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The Glories of Yiddish

History of the Yiddish Language

by Max Weinreich, edited by Paul Glasser, translated from the Yiddish by Shlomo Noble with the assistance of Joshua A. Fishman
YIVO Institute for Jewish Research/Yale University Press, two volumes, 988 pp., $300.00

1.

Max Weinreich (1894–1969) was born in the Courland region of Latvia, then Russian, into a family of German-speaking Jews, and learned Yiddish only in his teens. His doctorate in linguistics at Marburg University (he wrote on the history of Yiddish dialects) was awarded in 1923, the year he published, in Yiddish, Shtaplen (Rungs), featuring essays on Yiddish philology. This was the beginning of a scholarly career that culminated, four years after his death, with the publication of his truly monumental Geshikhte fun der yidisher shprakh (History of the Yiddish Language). The publisher was YIVO—the Yiddish acronym for the Jewish Scientific Institute—initially housed by Weinreich in a room of his apartment in Vilna, Lithuania (the city was then part of Poland). By good fortune, Weinreich and his older son Uriel were in Denmark when Hitler’s war began on September 1, 1939, and they continued on to New York City, to be joined there in 1940 by his wife Regina and their younger son. From that year on, Weinreich was director of research at YIVO in New York City and professor of Yiddish at CCNY. Uriel Weinreich, also an eminent linguist, became professor of Yiddish at Columbia but died at the age of forty.

The masterpiece of Max Weinreich, his History, was published in a curtailed translation by the University of Chicago Press in 1940, which unfortunately omitted the thousand pages of notes, now restored in the superb new Yale University Press edition. The notes, extraordinarily copious and rich, are unlike any others I know. I have been reading them for several months in a proof copy, and cannot come to an end, because every subject they discuss involves the processes by which Jewish culture was transmitted and survived. The story of Yiddish, in a sense the Jewish language, parallels and embodies the history of the Jewish people.

2.

Like some other European languages, Yiddish evidently began around the year 1000, and sprang up in the Carolingian Rhineland. It was not at first called “Yiddish.” When Jews migrated from Lombardy and France to the Rhine region of such towns as Cologne and Metz they spoke what in Hebrew was called La’az, a “foreign people’s language,” called “Loez” by Weinreich. This was a form of neo-Latin that was fused with the Germanic language of their Rhenish bad neighbors, and protectively was always written in Hebrew letters. In Hebrew, Germany was named Ashkenaz, in contrast to Spain, called Sepharad. Further east, Loez fused with Slavic languages, intricately yet randomly. Weinreich’s phrase for the nature of Yiddish is a “fusion language,” and he carefully informs us that Loez itself had earlier fused Hebrew and Aramaic elements with Old Italian and Old French. Similarly Yiddish and Middle Rhenish German are utterly distinct languages, with very different sorts of metaphor, since the culture informing Yiddish rhetoric is primarily Talmudic.

In a very useful handbook by Benjamin Harshav, The Meaning of Yiddish (1990), Weinreich’s exemplary refusal to study the nostalgias many Jews felt for previous forms of Yiddish (which would have been a poor response to Hitler’s murder of Yiddish) is dismissed from the perspective of twentieth-century Yiddish literature, so much of which was written in the United States. To Weinreich’s fusion processes, Harshav adds that Yiddish invariably was a language open to new expressions, since it tended to be used by speakers who knew, more or less, other languages as well. Phrases always were liberally borrowed from those others, whether German or Slavic or American English. Ironically, the movement of Yiddish into Slavic lands and later to America emancipated Yiddish from its German component.

But then, irony is endemic in the very nature of Yiddish, a fusion always conscious of its otherness, whether in regard to German, Russian, or American English. Any native speaker of Yiddish (I am one) can sense that the language’s curious wealth belies its apparent paucity of vocabulary, when compared to English. Harshav, an immensely sophisticated linguist (who began as a Yiddish speaker in Vilna, where his playfellow was Uriel Weinreich), shrewdly catches the aura of connotative possibilities in Yiddish:

Yiddish speakers speak not so much with individual referring words as with such clusters of relations, ready-made idioms, quotations and situational responses. Since each word may belong to several heterogeneous or contradictory knots, ironies are always at hand. It is precisely the small vocabulary of the language that makes the words more repetitive and more dependent on their habitual contexts, hence weightier in their impact (like the words in the limited vocabulary of the Bible). It is not the range of denotations that the language covers but the emotive and semantic directions of the hearer’s empathy. In this mode of discourse, the overt clash, ironic or clever, between words of different stock languages in one sentence is a major source of meaning, impact, and delight.

Readers of the fiction of Chaim Grade—for example his novel The Yeshiva1—or the poetry of Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, who emigrated to New York from Galicia in 1908, and of Jacob Glatshteyn, who arrived from Lublin in 1914, instantly will recognize what Harshav describes. Here is Glatshteyn’s “1919,” a poignantly comic vision of the poet lost in the streets of New York, yet better off than in an Eastern Europe awash with pogroms:

di letste tsayt iz keyn shpur nit mer geBLIbn
fun yankl bereb yitskhok,
nor a kleyntshik pintele a kaylekhdiks,
vos kayklt zikh tseDULterheyt iber gasn
mit aROYFgetshepete, umgeLUMperte glider.
der oyberhar hot mit dem himlbloy
di gantse erd aRUMgeringlt
un nito keyn retung.
umeTUMfaln “ekstras” fun oybn
un tsePLEtshn mayn vaserdikn kop.
un eyner mit a langer tsung
hot mit a shtik royt mayne briln oyf eybik bafLEKT
un royt, royt, royt.
ir hert:
ot di teg vet epes aZOYNSin mayn kop platsn
un mit a tempn krakh zikh ontsindn dort
un iberlozn a kupke shmutsiklekhn ash.
un ikh,
dos kaylekhdike pintele,
vel zikh dreyen in eter oyf eybikeytn
mit royte vualn aRUMgehilt.

