering of the woman Absolom marries, and for the death of their two infant children in apparent retribution for his sin? When Absolom leaves his wife and fulfils his promise, can an audience forgive him as fully as Shulamis does, and is the reconciliation at the final curtain really meant to erase the effects of those intervening years? The excitement generated by such questions among cast, musicians, technical crew, and among scholars and graduate students invited to participate in an intercollegiate symposium on the play seemed to bear out the website’s claim for “a resurgence of interest in Yiddish among young people.”
Much of that interest is currently stimulated by institutions of higher learning, like Columbia, NYU, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Stanford, Emory, Brandeis, and universities of Indiana, Michigan, Albany, and Texas, all of which offer programs in Yiddish. Harvard’s current cohort of eight PhD candidates in Yiddish is its largest and liveliest since the inception of the program in 1993. Yet the field of Yiddish is hardly stable. The University of Maryland has just announced that it may drop its Yiddish position as a cost-saving device, sacrificing an apparently marginal subject—one unlikely to figure prominently in the college ratings of US News and World Report. The news from Baltimore generated anxiety in what had until recently been the expanding sphere of Yiddish studies. Comings and goings of faculty sometimes determine the status of the language, since many university positions in Jewish Studies are open ended, and shift their priorities according to the specialty of the person hired.

With the Humanities curriculum itself under siege, how important will Yiddish be to the overall mission of colleges? And if university programs are competing for shrinking resources, how important ought it to be?
How much poorer English would be without the schlemiel and his bagel, without the chutzpah to kvell, kibitz and kvetch.
A mere century ago the majority of Jews, who then numbered over seventeen million (to today’s fewer than thirteen million), spoke Yiddish, read Yiddish, and raised their children in Yiddish. But this was rapidly changing. Wherever they were offered citizenship, most Jews encouraged their children to advance in the local language. The pace of acculturation varied with local levels of toleration. Yiddish dissolved quickly in America, more slowly in Poland, and fitfully in Russia, where the Soviet government tried to use the language as an instrument of indoctrination. Some Jewish leaders regretted the low esteem in which Yiddish was held by even its speakers. The public intellectual Chaim Zhitlowsky (1865-1943) ruefully compared the fortunes of Yiddish to those of the Jewish people. “Both are required to prove that they are genuine: the Jews that they are really a nation and Yiddish that it is really a language…. They always have to carry a passport that sets out all their identifying marks, and if God forbid, one attribute is missing—they are considered fake.” In eerie confirmation of this appraisal, the suspect world of Yiddish was extinguished with its speakers during the Second World War. Nowadays, everyday life in Yiddish is confined to tight communities of Jews who want to remain separate from secular society.
When I first determined to introduce courses on Yiddish language and literature at McGill University in Montreal in the late 1960s, there were as yet no other courses in Jewish Studies anywhere in the curriculum. But as higher education was then in an expansion mode, responsive to the claims of foreign cultures, I argued that the academy was failing its duty to western civilization, let alone to the world beyond it, by excluding its constituent cultures, emphatically including Jewish culture. Since I was then in the English Department, I had to persuade its faculty of what Yiddish could bring to the English curriculum and to its newest offshoot, American literature. My strongest claim was the body of literature that had been created in North America by Yiddish poets, dramatists, and novelists, and by Jewish writers in the English language who were also fluent in Yiddish. I was helped by the fact that two local greats—the native Montrealer Saul Bellow and A.M. Klein, one of Canada’s leading poets—translated and drew heavily from their native Yiddish.
Interface between Yiddish and English was my second line of argument. The influx of Yiddish into London and New York at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries, initially so alarming to protectionists like Henry James and Henry Adams, was soon welcomed by stylists like H.L. Mencken. How much poorer English would be without the schlemiel and his bagel, without the chutzpah to kvell, kibitz and kvetch. By that time, the enlivening effects of Yiddish had inspired the 1960s motto, “Dress British, think Yiddish.” Professional comedy was then about 75% Jewish, driving Yiddish ironies into the mainstream, and at culture’s other extreme, the Holocaust was penetrating historical consciousness, with Yiddish as its major language of witness. The relatively large number of Yiddish speakers in Montreal, including Holocaust survivors and their children, was a major point in favor of its local relevance.
146.jpgOnly my presence in a department of English literature dictated those particular reasons for the inclusion of Yiddish in its curriculum. When a colleague asked about the logic of Yiddish/Jewish studies starting up in the English Department, I was needlessly defensive: “Where else should I go?” I asked, “To the German Department?” The Second World War was still fresh enough in everyone’s mind to support my sarcasm, yet the semantic affinity between Yiddish and German made that a not unreasonable alternative. I ought to have said that I could have made the case for Yiddish equally well in most areas of the Humanities and Social Sciences.
– Linguistics provided the first academic home for Yiddish in America, finding rich comparative material in the history and spread of the language. The extension of Yiddish across much of Europe between the 13th and 20th centuries and its fusion of Jewish and non-Jewish languages made it exceptionally useful to the study of “languages in contact”—the title of an influential book in the field.
– Anthropologists were intrigued by the discovery that Yiddish-speaking Jews in communities from westernmost Hungary to easternmost Russia had more in common with one another than with their Christian neighbors. Folklorists took an interest in Yiddish songs, tales, jokes, recipes, and customs, some of which continue in contemporary forms.
