Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

It’s a bit more complicated, Rusty .

On what grounds should we defend Yiddish? I agree that there are excellent reasons, but let us dig into your point a bit more. Why did Jews speak Yiddish in the nineteenth century (when it was generally referred to as “Teutsch”), that is, the dialect of Alsace whence they were driven in the twelfth century, rather than Polish, Ukrainian, and so forth? They considered themselves a community in exile in Poland; whereas Jews had learned and contributed to local languages in Western Europe (Rashi is an important source for eleventh century French), once they were pushed from the center to the frontier, Jews kept the old vernacular and learned Aramaic for Talmudic study and Hebrew for prayer—but not the local dialects which, to be sure, didn’t amount to much at the time. Many Polish Jews barely spoke the language, well into the 20th century.

It’s interesting that the same is true for the Sefardic Jews. Until it was eradicated during World War II, the Jewish community in Salonica (which made up half the local population) taught school in Spanish). Only the Eastern Jews of Iraq and Persia, whose communities predated the fall of the Second Temple, spoke Arabic or Persian as a cradle tongue.

When I called on Prof. Wisse at her office at Harvard last fall, she talked about a flourishing of Yiddish popular literature among Hasidic sects who want to insulate themselves from the endemic culture—thus we have Yiddish teen literature, musical comedies, and so forth. Yiddish, in other words, remains a buffer to protect a faith community from outside influences. That was a great part of its function during the seven hundred years of Jewish residence in Poland and surrounding countries.

Franz Rosenzweig, one of the greatest exponents of Jewish faith within German culture, insisted that Eastern European Jews had far greater religious passion than their German counterparts. His famous re-conversion to Judaism on Yom Kippur occurred at an Eastern European stuebl.

In short, the culture of Eastern European Jewry in all its manifestations was something precious that deserves respect and attentive efforts to preserve and where possible recreate. A particular interest of mine (recently) is Ashkenazic synagogue chant, which I believe has a great contribution to make to the Hebrew liturgy; and I find that it is best practiced among ultra-Orthodox communities with the closest ties to old Eastern European culture. There is also a style of improvised homilectics which one reads about in Y.K. Agnon or Bashevis Singer, but can hear still practiced among Orthodox communities with the closest ties to the old country (e.g., in Melbourne, which has the largset number of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel). These are precious testimonies to faith. I should point out, though, that the Melbourne Orthodox community trains its girls in Hebrew along with its boys, so they are not dependent (as was typical in Eastern Europe) on Yiddish translations. A great deal of printed Yiddish literature in the nineteenth century are translations for women, who were not typically given a Hebrew education.

Sholom Aleichem is a fine writer—the Tevye stories are far better than the “Fiddler on the Roof” version (which I hate with passion)—but he is not the most important reason to preserve Yiddish. The most important reason to preserve Yiddish is the one that motivates the people (namely the Hasidim) who actually are preserving Yiddish: because it is important to Jewish communal life.

It does seem remarkable that after all the devoted efforts of secular universities to preserve what was considered a dying language, the most devout Jews—who want to keep their children away from universities—have created a Yiddish Renaissance. And none of them would let a copy of Sholom Aleichem into the house.

That said, I continue to believe that the encounter of Orthodox Judaism and German culture was indispensable to us, no matter how badly it ended.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles