‘By reducing Yiddish to jokes, Broadway and TV smut words, and to Yiddishe-momme and Bubbie-shmaltz, the most vulgar or faux-sentimental aspects of Yiddish have been preserved.”
In last week’s column on Culturocide, that is what I wrote. It provoked many brief positive reactions, and some longer ones which deserve to be shared with our readers.
Deborah Bernick, a reader from New York, posted: ”A good piece. But no, the Catskills were not vulgar. They were part of the blossoming of Jewish culture in America. And they led to many young people finding mates and furthering Jewish culture in their families.”
Bernick’s defense of the Catskills contained two lessons. First she expanded the word “Broadway” to include the Catskills.
For the non-Americans among you: The Catskills, a mountainous area a few hours’ drive from New York City, was home to a number of mostly kosher Jewish hotels, known as the Borscht Belt. These hotels served a super-abundance of excellent Eastern European Jewish food and entertainment.
As a rite of passage, many Jewish college students worked there as waiters or other staff, (see Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, 1955).
The Belt became famous as a proving ground for fledgling Jewish comedians, many of whom became American household idols. The latter were as vulgar as necessary to make people laugh. The right (impolite) Yiddish word in the punch line was often as vulgar as the music of Mickey Katz, (father of Joel Gray of Cabaret fame: note change of family name). So were as the monster-sized, usually delicious portions served.
Yes, these elements became part of “Jewish culture in America,” I agree. Part of American Jewish culture, but not of Yiddish culture.
Not that Yiddish did not contain a plethora of vulgar words and terms. These could range from street-ugly words, often borrowed from Polish or Aramaic (prostitute was among others kurveh or nafkeh) to euphemisms based on biblical learning.
An example: Yishakeni is the first word of the second verse of Song of Songs, meaning “Let him kiss me.” Period. There was no need to say more.
Bernick later wrote: “Yiddish and Ladino culture are so rich and deserve support and accolades. I also believe Fiddler on the Roof was an important show in its time and even now, 50 years later. Don’t demean certain aspects of Jewish popular culture in order to elevate others. All have been important and complement each other.”
Again, I agree, and enjoyed Fiddler, which I saw with Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi and Topol (in Hebrew in Tel Aviv). Nonetheless it is a vulgarization of Shalom Aleichem’s Tevye, and a prettification of the grim reality of life for most Jews in Czarist Russia. Yes, it is Jewish popular culture, but it is not Yiddish culture. The musical has done positive things for Jews, and the music is outstanding – but it is a cousin once removed from Yiddish culture.
A sadder response came from Jeannette Friedman: “I read your article about Ladino and Yiddish today. I must say kol hakavod, you did at least, in passing, admit that the Israelis did harm to Yiddish. (Well, they did do everything possible to murder Yiddish, more so than even our enemies.) When my mother got to Israel she was called a cake of soap, so after getting herself together, she left, and came to America, where a whole generation of “greener”’ s kids, who started life with mama-loshen, went and did what they could to bring back Yiddish culture and provide their own children with a key to a culture that got locked up and imprisoned by the Israelis and badly hit by assimilation in America. Yet Yiddish is not dead. Far from it. It is being taught in universities across America. There are Yiddish speaking groups popping up everywhere in suburbia and in big cities. On June 9th, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene is opening its 100th consecutive season.”
Friedman continues with many positive examples of new Yiddish groups and theater and other revivals, which deserve an article in themselves. Her letter raised two major issues: first, the justified anger at those brutal people – youngsters I must assume – who used that terrible word for Holocaust survivors. This is unforgivable.
It was a term used mostly by children who – everywhere – can be quite terrible to newcomers. Sabras can be as cruel as any other in-group. After the Shoah, this cruelty is brutal. Her mother was deeply wounded, as were many others. I understand why her mother left. I never judge any who went through that other planet called Shoah. Many who were thus accosted by their schoolmates stayed in Israel and – perhaps – handled their situation differently. I, of course, cannot imagine how I would have reacted. Probably violently.
On the other hand it was mainly Sabra volunteers of the Palyam (the Palmah’s sea force) who manned the “illegal” ships bringing Jews to Eretz Israel.
“Israelis” certainly did not “murder” Yiddish. The use of that word is also unforgivable in the context of Nazi culturocide.
The fate of Yiddish in Israel was determined a decade or two earlier. The issue was whether Hebrew would be the language of the state-in-the-making, or would there be a cacophony of languages: Judeao-Arabic, Ladino, Yiddish. Polish, Russian. French, German and so on. Does the return to Zion not mean the return to the language of Zion? The immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries as well as the age-old Sephardi communities in the Land itself knew Hebrew; could we have expected them to become Yiddish speakers? That kulturkampf was won by Hebrew in the 1920s, and by the 1930s, as Polish and German Jews poured into “Palestine,” Hebrew proved to be a cement which helped hold the disparate linguistic groups together. The loss of one of the Latrun battles in 1948 was partly attributed to the fact that the hundreds of young new immigrants who had been rushed from ship to the front needed to be given commands in a multitude of languages. You cannot build a state with a Babel of languages.
The second issue is that “Yiddish is far from dead.” We are delighted that groups use Yiddish and that it is taught in universities.
Groups are groups, university classes are classes. A people is a people. Can Yiddish become the colloquial language of Jews today? Of millions? Can new books and new films and new plays be created in Yiddish for more than a select and tiny number of people? Hebrew is our national language. Yiddish is the language of the Ashkenazi past.
I love it. I want it to live. But the culturocide of Yiddish is a result of the Shoah that destroyed the Yiddish-speaking millions.
Yiddish will survive in the groups Ms.
Friedman mentions, which may grow, and also in some of the ultra-Orthodox communities which reject Hebrew for anti-Zionist reasons. But its mass and natural culture was extinguished.
Finally, a letter from the head of YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research. It was founded in 1925 in Vilna (Wilno, now Vilnius), moved to New York in 1940, and is the major center for Yiddish language standards and pivotal for Yiddish studies.
Prof. Jonathan Brent wrote: “I read your article in the J-Post about cultural murder with great appreciation. I hope you know of YIVO’s efforts on behalf of Yiddish and rebuilding the history and culture of East European Jewish civilization. We have launched a major project to reconstruct digitally the famous Strashun Library of Vilna and to digitize the entire corpus of Yiddish language books – approximately 44,000 titles. This will be the first comprehensive library of Yiddish works in the world. We will make all of this available on-line through a well-designed Web portal.
We have also initiated the YIVO Library of Yiddish literature…. We have also established three important new teaching positions at YIVO.... “ Again, YIVO deserves a full-scale article.
But yes, Jonathan Brent, I know YIVO, since I was friends since adolescence with the late and deeply mourned Prof. Mikhl (Marvin) Herzog, who was one of leading figures in both YIVO and Yiddish academia.
A personal word about Herzog, who died last June. In 1947, he was the charismatic head of Habonim (Labor Zionist Youth Movement) and I was head of Hashomer Hadati (Religious Labor Youth Movement, relating to Hakibbutz Hadati) in Toronto, Together we led all of Toronto organized Jewish youth, numbering about 5,000, in marches to protest British anti-aliya policy, when Canada was still a very pro-British member of the Empire. We rented a car and sound equipment and drove up and down Jewish neighborhoods mobilizing Yiddish public opinion against the British White Paper. (I was 16 and had a driving license but was too young to rent a car, which a friend did for us, and Herzog was at the mike.) Together we felt we were part of the war for the Jewish state. The state was proclaimed on Friday May 14, 1948. Our mass youth parade took place on the following Sunday, our placards, prepared before Shabbat said, “Long Live the Jewish State.”
But in Hebrew, “Tehi Hamedinah HaIvrit” – “Long live the Hebrew State.”
Herzog became professor of Yiddish at Columbia and saw through an immense project of tracking down survivors from about 125 or so “quadrants” or areas of Yiddish-speakers across Europe. He and his colleagues at YIVO ended up with 1,500 hours of interviews. Out of this grew the Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry. This is a multi-volume series published by – of course – a German publisher.
A German foundation which I helped Mikhl start some 20 years ago, (and of whose board I am still a member), has digitized all this on the Internet. We can read all these interviews in Yiddish (Hebraic) script and in Latin script. And, something which sends through my body and soul shivers of sadness and shivers of joy, we can hear their actual voices, the voices of the survivors.
That means that a decade or a century from now, scholars and laypeople will be able to hear their voices, their accents, intonations, cadences, choice of words.
The digitization project is ongoing and is carried out by non-Jewish German experts, one of whom is a PhD who studied with Herzog, and who speaks Yiddish beautifully.
The project was named EYDES: Evidence of Yiddish Documented in European Societies. EYDES in Yiddish means witnessing.
Israel is the response to Hitler’s genocide.
Now we must create an answer to culturocide that Hebrew alone cannot provide.
We must bear witness to the great lost cultures of Yiddish and of Ladino. Where are the foundations that will pick up the challenge: to produce in printed and digitized translations of their literature, music, poems, theater and films? Who are the warm Jews who will produce movies and TV series of all of these? We owe it to the generations which were murdered. We owe it to the generations to come.
The writer is a student of many aspects of Jewish history and civilization. His public service always included a strong element of Jewish continuity and Israel-Diaspora relations. His novel, A Tale of Two Avrahams, deals with the intertwined flow of Jewish life as it is today in Israel and as it was four centuries ago in Italy. He welcomes reactions at firstname.lastname@example.org.