– Historians at every turn came up against the Jews, who stood in the path of empires from the Seleucids and Romans through the Christians and Muslims to the Fascists and Communists. Yiddish-speaking communities took the brunt of attack from the thirteenth to the twentieth centuries. Hitler’s Final Solution was aimed primarily at the Yiddish population of Europe. What was it about this pacific civilization that elicited such hostility? Then again, Yiddish culture exemplified the resourcefulness of a people that prospers and thrives wherever it is allowed to do so. The study of history could benefit from more such examples.
– Religious Studies and Divinity Schools had allowed Biblical Hebrew into their curriculum when all other aspects of Jewishness were expunged. But once Judaism was granted legitimacy as part of the study of religions, Yiddish earned its inclusion alongside Hebrew as a language of modern religious experience. Hasidism, one of the youngest religious movements within Judaism, functioned largely in Yiddish, and continues to do so today in far-flung Hasidic communities. Jewish folk religion flourished in Yiddish. Modern women’s prayer emerged in Yiddish, which also generated a post-war liturgy in Yiddish.
– Philosophy and Political Theory may be curiously handicapped by their neglect of a tradition of thought that resists grand explanations and holds apparent contradictions in delicate balance. I sometimes wonder what would happen if students of Hegel and Marx were simultaneously required to study the humbling cadences of Sholem Aleichem, or if the Jews who once flocked into German universities had taken their Yiddish in with them rather than deferring to the Ubersprache. The assumed inferiority of Yiddish to German not only fueled contemptuous disregard for another culture, but ignored what by other standards are ethically and intellectually stronger ideas than those emerging from German Enlightenment. The penetration of Yiddish into these disciplines has yet to be achieved.
– Yiddish literature—the field currently best integrated into universities–richly repays the student who acquires the language in order to read it. The evidence lies in lists of Yiddish novels, plays, poems, and essays, and short stories that constitute reading exams for doctoral candidates in the field. Courses on Yiddish literature may be organized chronologically to demonstrate the development within little over a century of modern Yiddish fiction from modest satires to the Nobel Prize winning work of Isaac Bashevis Singer, or they may feature competing literary approaches (realism, symbolism, impressionism, etc.), literary themes (faith and reason, diaspora and homeland, literature of destruction, etc.), or considerations of gender (vide Janet Hadda’s study of “passionate women, passive men”). Yiddish is a rich field for the study of translation: some of the best Yiddish writers translated from other languages and its works are increasingly known through translation. Comparative courses (The Yiddish Novel under Tsars and Stripes; The Comic Tradition in Jewish Culture) study the fortunes of Yiddish in various socio-political contexts, or in tandem with coterritorial literatures.
– The kind of arguments I once made for the relevance of Yiddish to an English Department have since swayed other language and literature departments. The study of Old Yiddish (c. 1250-1500) and Middle Yiddish (1500-1700) is most advanced in German Universities, whose scholars compare, for example, early Bible translations and versions of epic poems that survive in both Yiddish and German. The end of the Soviet Union, which opened the Russian archives and allowed freer travel to Eastern Europe, stimulated research into historical questions ranging from comparative rates of divorce and conversion to the Jewish presence in Soviet theater and film. The Iran-sponsored 1994 bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires destroyed much of its Yiddish archive, but a simultaneous rise of interest in Spanish-Jewish studies has resulted in the inclusion of Yiddish culture in Central and South America Studies. There is also emerging parallel interest in Ladino—the language of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula and their descendants—that triggers comparative studies of Ladino and Yiddish.
– Israel Studies, until lately neglected in North America, are traditionally contrasted with Yiddish studies. This is because ideological rivalries of the early twentieth century pitted Zionist proponents of Hebrew against Yiddish promoters of Diaspora, creating the simplistic association of Hebrew with statehood and of Yiddish with life outside Israel. This split continues to serve some ideologically-driven scholarship today, particularly among Leftists who seek in Yiddish an alternative to a putatively “militaristic” Jewish state. However, Yiddish actually played a prominent role in both pre-modern and modern varieties of Zionism, and some Yiddish writers and poets celebrated the creation of Israel more enthusiastically than some of their Hebrew counterparts. If there is a “resurgent interest in Yiddish” among young people in North America, this is no less true for young people in Israel, who thanks to their native Hebrew already know its alphabet, and thanks to living in a Jewish state are already familiar with Jewish aspects of its culture.
092.jpgThis thumbnail sketch of academic “uses” of Yiddish scarcely does justice to the civilization that flourished for seven centuries in Europe, nor to the curiosity it still awakens. When the late Isaac Bashevis Singer was asked how it felt to write in a “dying language,” he joked that legions of graduate students would some day be writing dissertations on his books. This year two visiting professors from China were at Harvard doing just that, but once they began studying the literature more broadly, they moved on to other Yiddish writers as well. These visitors complained that I and my department were not doing enough to promote Yiddish—and Jewish Studies–in China. I should have sent them to the administration of the University of Maryland to make the case for its retention there!
The unanticipated appeal of Shulamis over the social dramas that until recently attracted the lion’s share of attention reminds us that education and culture do not always follow the most plausible path. The famous Yiddish “Tale of the Seven Beggars” by Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav makes a related point. Nahman inverts all our expectations to show that the blind man is the most insightful, the deaf man most alert, the eldest, most youthful, the handicapped, most complete, and so forth. He invites us to recognize through the power of a story–in its telling as much as in its moral–the reality of the spiritual life over the material one in which we place our trust. I am tempted to apply the point to Yiddish. Often mistaken for a “minor” language, it contains the experience of a people that burned and burned and was not consumed. Its value may have grown as its speakers declined.


