The fate of an American Jewish culture that possesses no distinctive spiritual and aesthetic components is difficult either to describe or to prophesy. Leo Strauss provocatively observed that American Jewry was not part of the Exile while Israeli society was, hardly a judgment that a lifelong Zionist like Gershom Scholem could accept. In 2008, I wonder if Strauss’s contention is still disputable. Weinreich labored throughout his thirty years in America to help preserve a Yiddish cultural identity, but four decades after his death there are rather few who share that identity, discounting the Hasidim, of one sect or another.
If assimilation is defined as a minority’s adoption of the customs, values, and habits of the majority, then American Jews are leagues beyond mere absorption into the cultural diffuseness of their country. I can no longer know (or care) which of my many students are more-or-less Jewish, and many of them do not know either. Should this be deplored? Increasingly I am uncertain. It is fifty-seven years since I came to Yale University as a graduate student and I am about to commence my fifty-fourth consecutive year of teaching at an institution that once made me uncomfortable because of my social and religious origin. In the twenty-first century there are no outsiders at our major universities, and my classes are filled by many Asians and Asian-Americans, who have replaced Jews as the most alert and able of students. The commonplaces of Exile—a constant sense of endangerment and exclusion—are now irrelevant here, but mournfully are all too apt for the prosperous but embattled state of Israel.
Yet Weinreich’s great History seems to me undiminished in its urgency. Resolutely it is not an elegiac work, though initially a reader may ponder its position in a Jewish world whose languages are now English and Hebrew. What Weinreich implicitly argues is that Yiddish is the Jewish language, prime emblem of the past, present, and whatever coherent future the once-wandering people could possess, at least linguistically. His principal explicit argument is paradoxical enough to be Kafkaesque: Yiddish, he writes, is the language of the Way of the Talmud, but the Talmud is written in Hebrew and Aramaic. By “the Way of the Talmud” Weinreich meant the profound influence of the Talmudical mind and its idiom and procedures upon Yiddish itself. As “the Oral Teaching,” the Talmud suggested an endlessly subtle and nuanced way of dialectical inquiry.
Kafka, in a letter to Robert Klopstock (December 19, 1923), wrote: “What is the Talmud if not a message from the distance?” In Kafka’s singularly purified German (prophetic of Paul Celan’s) this reverberates with a sense of loss. I cannot conceive of such a question expressed in Yiddish, where the Talmud always is close by, helping to make Yiddish perhaps uniquely the language of questions. Of Yiddish, Kafka remarked that it was a language that “consists only of foreign words.” Yet they “do not rest within it, but rather preserve the haste and vivacity, with which they were taken in.” This was in a talk on February 18, 1912, introducing a Yiddish theater troupe’s performance in the Jewish City Hall of Prague. Famously the speech began with a marvelous irony: “I would like to assure you, ladies and gentlemen, that you understand far more Yiddish than you think.” What an appropriate epigraph that would be for Weinreich’s History !
The uncanny familiarity of Yiddish for Jewish (and some Gentile) nonspeakers has something to do with its insinuating, questioning quality. Yiddish is the Hamlet of languages; the Prince of Denmark’s play abounds with questionable enigmas and a plethora of instances of the word “questions.” Harshav emphasizes the derivation of Yiddish questioning from Talmudic procedures and of Kafka’s parallel imitation of Talmudic learning in the self-questionings of his characters. As illustrations I would suggest: “Why not?” “Why ask?” “Who asks?” “What is the alternative?” “What and how does it mean?” “If that is the case, then does not a question arise?” These all can be seen as deriving from the Talmud.
Weinreich’s almost heroic emphasis throughout the History is that Yiddish uniquely is the language of the “Way” of the Talmud, but of course never quite of the Talmud itself. Though Yiddish and Talmud share the style of generally answering questions with fresh questions, I cannot imagine the Talmud written in Yiddish. The Judaism that upholds moral norms is more Talmudic than biblical: commentary lovingly usurps the text. Yiddish perpetually demonstrates that the normative—the upholding of standards—whether deriving from the Jewish covenant or personal beliefs, truly is a shifting series of masks. What is masked is change, and the necessity of change. Endlessly metamorphic, like Franz Kafka, Yiddish survived by its openness, but no language can survive the destruction of the small children who had begun to speak it.
The name Yiddish, Weinreich tells us, is much younger than the language itself, and first appears to be used in the middle of the seventeenth century. Earlier the name was Yiddish-Taytsh, “Jewish-German,” a compound that lingered in fartaytshn, “to translate,” “to explain.” Naming is crucial in all cultures, but has a particular resonance in Jewish traditions, both normative and esoteric, in which the name of God concentrates all creative power. The numinous name proper, Yahweh, retains a residium of awe even now for whoever uses it, or more traditionally substitutes another name—for example, adonai—while still thinking of the forbidden name of the deity. No one knows how YHWH vocalized his name, punned on by the ehyeh asher ehyeh (“I will be present or absent wherever and whenever I choose to be”) spoken by the God in Exodus 3:14, in response to the anxiety of Moses, his reluctant messenger-prophet.
To name anyone or anything, in Jewish tradition, is to bestow the possibility of the Blessing, defined by me as the prospect of more life into an unbounded time. Naming a language as the Jewish language, even in a seventeenth-century time of Enlightenment, was to imply that it would bear Yahweh’s Blessing, and so would prevail into the Messianic age. Yiddish has suffered near annihilation; its fate is dark. If the authors of the literary canon struggle for the survival of their names, even so an entire language can be seen as engaged in the same contest.