—YIVO transcription

Lately, there’s no trace left
Of Yankl, son of Yitskhok,
But for a tiny round dot
That rolls crazily through the streets
With hooked-on, clumsy limbs.
The lord-above surrounded
The whole world with heaven-blue
And there is no escape.
Everywhere “Extras!” fall from above
And squash my watery head.
And someone’s long tongue
Has stained my glasses for good with a smear of red,
And red, red, red.
You see!
One of these days something will explode in my head,
Ignite there with a dull crash
And leave behind a heap of dirty ashes.
And I,
The tiny dot,
Will spin in ether for eternities,
Wrapped in red veils.

—Translated by Benjamin Harshav

Here kleyntshik pintele, “tiny round dot,” refers to the proverbial Yiddish phrase dos pintele yid, the essence of Jewishness, and it puns on the dot of the letter yud, pronounced yid, which is the tiny vowel sign of the tiniest Hebrew letter. Desperately ironic and wildly gleeful, the brief lyric testifies to a mere but sufficient survival.

3.

The quest of Max Weinreich’s life’s work was to aid in Jewish cultural survival, very much in question now in twenty-first-century America. Throughout History of the Yiddish Language, there is an undertone of post-Holocaust anxiety. It is particularly strong in Chapter 2, “Yiddish in the Framework of Other Jewish Languages,” a kind of litany for all the tongues lost until the resurrection of spoken Hebrew and for the murder of Yiddish by the German people and their assorted European associate butchers.

Weinreich’s account of the bewildering multiplicity of Jewish languages is masterly, since there were at least ten aside from Hebrew and Yiddish. Hebrew itself probably began as a fusion language: the name ivrit (Hebrew) is not biblical, but is a much later word from the Mishna, the principal rabbinic commentary on the Torah. The original Israelites spoke a kind of Semitic, which merged with Canaanite. Isaiah 19:18 refers to the language of Canaan, sefat knaan, always transcribed as Hebrew. Nehemiah 13:24 calls Hebrew yehudit.

Hebrew ceased to be the sole Jewish language with the Exile to Babylon in 586–516 BCE. Babylonian, a sort of Aramaic, gradually replaced spoken Hebrew, so that by the second century BCE the Book of Daniel was composed in (or revised into) Aramaic. After the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 65 CE the Jews of Palestine spoke three languages: Greek, Aramaic, and more rarely Hebrew. By his conquests, Alexander the Great (350–323 BCE) guaranteed that the Jews—in Syria, Egypt, and to a somewhat lesser extent in Palestine—would be Hellenized. The third major Jewish language thus became Hellenistic Greek.

Persian (Median) had joined the linguistic cosmos of the Jews when Cyrus the Great ended the Babylonian Exile (for those who wished to return to Zion) in 516 BCE. It saddens me to observe that while friendship once prevailed between Persians and Jews through the centuries, this ended with the Islamic Revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Followers of Zoroaster and of Moses previously had wholly benign relations. A kind of Persian language reverberates in the Babylonian Talmud. This “Parsic” presumably now is mostly extinct, but shards of it remain in Israel among “mountain Jews” of Caucasia and Jews of Bokhara (in what is now Uzbekistan).

Judeo-Persian largely ended with the onset of Arab dominance in what once had been the empire of the Medes and Persians. Weinreich noted how little scholarly knowledge existed as to Judeo-Arabic, though since his death in 1969 there has been a considerable advance in studies of Arabic Spain and its Judaic literary culture. But Judeo-Arabic was less lasting than Ladino, the language of the Jews of Christian Spain, the Sephardi tradition which was the closest rival to Yiddish and to modern Hebrew among Jewish languages.

Like Yiddish, Ladino has a strong Hebrew component, but is far closer to Old Castilian than Yiddish is to medieval German. I have known native speakers of Ladino to be consulted by scholars of Old Castilian, but no instances of specialists in Middle High German working with academics whose mother tongue was Yiddish. It is yet another irony that Israeli Hebrew adopted Sephardi rather than Ashkenazi pronunciation.

Weinreich’s zest for Jewish languages was awesome; you can drown happily in his oceanic discussions of Marranos (converted Jews secretly practicing Judaism) using the Portuguese language, or of deviations from Arabic and Turkish idioms in the other varieties of Ladino. The byways lead Weinreich into folklore, which aids him in asserting that “of all Jewish languages Yiddish has…the largest degree of individuality.” Literary achievement in Yiddish, even now underestimated, sustains the linguistic esteem that Weinreich conferred on a tongue that he himself had not spoken as a child.

The most eminent writers of Yiddish fiction include Mendele Mocher Sforim, Sholom Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, Sholem Asch, Lamed Shapiro, I.J. Singer and his younger brother I. Bashevis Singer, David Bergelson, and Chaim Grade. Among the best of the poets have been Mani Leib, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, H. Leivick, Aaron Glants-Leyeles, Jacob Glatshteyn, and Itsik Manger. Among these, Peretz, Grade, Halpern, and Glatshteyn seem to me the strongest. There is no Proust or Kafka in this panoply; that is an impossible standard to apply.

4.

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.

5.

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.

6.

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.

7.

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.

  1. 1

    Macmillan, 1977, translated from the Yiddish by Curt Leviant.

  2. 2

    See www.yiddishbookcenter.org.

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