  • rwisse

    Ruth Wisse is the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard.

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16 thoughts on “How Is Yiddish Doing?

  1. Shikker, in various spellings and formations, has been slang for alcoholic liquor, drunkenness and drunks in New Zealand since at least 1887. See Oxford New Zealand Dictionary.

  2. In response to Ruth Wisse’s article entitled: “How is Yiddish doing?”, I have the following quick comment: “Lang lebn zolstu, Ruth, for the warm ray of sunshine that your article brought us in the middle of a cold winter day in Wisconsin!” My story:….
    I am the son of a lifelong Yiddish/Hebrew teacher whose entire US career was in Milwaukee. We came here from the Ukraine in the early 1920’s. My first language was Yiddish, because that was the language that we spoke in our home. To fast forward….
    For the past 15 years I have been involved in the activities of the International Assn. Of Yiddish Clubs. (IAYC) I have been its president for the past 6 years. (This group is actually about 18 years old.) The IAYC has over 100 affiliated groups all over the world, with overwhelming presence in the United States, plus branches in Canada, Israel, and Spain. Our advisory board, excluding the above countries, comes from Argentina, Australia, France, Japan, Lithuania, Mexico, and the UK. We believe that we are the largest Yiddish-support group in existence.
    In addition…..the Yiddish Forward has been in existence since 1897, and still going strong; some of their staff are on the IAYC board.
    Yiddish is being taught in over 100 colleges and universities all over the world.
    The above information in itself is a far cry from saying kaddish for our “Mameh Loshn”, which interestingly enough is over one thousand years old; as old as English.
    And a final note to the readers of this bit of information: If you are interested in knowing more about our organization, please contact me at my e-mail address. If you represent an existing Yiddish club and want information on how to affillate with us, please get in touch; we would love to hear from you.

  3. I saw the Harvard production of Shulamis, Prof. Wisse, and adored it. Thank you for whatever you did to inspire your students to make Shulamis happen.

