The POSTman knocks twice: Enough of politics, let’s turn to culture

January 14, 2016 21:54
Trump and Clinton

Trump and Clinton. (photo credit: REUTERS)

You, the reader, must be as fed up as I am with the crazy Left and the screwball Right. The extremes steal the political limelight, gangsterize our world of discourse, and distort the true face of our people. In our revulsion at politics, let’s switch today’s focus.

The story begins with a recent Washington Post opinion piece by Dana Milbank. It was called “OY VEY! Enough of Trump” and it did violence to Yiddish language and culture.

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Now Dana Milbank did not do this intentionally.

He just used the common stock of crude and vulgar Yiddish expressions which are all that remains for most American Jews. The vulgar words and expressions he used – and he left nothing out, from excretion to sex organs – were intended as a take-off and a send-up of Donald Trump. The front-running Republican candidate in making fun of Hilary Clinton used an American Yiddish word, geshlonged, in the sense of “she got screwed,” that is (she lost out in a debate). This American Yiddish verb is formed from the word for snake: shlang. (As far as I know the word was not used in this sexual sense in European Yiddish.) The Washington Post article is a true reflection of the general status of Yiddish in America. It is the lowest common denominator of words used by the immigrant generation as transmitted to their assimilating offspring, often via the Catskills.

Yet it was greeted by hundreds of thinking Jews with delight and praise. Even outstanding Judaic scholars waxed poetic over it. And that triggered this column.

American Yiddish is a bubby-zaydy relic of shmalts and shmuts (=smut). Before the editor corrects my spelling, know this: There is such a thing as standard Yiddish transliteration, there is a canonized Yiddish grammar. It is not a form of modern German, Dana! Yiddish is not a collection of cheap jokes, crude toilet humor and vulgar expressions. The language itself was born about a thousand years ago. It is multi-layered, a rich combination of an old Germanic base with hundreds of Hebrew and Aramaic words alive with biblical and Talmudic resonances. As Jews wandered eastward Yiddish absorbed words from surrounding host languages, mainly Slavic.

Before World War II, Yiddish was the daily language of millions of Jews from Holland to Siberia, from Rome to Finland. Hundreds of thousands more spoke Yiddish from Canada to Argentina, from South Africa to Australia. There were hundreds of Yiddish schools, dozens of Yiddish theaters, a blossoming Yiddish film industry, millions of readers of daily newspapers, periodicals and books. Yiddish was the language of the yeshivot and of rabbinic discourse. It was also the language of modern poetry, of outstanding song, and even of pornography.

The Nazis and their many willing helpers across Europe murdered Jewish culture. The Jewish people suffered two irreparable crimes: genocide and culturocide.

Culturocide! Yes, I have previously written about that murder, which I mourn with each passing day.

Yiddish is mame-loshn (mother’s language); it was my mother tongue even as I grew up in the English-speaking society in Toronto. Over two decades ago, a boyhood friend and great Yiddishist, Mikhl Herzog, enlisted me to help found a German foundation to publish the many-volume Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazi Jewry. The foundation, financed by German and European public funds, now operates a magnificent website called EYDES, which gives digitized access to interviews of survivors from every part of Europe. While relatively few Jews study Yiddish, I have heard the mellifluous perfect Yiddish spoken by one of foundation’s non-Jewish leaders, as well as by non-Jews from Germany, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia who know Yiddish and teach it to their students in those blood-drenched lands.

The ultra-Orthodox in their hundreds of thousands still use Yiddish as an everyday language, but obviously are not generally connected to the more secular Yiddish culture. Yiddish language and culture is today studied and spoken by thousands in colleges and institutes across the world. No longer though can Yiddish be a folk-language and culture.

That is the simple definition of culturocide.

Holocaust studies and museums tell where, how and why millions of our people were murdered. Usually, they do not tell us how Jews lived and created before 1939. Today, film and television producers should show how flesh and blood Jews lived, celebrated, their books, movies and plays, books, poetry, songs, paintings and sculptures; their initiatives in manufacturing, labor unionization and modern retailing: how they influenced modern science, pioneered social studies and psychology, and created ideologies of the movements which emerged as Jewish tradition confronted secularization.

These films should be narrated in European and major Asian languages and Arabic and Hebrew by a famous local or regional personality. They should be financed in no small part by all the countries where Jews and their cultures were destroyed. In this context the life and Ladino language of the Greek and Balkan Jewish communities must be given their due place.

From this raw material, a “virtual” (that is on-line) museum of Jewish pre-World War II could evolve, an idea and hope of the leaders of the umbrella organization of Holocaust survivors in Israel. Culturocide cannot be undone. The victims, though, deserve that their lives be recalled as it really was. The language, the culture must not be just OY VEY! Steven Spielberg has done much to memorialize Holocaust survivors. Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center has created award-winning Jewish and Israel-themed documentaries. A producer of such standing could recreate for future generations – Jews and Gentiles alike – the fullness of the life and culture of our millions on the brink of tragedy.

Avraham Avi-hai served in the offices of prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol, and was world chairman of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal for a decade. He was a founding dean of the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University, and has taught at Israeli and North American universities. He is a published author and a columnist for The Jerusalem Post where he began as a reporter 63 years ago.

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