How Moses Mendelssohn killed Yiddish in Germany

How ironic that only a century after the Yiddish literary landmark of Glikl Hamel (Glikl of Hamelin), completed in 1719, the end of Yiddish in Germany would begin to become a reality.

August 26, 2019 21:36
How Moses Mendelssohn killed Yiddish in Germany

Germany 1939. (photo credit: Courtesy)

No, the great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn did not singlehandedly eradicate Yiddish in the Germanic lands. But the end of “Judeo-German” in the modern period could not be imagined without him.

How ironic that only a century after the Yiddish literary landmark of Glikl Hamel (Glikl of Hamelin), completed in 1719, the end of Yiddish in Germany would begin to become a reality. Historian Jacob R. Marcus described Glikl’s masterpiece “as a most unusual one, for autobiography is rare in Jewish literature in this age, and as a medium of self-expression by a woman of this period it is altogether unique.” Her memoirs in “Judeo-German” are a combination autobiography and ethical will written by this remarkable woman for her descendants. That her language would be driven out of the Germanic lands soon after – there was no united Germany until later – is sad and a shock.

Professor Dovid Katz, in his Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish (2004), details the assault on Yiddish in Central Europe by antisemites in the 18th century. According to Katz, “Many antisemitic books appeared accusing the Jews of having a secret language that they used to fool Christians in commerce and commit blasphemy against Jesus Christ and Christendom. These books usually attacked the language of the Jews with an aesthetic judgment that Yiddish was an ugly, barbaric ‘jargon’ emblematic of the Jews’ lack of civilization.”

That Mendelssohn internalized the attacks of Jew haters against Yiddish – and he was followed by many Jews in Germanic lands and later Germany – makes this movement against Yiddish more distressing and smacks of self-hatred. But to accuse Moses Mendelssohn of hating his Jewish identity is ludicrous and inaccurate. Yiddish blocked his program to integrate Jews in Germanic lands into an Enlightenment society and break away from the medieval autonomy of a “people living apart.”

Nevertheless, he was wrong. Yiddish was not a “jargon.” It was a language that served as the foundation of a thousand-year-old civilization. As Yiddish scholar Uriel Weinreich has stated, “A dialect is a language without an army or navy.” The debasement of Yiddish by the Haskalah – the Jewish Enlightenment in Berlin – is a bittersweet chapter in our people’s history.

IN HIS Yiddish Civilization: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation (2005), Paul Kriwaczek sums up the legacy of the great German-Jewish philosopher: “Moses Mendelssohn was not the only Jewish thinker to bring Enlightenment values to the Yiddish-speaking people. But both the quality of his contribution and the esteem in which he was held by gentiles and Jews alike raises him head and shoulders above his contemporaries…

“Yet, this towering genius, who could have helped establish the Yiddish civilization among the founders of the modern European world, was so subject to the prejudices and antagonisms between the German and Slav-influenced halves of the Yiddish realm, that he colluded in denigrating the major part of his own nation. Indeed, one could say that he unwittingly began the process by which the Yiddish civilization would eventually be written out of history.”

The “killing” of Yiddish in Central Europe centered on Mendelssohn’s Biur (Explanation), a translation of the Hebrew Bible into German. It was written in Hebrew letters like Yiddish but was designed to teach Enlightenment German and move Jews away from the “jargon.” The Maskilim (modernizers – literally, intellectuals) of the Jewish Enlightenment in Berlin were not anti-Judaism. But their zealous attack on Yiddish reveals insecurity about the “tribal” nature of a “backward” dogma and ritual.

The reality in the Russian Pale of Settlement undercut the Haskalah denigration of Yiddish. Isaac Dov Levinson, a follower of Mendelssohn but a maskil in Russia, writes in 1828 that Yiddish is “completely corrupted… If we wish to formulate concepts about higher things, Judeo-German will not suffice.”

Yiddish haunted Jewish intellectuals who wanted to penetrate into the modern world – Yiddish reeked of medievalism.

Certainly, the goal of the Haskalah should be admired. In fact, it fashions much of Judaism as it is today, most definitely in the world of Modern Orthodoxy. But the idea that Yiddish was a “jargon” of no value, a barrier to integration, is challenged by the great modern Yiddish writers, the birth of the Bund, and the sublime poetry of the Yiddish language.

AS MUCH as the Zionist movement decried the Berlin Haskalah, the two movements shared a hatred of Yiddish – for different reasons. It is now 2019: The Holocaust has destroyed most Yiddish speakers in Europe; the revival of Hebrew in the State of Israel is a reality; and Yiddish should no longer be seen as a threat and should not be debased.

The Yiddish civilization of Ashkenaz is a jewel in the history of the Jewish people. All roads of Ashkenaz did not lead to Auschwitz. In the realm of religious life and culture, Yiddish can stand proudly with the luminaries of Sepharad. Arguments over accents in Hebrew pronunciation are a relic of the past.

Moses Mendelssohn did not kill Yiddish out of spite. Yiddish was his first language and he rejected those origins. Hebrew and German were considered legitimate classical languages on par with ancient Greek and Latin, while Yiddish was the debased orphan. His intentions were noble but misdirected.

Rather than caricature Yiddish as a medieval language of Exile and backwardness, let us preserve the grand literature in translation, whether into Hebrew, English or any other tongue.

In the end, most German Jews agreed with Mendelssohn that Yiddish presented a stumbling block to being good, emancipated German citizens. Yet, in Eastern Europe, Yiddish thrived a century ago and its literature was the fulfillment of a millennium of thought and creativity. The reading of Judah Halevi and the great Hebrew poets of Muslim Spain does not contradict learning from Mendele and Peretz. The eradication of Yiddish from Germany two centuries ago was a mixed blessing. But it was not the proudest moment in our history as a people. Why not both Yehudah Amichai and Glikl Hamel?

The author is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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