Has any language been so loved and despised as Yiddish? To some, its harsh gutturals and singsong cadence mark it as the crude and mongrel tongue of a bizarre and outcast people. To others, its affectionate diminutives and ironical expressions speak of a unique and irreplaceable culture. Miriam Weinstein, in her informative and entertaining book, traces the growth and demise of this language whose history is as interesting as the people who spoke it.
In lucid prose peppered with famous Yiddish sayings, Weinstein reveals the intricate, symbiotic relationship of European Jews to their mame loshn (mother tongue). As she puts it, "European Jews didn't just invent Yiddish; Yiddish helped them invent themselves." That invention began about 1,000 years ago when Jews, from what are now France and Italy, began moving into a district of what is now western Germany. These new arrivals¨many of whom could read and speak Hebrew¨brought with them medieval versions of French and Italian. They mixed with the local Jews who spoke what Weinstein calls "a Jewish version of medieval German." (Germanic words still account for three-quarters of Yiddish vocabulary.) The language they created arose out of their daily experiences and was thought of as a folk language¨a zhargon (jargon). Hebrew words appeared in the new language, but a distinction was always made between Hebrew, the loshn koydesh (holy language) and lowly Yiddish.
From the start, Yiddish was the underdog, the poor man's argot, and its rivalry with Hebrew gives Weinstein's story an edge. The first books published in Yiddish included disclaimers warning the public that what they were about to read was for women and the poorly educated. It was assumed¨wrongly¨that most men were learned and would read only Hebrew. In the Middle Ages, Hebrew, a classical language, was calcified, limited to Torah and Talmudic studies, whereas Yiddish grew flexible, humorous, and extraordinarily expressive. As the language and its speakers moved east to Poland and Russia, it picked up Slavic words and grew in popularity. A breakthrough came when the great Hasidic rabbi and storyteller Nahman of Bratslav decided to tell his stories in Yiddish. Until then, rabbis had preached and written only in Hebrew. Yiddish books tended to be romances and bube-meyse (wonder tales). Nahman understood the authenticity of Yiddish. He believed that the storyteller could not be sincere with Hebrew because "we do not speak the sacred tongue." As he so eloquently put it: "In Yiddish it is easier to break one's heart."
Paradoxically, it is the Hasidim's eighteenth-century adoption of Yiddish that ensured its limited survival. In our time, only ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sects use Yiddish in their daily lives.
The murder of six million European Jews put an end to Yiddish. But assimilation and nationalism had long threatened the language before that. During the Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn and other Jewish German intellectuals saw Yiddish as an impediment to success in an opening German society. This stance established an historical pattern. As Weinstein notes, "When the non-Jewish world was a threatening, hostile placeÓ Jews took comfort in their homogenous groupÓ and Yiddish rose in stature. But when the tides of history shifted and the outside world opened upÓ their mother tongue looked like a liability." Predictably, Jewish immigrants arriving in New York City thought their mother tongue a hindrance. Still, in the early decades of the twentieth-century, ten Yiddish daily newspapers flourished in the U.S. In 1914, two million New Yorkers read the city's Yiddish papers (including the still-publishing Forward).
Ironically, Israel, the Jewish homeland, was hostile toward Yiddish. As Weinstein puts it, "In the new Jewish homelandÓwhere anyone with a Jewish mother was welcome, the quintessential Jewish mother's tongue was not welcome at all." Pioneering Israelis associated Yiddish with urban, intellectual Jews whom they perceived as passive and fearful. They wanted to forge a new Jewish character and for that one needed a new language. Or at least a re-invented one.
In the Soviet Union the tension between Yiddish and Hebrew played itself out in reverse. The Soviet's anti-clerical campaign resulted in the persecution of Jewish religious leaders and their institutions. Hebrew was outlawed and religious books forbidden. But the Communists saw in Yiddish a language of the people and gave it the sort of status Yiddishists had only dreamed of. Yiddish became one of the Soviet Union's official ethnic languages. In the 1920s, the Soviets created the Jewish Autonomous Region in Birobizhan, an area of Siberia, and encouraged Jews to re-locate there. Yiddish culture was promoted. Weinstein has good and bad things to say about the Soviet project, despite its ghastly ending. It seems that Stalin, just before his death in the early 1950s, was planning to exile all Soviet Jews to Birobizhan. The place was to serve as a vast concentration camp.
In the moving final chapter of her book, Weinstein does not flinch from the truth: "It is unlikely that Yiddish will ever revive as a widely spoken language." But she doesn't despair. Instead, she quotes Isaac Singer, who noted that Yiddish is a language that "muddles through, sneaks by, smuggles itselfÓ" The OED contains 144 words of Yiddish origin. Some¨shtick, chutzpah, schlock¨are so embedded in North American life that users are unaware of their origins. Shtrosers¨Internet surfers¨can find newly coined Yiddish words (eg. blintzkreig is a late-night refrigerator raid). You'll find the spirit of Yiddish in a Woody Allen film, in the prose of Bellow, Ozick, and Richler, in the increasingly popular Klezmer music. As Weinstein says: "It (Yiddish) can still connect Jews to each other and their past. It can link Jews and non-Jews alike to one of the great expressive traditions of the world." ˛
Kenneth Sherman's most recent books are The Well: New and Selected Poems and Void and Voice (essays).