English is now the international lingua franca for Jews and Gentiles alike. Hebrew is the language only of the state of Israel, and of a few clusters of scholars throughout the world. Yiddish, still the language of the streets when I grew up in the early 1930s in the east Bronx, is either the resource of Hasidic sectaries in the Americas and in Israel, or is cultivated by antiquarian revivalists in universities (although the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst claims 30,000 members and says it is “the largest and fastest-growing Jewish cultural organization in America”2). I wish them all good health. What is gone forever is the tumult of a living language that seemed always to be proclaiming, “Now these are the names.” It is as though Yiddish has become a memorial volume with a blurred inscription, to steal a phrase from Kierkegaard.
Weinreich was a linguist and historian, and not a literary critic, but his encyclopedic notes are a philological treasury in which critics of any Jewish literature in whatever language ought to delve. The defense of imaginative literature is also necessarily the defense of subjectivity, and there is a clear sense in which heightened subjectivity is a defense against death. I don’t know that any particular language can be more conducive to subjectivity than any other, but the strongest poetry and prose fiction in Yiddish was invariably expressionistic and profoundly marked by singularity (as opposed to individuality). To mean something singular—in the sense of exceptional, unique—in Yiddish literature you have to persuade the reader that you have named something first.
This may be a contradiction of all literary strength, but has an urgency and poignancy because of the fused nature of the Yiddish language. It comes after Hebrew and developed simultaneously with the major Western tongues. Hebrew features davhar as the word for truth, at once thing, act, and “word” itself. The Greek logos is the word for “word,” in the context of gathering, arranging, putting in order. Yiddish, fusing Hebrew with Germanic and Slavic vernaculars, carries the insoluble burden of two concepts of “word” that cannot be reconciled in any single literary text, unless it be of the magnitude of Shakespeare or of Tolstoy.
Weinreich’s theory emphasizes Yiddish as a prime language of fusion, in a very different mode than the melding of Norman and Saxon components into English. Neither Anglo-Norman nor Anglo-Saxon had a function comparable to that of ancestral Hebrew in the Yiddish fusion. Concluding Chapter 4, “Internal Jewish Bilingualism,” Weinreich ably summarized his classic account of the relationship of Yiddish and Hebrew:
Is it a fact that when Hebrew was in the ascendant Yiddish was in decline and vice versa? The strongest evidence against such a seesaw hypothesis is the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when both Yiddish and Hebrew grew beyond recognition. The increase in the number of writers, works, and cultural and educational institutions could be shown in imposing diagrams. The fact that Loshn-koydesh [the Holy Tongue] and its principal bearer, the traditional sector [of observant Jews], did not grow proportionately does not derive from the inability of one community to sustain so many cultural variants…but from the failure of the traditional sector to bring into place all of its potentialities at that time.
To the extent that this sector did overcome hindrances it indeed succeeded. In eastern Poland, where the Yiddish and secular Hebrew schools were concentrated between the two world wars, the number of yeshivas [religious schools] was also on the increase. Again, Yiddish was secondary to Hebrew up to the time of westernization, not because there was not room enough for two languages, but because the community only gradually began to expand the functions of Yiddish…. Insofar as these functions grew, the place of Yiddish also grew—and this not at the expense of Hebrew; Hebrew grew parallel to it.
In referring to “the Holy Tongue,” Hebrew, as he does here, Weinreich thus firmly stands against all who would denigrate Yiddish in the supposed interests of Hebrew. Writing in the 1950s and 1960s, Weinreich keeps in mind the scorn for Yiddish of many Israeli Zionists, for whom Yiddish was the language of victims and not of self-reliant soldiers. Too tactful to make explicit his dismissal of this immature and irrational prejudice, Weinreich wisely overcame it by his enormous philological learning. His vision of the Yiddish language gives us a full realization of how the Hebrew component of Yiddish helped sustain the continuance of the Holy Tongue and prepared the way for its modern revival as the vernacular of the nation of Israel.
It is difficult for me, a native speaker of Yiddish in my faraway childhood, to reflect upon Weinreich’s History without considerable sorrow, itself resolutely excluded by Max Weinreich from his culmination of a life’s work. He chose to write purely as a historian of language, while listening hard to tradition. Walter Benjamin, writing on Kafka, averred that Kafka, who also listened to tradition, therefore did not see. That surely was another metaphor for the Jewish condition, with its iconoclastic allegiance to the Second Commandment. An imageless God had made humankind in His own image, and then had prohibited human emulation in image-making. Weinreich stoically wished to avoid the language of mourning because the highest tribute he could make to the language he loved and served was strictly to maintain the normative tradition of honoring the Second Commandment.
Hebrew rose again, but Yiddish will not. Resurrection is blocked by English as by Israeli Hebrew. Neither American nor Israeli Jews are now a text-centered people, any more than American Gentiles are. Deep reading wanes, and bilingualism is a vanishing phenomenon. Israel’s geographical isolation, surrounded by enemies, has helped compel it to adopt a Hebrew-English bilingualism, a pragmatic reminder that the Zionist nation remains part of the Exile while American Jewry increasingly does not, another paradox that somehow seems Kafkaesque.
The end of Yiddish, except as an academic pursuit or as a final nostalgia, is not at all Kafkaesque. Jewish history has many ironies and countless sorrows, as well as a panoply of cultural achievements too numerous for any single consciousness to absorb. Jewish cultural memory is tenacious, and will retain the masterpieces of Yiddish literature, from I.L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem on to the major American Jewish poets: Moyshe-Leyb Halpern and Jacob Glatshteyn. Except for a handful of versions by John Hollander, the poets do not lend themselves to translation, but the prose fiction that culminates in Chaim Grade’s The Yeshiva has come through well enough. The vibrant Yiddish language, fused and open, questioning and celebrating, someday soon will be no more.