  4. This is a wonderful article — and it made me long to learn Yiddish! I especially like the following observation: “Philosophy and Political Theory may be curiously handicapped by their neglect of a tradition of thought that resists grand explanations and holds apparent contradictions in delicate balance. I sometimes wonder what would happen if students of Hegel and Marx were simultaneously required to study the humbling cadences of Sholem Aleichem…”
    Although I have only read Aleichem in translation, I would imagine that students of John Rawls would benefit as well from attending to some “humbling cadences.”
    One thinks also of fiction in this context. While writing a review essay on Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book about George Eliot last summer, I was struck by the extent to which she tempered and deepened her quasi-Hegelian narrative of world-historical individuals by attending to the narrative patterns of the Hebrew Bible. One wonders how the novel would have been different if she had she been acquainted with Yiddish texts as well.
    Finally, as someone who has worked with Debra here at Harvard, I am not surprised to hear about her achievement in the production of Shulamis, but I am delighted to be made aware of it.

  5. Very enjoyable article. I am a Jewish Studies undergrad student at McGill and have read and enjoyed a few of your books after the recommendations of Prof. Orenstein.

  6. A lovely article.
    I am told that numbers of Arab students at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University study Yiddish. It’s relatively easy for them as they already know the alphabet and some aspects of Yiddish culture.

  7. Ruth Wisse has often been unfairly criticized for being a frequent harbinger of the “death of Yiddish”. This article is a wonderful contribution to a nuanced evaluation of the status and future of Yiddish. A sheynem dank!
    I am surprised, however, that she did not make mention of the remarkable resurgence of interest in Yiddish in Europe, especially in Germany and Lithuania.

  8. Dear Ruth,
    What a great and inspiring article.Mcgill has certainly benefited from your pioneering and continuing scholarly work so thank you

  9. My wife is a native German, and we travel back and forth frequently. I always thought that Yiddish was reasonably close to German. It is? sometimes. A. recognizes some of the more common terms (Oy! gevalt! and “Zol ze vaksen ze ve a tsibble mit de kopin dreid”), but i get a blank look with many others. Until we visited relatives farther south (She grew up on a farm in Schleswig-Holstein). For example, “shikker” drew a blank up north, but our Bavarian relations knew exactly what i was talking about when we were, you know, drinking a lot.
    Thanks for the article.

  10. I cannot read or understand Yiddish, but feel our world would be a much poorer place without it. Good translations bring the cadence of the language, and the wry wit of the diaspora.
    Even writers whose works are in the English language give us joy with characters such as Kaminsky’s Abe Lieberman, to mention just one.
    I devoured Singer in my youth, but strayed far afield. I will now search out Avrom Goldfaden.
    Thank you for a most enlightening essay.

  11. Professor Wisse, Hello….
    A question. You say that a century ago the majority of Jews spoke Yiddish. Curious to know how we account for those non-Ashkenazi Jews to whom Ladino was the lingua franca.
    Is there any data concerning what proportion of Jews the world over related primarily to Yiddish or Ladino?
    Thanks for a fascinating article
    Daniel Rogov

  12. Certainly the Jewish world but also I think those who care for Humanitistic studies in general owe a debt of gratitude to Ruth Wisse for her remarkable pioneering work in putting Yiddish on the ‘map’ again.

  13. To this historical analysis I would like to make add some observations, since I am the professor who has been teaching Yiddish language and literature at the University of Maryland these past 15 years. My name is Miriam Isaacs. For all that time I have been teaching full time, but on a visiting basis. Now it seems and even that tenuous existance is to be cut, because of budget but also because of shifting priorities. At Maryland, Yiddish once was in a tenured position in Germanic Studies, taught by Dorothy Bilik.
    Yiddish is endangered.
    Many of the university positions in Yiddish that Dr. Wisse refers to are not for the perpatuation or study of the language, but in literature in translation.
    Overall, the language itself is being jettisoned and it is at a critical time for Yiddish. The generation to which Dr. Wisse and I belong- both of us are Montrealers- knew Yiddish as a native language, as a living language. There are younger people who have worked hard and troubled to learn the language but what will happen when these young people see how Yiddish has been marginalized within academe? The fact is that quite a few devoted teachers of the language are in perpetual part time jobs, insecure, untenured and untenurable positions.
    If Yiddish is a venerable language then should not those who have been devoting themselves to Yiddish be treated with respect and security, with status and dignity? To retain knowledge of the language, even if only for future translations, instructors of the language need to be shown that what they know and what they do is valued. The perpetuation of Yiddish must now be unattractive to potential future professionals who have an interest in a deep knowledge of the language.

  14. What an excellent essay. Informative and well written. As a Catholic Priest who studied in Jerusalem for a time, I am always interested in Jewish Literature.
    I was aware of Yiddish studies at the University of Texas and Stanford and think they have enriched their language programs.
    Again, great article.

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